Yes, Student Reporters Can Grab Big Scoops, Even From (Alleged) Tree Poisoners

A student reporter for The Auburn Plainsman at Auburn University vaulted to B-list media celebrity status yesterday for grabbing an eye-opening confession from alleged tree poisoner Harvey Updyke.

As a trusted source explained to me, “Basically, this Alabama fan, Updyke, is accused of using industrial herbicide to poison iconic oak tress on Auburn’s campus after Auburn beat Bama in the Iron Bowl, which is one of the most heated rivalries in all of sports.”

Updyke is currently on trial for his herbicidal tendencies.  Plainsman reporter Andrew Yawn approached him yesterday during a break in the proceedings and at one point Updyke uttered an instantly-famous set of five words to him: “Did I do it? Yes.

It was an admittance of guilt worthy of the big, bold front-page headline you see above.  It was also jarring, given that Yawn grabbed the scoop away from the many local, regional, and national newshounds covering the case.

Updyke’s lawyer denies the five words were ever said, falling back on the ‘he’s-just-a-kid’ defense: “There were other reporters around from ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX, al.com, AP, major, major media outlets, and all of you were swarming in the courtroom, the lawyers were around the courtroom, and we think it’s kind of odd that a student reporter from Auburn University was able to get this story when all these major media outlets have been here the entire time.  No one saw this reporter getting this information from Updyke.”

The Plainsman is standing by Yawn’s reporting.

My Take: The lawyer is just doing his job, but the implication that a student journalist would not be able to wrangle a newsworthy scoop when the pros are around is factually inaccurate and naive.  Yes, student reporters can grab big scoops, even from (alleged) tree poisoners— through fearless or painstakingly thorough reporting, sheer luck, their youthfully angelic appearance, their increased campus access or their innate knowledge of events, issues or generational trends.  And, sometimes, all they have to do is approach a source and ask some questions.

As one former Plainsman staffer commented on JimRomenesko.com, “When I was a reporter for the Plainsman, I got an interview with a sitting governor when he was refusing to give media interviews. He spoke more openly than he should have, maybe thinking I was just a kid.  It’s not rare for student reporters to get scoops if they are good reporters, and put themselves in the right place.  Sounds like Yawn did exactly that.

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