Thursday, February 21, 2008

A matter of access

Below this you'll notice two messages; the first from Julie Freeman, Interim Director of Student Publications at Baylor University. She is responding to an e-mail sent out by the Baylor Sports Information Department.

The messages reflect a common problem at universities--student media access to university coaches and players. I would suspect that the stance taken by the Baylor SID is fairly common at other colleges and universities. They insist on total control of access to coaches and players, which sometimes makes it impossible to get any real reporting done. I do know the situation here at Ole Miss is similar to Baylor. In fact, our reporters seldom even try to contact coaches or players on their own because the players have been told not to talk to any media without SID approval and scheduling.

There is reasonable rationale for this. Unlike pro athletes, college athletes are still students and deserve some measure of protection and privacy. It would be hard to imagine how many interview requests Eli Manning would have had at Ole Miss if reporters could simply call him up and ask. The cynical rationale has to do with image/damage control. SIDs want to be able to control all messages going out from the department, especially in times of crisis (coach fired, players arrested, etc.). For example, we have seen or heard precious little from Indiana University basketball players during the Kelvin Sampson ordeal.

Both rationales make sense, which is why it's such a difficult issue. Read both sides of the story and feel free to comment.
OK, I need some advice before I fire off an ill-advised e-mail or make an ill-advised phone call to our sports information director. My students have a terrible time trying to go through them to get interviews with athletes and coaches. For instance, last week they were told Thursday that they couldn't interview our women's basketball coach about Saturday's game until Friday interviews. As all of you well know, we don't publish on Saturdays! Which means what? The student paper can't preview a weekend game because the sports media people are acting like paranoid gatekeepers? It's in THEIR interest to give us access.

Anyway, we are not governed by their rules, though we follow them when reasonable. The staffers -- at my urging -- have started calling the players and coaches on their own. All are free to decline interviews, but the players have been plenty willing to talk. As a result, the team gets better coverage.

So the assistant athletic director for media relations sent this to the editor and sports editor last night. How would you recommend I respond? I'll bite my tongue and tie my hands behind my back until a cooler head can prevail.

Julie M. Freeman
Interim Director of Student Publications
Baylor University

Please take this opportunity to remind all your staffers of our policy, and please understand that this isn't a recommendation or suggestion, but rather a hard-and-fast rule. It must be adhered to. Thank you.

Having said that, if any of your staff ever encounters problems or delays dealing with the media relations office, please don't hesitate to let me know. We take pride in ensuring that we provide first-rate assistance to all media covering Baylor athletics.

One issue that I've always recognized from student papers is one of organization and working ahead of schedule. We ask for 24 hours notice for interview and credential requests and I know sometimes the student-reporters aren't working that far ahead of time. We'll always try to help out if possible.


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