A College Newspaper Editor’s Baptism of Fire  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   October/November 2011

A College Newspaper Editor’s Baptism of Fire   

In her first week, she finds herself at the center of a national journalism controversy. Wed., September 28, 2011

By Morgan Gibson
Morgan Gibson (mgibson@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.     


As a rookie editor-in-chief, Taylor Moak has had to grow up fast.

The University of Kentucky junior was only a few days into her reign as editor of the Kentucky Kernel when the student-run daily paper became national news. Phone calls, e-mails and tweets of support flooded in from Associated Press Media Editors, the Society of Professional Journalists, First Amendment advocates and other members of the media, all of whom wanted to know what had happened in Lexington.

Moak, a journalism major, has been on the Kernel's staff since her freshman year, moving quickly from reporter to assistant news editor to managing editor and ultimately to the top spot.

But when the university's media relations department decided to bar a Kernel reporter from an interview session with Kentucky basketball players, Moak wasn't prepared to be barraged with requests for interviews and at the center of a national debate about ethics. "I had to be the voice of the Kernel," she says. "It's crazy being the one who has to give the interviews as opposed to the person doing the interview."

While being on the flipside of a reporter's notebook caught the 20-year-old Moak and her staff off-guard, support from press organizations was a big plus for the Kernel and its new editor. "It broke our staff in quick," Moak says. "It was fun to know that the big, professional journalists were looking at what we were doing and supporting what we were doing."

Taylor Moak
Taylor Moak

So, what was the Kernel doing? And how did the UK Athletics Department's move to punish the paper turn into a journalism cause célèbre?

Kernel sportswriter and Managing Editor Aaron Smith called two students who were rumored to be walk-on members of the Kentucky basketball team. He used the UK directory to get their personal cell phone numbers and asked them if they were walk-ons. They confirmed that they were. He wanted to ask them a few more questions, but they declined.

Smith, a junior journalism major, reported the story in the Kernel on Monday, August 29. His article broke the news that the two students, Brian Long and Sam

Malone, were walk-ons before the UK Athletics Department had made an official announcement.

While basketball is a big deal at UK, this story wasn't that big a deal for the sports section. Smith had a good scoop, but this wasn't the "story of the year," Moak says.

Later that day, John Hayden, the university's assistant director of media relations, called Smith on his cell phone and told him he had slipped up. Journalists aren't allowed to interview student-athletes without the permission of UK's media relations department.

Smith then got a call from DeWayne Peevy, UK's associate athletic director for media relations. As punishment for violating the policy, his access to an exclusive set of one-on-one basketball player interviews was revoked.

This was the first time in a long time that the Kernel had been invited to attend the preseason interview session. Only a handful of news outlets were invited to talk to the players. The material from the interviews couldn't be used for a few months, but it was a good opportunity to get to know the athletes.

"It would have been very helpful for us to go, especially for Aaron," Moak says. "Aaron was excited to cover it. He was excited to be invited as a student journalist."

Smith would have been the only student reporter represented at the event, but because he didn't follow the athletic department policy, Peevy chose not to "reward" him, as he told the Kernel.

This was the second basketball season Smith had covered, so he knew the drill with UK Media Relations, as does the rest of the Kernel staff, says Moak, adding that her staffers generally follow the guidelines.

Apparently, Smith's phone call to Long and Malone wasn't the problem, Moak says. Rather, it was that one little line after the players confirmed their status. Smith broke policy when he asked the walk-ons if he could ask them more questions. It didn't matter that the players turned him down; asking for more information is what upset UK Media Relations.

So the Kernel chose to break that story, too. It was almost midnight on August 29 when the Kernel posted a story detailing the issue between Smith and UK Media Relations on its Web site. The lead said the incident "brought the First Amendment into question."

The paper tweeted about the episode, and the tweet was picked up by Sports Illustrated writer Andy Staples. He tweeted, "Way to go, Kentucky SIDs. Nobody ever writes about the walk-ons. Someone does, and you revoke access," and linked to the Kernel's story.

Then came the flood.

"Tuesday was crazy," Moak says. "People were calling from all over the country."

The UK Media Relations' swift action hit a nerve with journalists and media organizations. Reports of what went down on the UK campus started popping up everywhere on the Web, from poynter.org to ESPN.com blogs.

Associated Press Media Editors, a nationwide organization of print and broadcast news executives, sent a letter to the university's director of athletics protesting UK's attempts to "bully" the Kernel.

The letter called the department's conduct "reprehensible" and said that it "amounts to no less than an attempt to bully the newspaper into submission and to censor news concerning operations of the University of Kentucky athletic department." The letter went on to say these actions were "a level of abuse of free speech not tolerated at universities in other states."

Associated Press Sports Editors also wrote a letter to the university, calling its decision to revoke the paper's access "disturbing on many levels."

SPJ issued a statement in support of the Kernel, saying the paper "was punished for doing its job: reporting the news."

While the media heavyweights criticized UK Media Relations for its "punishment," the Kernel is more focused on supporting its reporter, who seems to have gotten himself in a very hot line of fire.

The Kernel's formal position, Moak says, has been to back Smith for calling and trying to get to the sources and the story in the most direct way. "Aaron had the hardest of it all," Moak says. "We let him know that we were supportive."

Curiously, Moak decided that Smith should not discuss the situation with reporters and that she should handle all interview requests. "When we've had to deal with things like this before, it's just been easier for the editor to deal with it. It's easier to stay consistent if all requests just go through me," Moak says. "He was already in the limelight a lot."

The university chose to support its media relations department, releasing a statement outlining that position. UK's media relations department did not return phone calls from AJR seeking comment on the episode.

Despite the dispute, Moak says the relationship between the Kernel and the athletic department is "fine." The paper is covering all this season's sports and "just moving on with that behind us," she adds.

The flap took place during the first week of Kentucky's fall semester, so the new Kernel staff had just started working together. Moak says the staff handled the situation well. "If anything, it made us closer together. It was kind of a first trial by fire," she says. "It taught us how to work together and report on an issue that affected us, but in an objective way."

These past few weeks have been chaotic for Moak, but there also has been an upside. She is leaning toward going to law school when she graduates, and is particularly interested in freedom of the press and free speech. "If anything," she says, "it really helped solidify my own personal views of the First Amendment and what it means to stand up for yourself."

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