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Sep 12 / King Kaufman

Access: It’s a prize, but it comes at a price

Aaron Smith

Aaron Smith

Access is one of the best and most seductive things about covering sports. It’s also a minefield.

Access is a prize. Access to games, to practices, to athletes, coaches and press boxes. One of the most frequent questions we get at Bleacher Report from the writer community is “Can you get me a credential?”

But access isn’t always for the best. There’s real wisdom and philosophy behind the slogan of Deadspin, one of the most popular and important sports sites in the United States: “Sports news without access, favor, or discretion.”

Two recent stories illustrate some of the pitfalls of access, one from sportswriting, the other from political journalism.

The sports story comes from the University of Kentucky, where Aaron Smith of the student paper the Kentucky Kernel wrote a story Aug. 29 about two walk-on players joining the Wildcats basketball team.

Smith had seen a tweet from Kentucky freshman player Anthony Davis welcoming Brian Long and Sam Malone to the squad. According to a separate report in the Kernel, Smith used an online student phone directory to call Long and Malone and ask if they could confirm the news.

Both players said yes, they had made the team. Smith asked each if he would answer a few questions, and both declined.

That followup question, a request for an interview, brought down the wrath of the Kentucky Athletics department, which revoked Smith’s access to a basketball media day the following day.

DeWayne Peevy, the associate athletic director for media relations, pointed to a line in the media guide stating that all media requests for interviews with players must be sent through the Athletics office 24 hours in advance. Peevy referred to the media day access, the Kernel reports, as “a reward to, basically, a preferred group of people to give them special access.”

Journalism experts and organizations have spoken out in Smith’s favor, arguing among other things that Kentucky, a public university, is acting against a free press. Smith and others have pointed out that the policy about scheduling interviews in advance is not something media members have ever signed or agreed to.

Peevy’s response: “Going along with that policy is by choice. But I can choose not to reward you.”

Putting aside the particulars of whether Peevy overstepped his bounds in pulling Smith’s credentials, or whether the punishment is excessive, as Smith says, or “a slap on the wrist,” as Peevy terms it, the case illustrates the pitfalls of access.

As I wrote in the comments of the Kernel’s story about the revocation, this is a classic case of how an institution uses access as a reward and punishment system to keep the media in line, and a great illustration of why access is often overrated.

You get access as long as you do what the institution you’re covering is happy with what you do. Get the people you’re covering angry and your access might be revoked.

Do you see how this might color what you choose to cover and how you cover it? Instead of serving the interests of your audience, you might have to serve the interests of whoever you’re covering in order to preserve your access.

Paul Krugman

Paul Krugman

The example from political journalism involves the dangers of the other extreme—too much access.

Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist who writes for the New York Times, wrote last week about some unusual access he’d been given by the Obama administration, and how that access tempted him to do some bad journalism.

Krugman was in Yaroslavl, Russia, at a conference, so the White House gave him a copy of President Obama’s new jobs plan in advance, under a strict embargo, so he’d be able to write about it in a timely way despite the difficulties of travel.

It was in the White House’s interests to have Krugman weighing in on the new plan in a timely manner.

Krugman pointed out that he rarely has such “insider” information. “Not my thing,” he wrote. He comments on events after they become news. But having access to what Obama was going to say in his speech gave him “a strange sensation,” he wrote:

There were quite a few reporters, Western as well as Russian, at Yaroslavl—and all of them knew, or thought they knew, that we were talking about a $300 billion plan, with very little spending. And I was, unusually, in the position of knowing the insider stuff they didn’t, that it was going to be 50 percent bigger with a significant amount of spending.

And it felt as if I was really in the know—which, I suspect, is a big journalistic trap.

For the fact is that this kind of inside information—knowing the details of some proposal a few hours before everyone else—is deeply trivial. I mean, it was helpful to me given this week’s schedule; but all the really important questions involve things no amount of access can tell you. How will this play in the national debate? How will Republicans respond? How well will the plan work if by some miracle it really does get by the GOP blockade?

Does that last bit sound familiar, Bleacher Report writers? It’s the same kind of approach Bleacher Report takes. What’s the analysis? What’s likely to happen next?

Access is not a bad thing. It can be a great thing. Someone has to have access to report the news and get the interviews. If that’s you—great! But there are issues that come with that access.

Krugman, a pontificator by trade, wrote about his own moment of access to briefly-exclusive information: “Even I had to step back and say, hey, this doesn’t matter; what really matters is the kind of analysis that anyone with access to the web can do.”

  • Chris Siddell

    I wrote my thesis at college (Sports Studies major) on how EPL Soccer teams control what is going out in the press, particularly the local press by holding local journalists (as well as some bigger ones) to ransom over credentials and access.

    Found it very interesting and enlightening that some members of the press had credentials for matchdays removed completely for printing negative articles about a performance. Really opened my eyes. I definitely agree, and found out in my thesis through interviewing journalists, that access and credentials were used as a proofing tool…you dare print something we don’t like, you lose your credentials, print something good, you might just get the next exclusive.

    It is a myth that journalists are impartial when giving opinionated articles if they depend on access and credentials to get their stories, and I’m sure if my thesis allowed me the time and resources to explore further the same would be true of the national press.

  • Jpatton43

    In order for a journalist to cover his/her team the best way possible, he or she needs access to the program and credentials to cover games. Anyone can sit on a couch or in a bar and spout off an opinion – journalists need to provide information.

    If a program denies access to a media entity, the higher-ups at that media entity owe it to their readers and their reporter to find out why and also rectify the situation. This is a Constitutional issue that shouldn’t be tolerated and should be fought. Just letting it go is allowing sports information departments to dictate far too much.

  • Babcocs2

    I’m sorry, but this blog post comes across as having a blatant agenda. B/R knows that many of its writers were attracted by promises of potential press credentials, and that such promises have been an extremely valuable tool in recruitment. But the truth is, 99% or more of all B/R writers will never get those credentials. Sure, we all should have realized it was never going to happen when we joined, but some people still don’t. So B/R takes a “no, we didn’t exaggerate…we’re just trying to protect you!” stance.

  • Roktim

    how does one write a POWERPOINT presentation while applying to be a writer on br

    • Anonymous

      Just in case this is a serious question: I don’t understand it.