By Caitlin Swieca
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — From Pennsylvania to Florida to California, scandals at universities in every corner of the country have ruled sports pages in recent years.
While such investigative pieces traditionally have been handled by news reporters, shrinking staffs at newspapers and other media outlets mean sports journalists are increasingly responsible for coverage of these topics.
To succeed, journalists need to learn to “follow the money,” obtaining as much information on university finances and expenses as possible, said Paula Lavigne, whose Friday morning session, “How to Investigate a University,” introduced AWSM convention attendees to basic tools and databases for investigation.
“At any level, money is really the driving force behind a lot of sports,” said Lavigne, who specializes in computer-assisted reporting and works on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” investigative series. “If you cover a college team, that plays a huge role in how things are operating.”
Although financial information from individual NCAA schools is often difficult to obtain, Lavigne showed several databases compiled by ESPN and USA Today that provide frameworks for sorting and interpreting data.
Lavigne pointed out the differences in regulations between public and private universities, went through the basics of filing a request under the Freedom of Information Act and stressed the importance of knowing the public records laws in different states.
She also offered tips on how to deal with an athletic department that is being uncooperative with public records requests.
Many schools try to deny requests by citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which is meant only to protect a student’s academic records. By trying to apply a broader interpretation, universities have denied requests for any information pertaining to students, Lavigne said.
“If you get a response back that says, ‘You can’t have any of this information because of FERPA,’ don’t let it end there, because this is a big issue nationwide, not just among sports reporters but among all media,” Lavigne said. “There needs to be pushback from the media to these educational institutions.”
Using her background in news reporting, Lavigne provided the sports journalists at AWSM with a solid base for covering stories that expand off the field of play.
“The days are over where you can pass that off to the news department,” Lavigne said. “It’s good for you to be involved, because it will always come back to the team, coach and the players.”