By Audrey Snyder
AWSM 2011 intern / Penn State
CHICAGO—The piles of documents, photographs and phone numbers Charles Robinson had compiled working on Yahoo! Sports’ famous “Miami Project” became so cumbersome that a meticulous filing system was put in place. Such is the life when uncovering some of the biggest scandals that rocked the college sports world during the past year.
The Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal, Syracuse’s ongoing ordeal with Bernie Fine and Robinson’s uncovering of the Miami Hurricanes football scandal were among the most prominent pieces of investigative journalism in the past year. Add in continuing fall out from Jim Tressel’s resignation at Ohio State and the role of investigative reporting continues to drive conversations about what makes journalism critical in an ever-changing industry.
Robinson, senior investigative reporter at Yahoo! Sports, and Emily Kulkus from The Post Standard in Syracuse shared their expertise on the role of investigative reporting in sports journalism during Thursday morning’s session at the APME and AWSM convention.
Maintaining relationships with sources and being persistent for months helped lead Robinson and Kulkus to stories they both agreed needed to be told.
“You’re hated, you’re reviled, nobody is going to say anything positive about you. No one trusts you,” recalled Robinson in reference to one of his many interviews with Hurricanes booster Nevin Shapiro. “How can I cross that bridge as a journalist where I trust you or believe you?”
For Robinson, that answer came from 100 hours of interviews with the incarcerated booster who was initially given an ultimatum from the reporter. He said the booster was “shocked” when Robinson called him on a Friday and gave him until Monday to be truthful with him. The reporter let the booster know he had enough sources to break the story without him and reminded him that his story would be out there either way.
Shapiro eventually went on the record and Robinson’s attention to detail and collaboration with lawyers helped Yahoo! accurately break the story. They added documents and pictures from people who were willing to self implicate and packaged it with interactive online pages relating to each player who interacted with the booster.
“(You have to) have the discipline to carve out chunks of time to consistently talk to the same people,” added Kulkus, who was sent to knock on Fine’s front door when rumors about the former Syracuse basketball assistant head coach continued to swirl.
Keeping the avenues of communication open and containing sources to ideally dealing with one reporter remained the the forefront of their work. Kulkus said once Penn State fired Joe Paterno in November her paper continued to try and get in contact with Fine, who still hasn’t commented on the allegations of molesting two former ball boys.
The difference between what The Harrisburg Patriot-News’ Sara Ganim did with her work uncovering the Sandusky sex abuse scandal and Kulkus’ work with Fine continue to be seen.
Reiterating that Fine hasn’t been charged with anything is critical, as are the varying statue of limitations laws in Pennsylvania and New York, Kulkus said. The Sandusky alleged victims now range in age from 18-to-28, while Fine’s accusers said his interactions with them started in the 1970s.
“Very few people who are the key players wanted to talk to us on the record,” she said.
While Kulkus and The Post-Standard continue to work on the evolving story about Fine, the journalists recalled the importance of knowing their sources and understanding how they can mend relationships while pursuing truth.
“We try to have a really good idea of that individual, where that individual came from and need to know their background. We need to know their history,” Robinson said. “These are people too and that’s always been a driving force.”