May 2018: SPLC reporters talk about reporting on concussions, sexual assault

By Taylor Potter

Student Press Law Center reporters Gabriel Greschler and Taylor Potter spent the last few months working on two stories detailing the issues student reporters face when covering both sexual assault and concussions. In this month’s podcast, the two talk about their experiences and takeaways from their reporting.

Sexual assault story.

Concussions story.

Hello everyone, this is Taylor Potter, and I’m your host for the Student Press Law Center’s May podcast. On this month’s episode, we’re giving you an inside look at two stories we’ve been working on for the past several months — one on struggles student reporters face when trying to get concussion data from schools, and another on the difficulties of reporting on sexual assault on college campuses.

We’re just touching on some of the big takeaways, so be sure to check out the full stories at splc.org for more. Links are in the show notes

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I’m joined by my friend and fellow SPLC reporting intern Gabriel Greschler. How’re you Gabriel?

GG: I’m doing well, Taylor. This is going to be really exciting. This is going to be really fun to speak about both of our stories. I know that you and I have been working on these for several months now and we’ve been doing dozens of interviews. We’ve been reaching out to a lot of folks, you know, for our respective stories. So I think this is going to be a really interesting conversation. Thank you for having me.

WTP: So let’s start off by talking a little bit about the story you’ve been working on for the last few months. What can you tell us about it?

GG: Yes, so I would say before I joined the Student Press Law Center I had always been interested in how sexual assault is dealt with at universities and colleges. I think that it’s something that, you know, needs more attention in terms of investigative reporting. I think that it’s something that just has, you know, been sort of not given enough attention in terms — specifically in terms of how these cases are covered. So whether that be sexual misconduct, sexual assault. And on top of that, I think the Me Too movement for me was really interesting, but not just the fact that it spawned a huge movement, but that journalism was really sort of one of the many reasons why this movement took hold.

GG: But what I wanted to know through my reporting is what sort of…Where are we at right now. What is the current status for student journalists on reporting on sexual assault. So I sort of broke it down into three categories, and that is one. What sort of criticism does do student journalists you know take or receive, I should say, when they are writing these stories on sexual assault. Second, in my story I write a lot about how there are multiple universities now that have sued their own student newspapers. And that could be a whole other article. But one of the fears of that is that most student newspapers don’t have the legal backing that many universities have. Obviously the costs and everything. So that’s sort of a second bucket of challenges that that student journalists run into. And the third is specifically the cost of​ open records. There are universities that will charge hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, for open records requests. And while a medium-sized news outlet or large news outlet could cover those costs, usually it’s pretty difficult for a for a for a student newspaper to cover these.

WTP: Who all have you talked to for this?

GG: I would say a majority of the sources that I’m interviewing for this article are the student journalists themselves who have been reporting on sexual assault. So a really great example of one of those… I’ve interviewed about I want to say eight either editors in chief​ or student investigative journalists.​​ A great example of a student who’s really just leading the way on this reporting is a woman named Carley Lanich.

GG: She’s run into a lot of issues reporting on on sexual assault. She would tell me that certain administrators didn’t want to talk to her. But at the same time she told me that it is getting a lot easier for her to report on on sexual assault as well. She thinks that probably the Me Too movement is one of those reasons.

CARLEY CLIP: “I don’t know if there would have been the same voices ready to step up and take that big, public step of sharing their story before the Me Too movement.”

WTP: After looking at this for so long, and, you know, now that you’re kind of at the point where the story’s pretty much written now and you’re just fine-tuning everything, what are some of your big takeaways on this topic?

GG: I would say well I would say that probably the​ largest sort of challenge that student reporters face now and that they will face in the future isn’t really criticism because criticism only goes so far, and it doesn’t really it makes you… actually think it makes the reporters want to do more reporting when they when they get criticized. And the lawsuits that I spoke about,​ those, even though they’re happening now,​ it’s not common for a university to sue their newspaper. It’s sort of rare. I mean it happened and it’s happening right now. But it’s sort of rare. But I think that the most — the largest challenge that student reporters face now and will face in the future are public records requests. And the transparency that student reporters are trying to request from their university, have transparency on their end is just really difficult. And between the costs of it it can be it can be really challenging. I think that another sort of take away that I found too was the effect of the Me Too movement on this whole reporting. A lot of the editors that I spoke with, or reporters and editors that I spoke with, noted that the Me Too movement, while it didn’t change their tactics as a reporter,​ they would they continue to do their reporting just the same that they did before. They noted that​ some sources were much more comfortable speaking with them. That folks​ were not afraid to speak up about​ experiences that they had on campus​ of sexual assault. However there is sort of an interesting takeaway as well with Me Too part is that I don’t think that the Me Too movement has affected college campuses the same way that it hit the media, that​​ it hit Hollywood, that it hit sports, that it hit these other big arenas where this stuff has been going on. ​​During my research,​​ Vox put out an article recently talking about how out of the 200 people,​​ high profile people, it’s a lot who have been you know exposed by the Me Too movement. Only 10 of them came from the education field. So you can see that. You know it hasn’t it hasn’t had the same effect to education. So I would say those are sort of my​ takeaways.

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WTP: Let’s shift gears a little bit.

GG: For sure.

WTP: And talk about concussions.

GG: Yeah, another difficult topic to report on.

WTP: Yeah, absolutely.

GG: So tell me tell me about what you’ve been doing for the last couple months.

WTP: Our editor pitched us a story talking about…she had heard of a lot of issues issues that student journalists have had in trying to get concussion data from schools. Seems like a very simple thing to ask a school how many concussions have football players or have athletes had.

GG: Like total concussions in their athletic department?

WTP: Not just that but also, ‘can I get these numbers broken out of my sport.’​ How many concussions for football. How many for field hockey. How many for basketball. And so a lot of schools have been very unwilling to give that information. They’ve cited FERPA or HIPAA.

GG: Can you explain for our audience who’s not familiar with FERPA or HIPAA?

WTP: They’re federal privacy laws. FERPA being for education records, HIPAA generally being for medical records. They’ve cited both of those saying that they’re not able to give information that would identify these students. Of course, there’s a big question as to whether or not concussion statistics would identify these students. But there were also complications about state policies on ‘how do we keep up with concussions.’ So not just​ how we treat them which has kind of become more standardized at least at the high school and college level ​over the last decade, but there is still a lot of ambiguity as to what should we do to keep up with how many are happening some between those two things have been difficult for students to reliably get information in a lot of areas.

WTP: So I started just basic googling and I found two pretty interesting stories. One that was by the Atlanta Journal Constitution in Georgia and they looked at a lot of college programs. I think 62 college programs to see whether or not they track concussions and their numbers. And another by the student newspaper at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee that…they essentially tried to get concussion numbers from every school district in Wisconsin which is a very bold task.

WTP: And in both those cases they ran into pretty significant issues. With the Atlanta Journal-Constitution…I don’t remember the exact numbers but they had several schools — and these are high profile schools — that said they do not track concussions. Schools like LSU,​ you know, a very high profile sports program said they do not track concussions, which is kind of alarming. There are several schools and big Division-1 schools that do not track concussions. So there’s no NCAA​ requirement that they do this. With the story in Wisconsin they sent over 200 requests and they heard back from…I think they ended up getting the actual numbers from 19 of those. So they sent out 200. They get 19. That’s pretty abysmal. Most of those they didn’t hear back from it all they just did not respond. There were some where they got e-mails from athletic directors saying stuff like​​ ‘this this is a threat. This is why no one trusts the media.’ Very ridiculous type stuff. There was one that they mentioned in their story, the cost of the records was about $2,000​.

GG: So who did you speak to for your story?

WTP: One of the first people I talked to was Dr. Munro Cullum. He runs a program out of the University of Texas Southwestern in conjunction with the University Interscholastic League in Texas which is​ the body that oversees athletic and academic competition for the state. They started a central concussion registry which athletic directors or trainers will send their concussion data to UIL who will use that data to affect their policies. So like if they have a lot of data that says, ‘Wow, the schools that use these types of helmets have really low concussion rates. Yeah, maybe we should have a policy that says everyone should use this type of helmet.’

WTP: So I talked to him. I talked to Jessica McBride who is a professor at the university in Wisconsin. She kind of oversaw that project, talked about the struggles…the significant struggles that they had trying to build that database for high schools. We talked about how different that reporting would have been​ if that had been in a state that requires schools to track. Wisconsin does not require schools to track concussions.

GG: So which states do?

WTP: That’s a very difficult question. Because​ there’s no list anywhere that I could find. So what I did is, I started going through every state’s major athletic oversight agency. So like for Texas it’s UIL…So I went through every state, contacted all of these or looked on their website. The vast majority I could not find a concussion policy on their website or at least in terms of data. ​Most had like a concussion protocol, and so what I ended up doing is contacting all 51 of these agencies. And I heard back from maybe a little more than 20, and I got a wide variety of answers. So​ I should say that there are still like 28 plus that I don’t know what exactly their policy is. But I found about six that have a central registry and a few more that have the optional registry. There are some that have no requirements at all. Some that require tracking, and then there’s a lot of in-between type stuff that I don’t really know where they fall. One that popped in my mind was Delaware when I asked them about do you require schools to track concussions. They said they should. According to best practices I don’t know…they were very unclear as to whether or not it is a requirement versus a strong suggestion. But they did tell me what information they are required to track. So it sounds like it is a requirement. Others like Indiana, which has a registry, when I talked to a person with the association overseeing their athletics said that it’s supposed to be mandatory, but it’s just not enforced. And that part of the reason schools don’t like to do it is because they’re overly cautious. If a school suspected a concussion, they would report it to this registry as a concussion. So you would have the schools that might have only had five concussions — real concussions — but they reported 20. So it really kind of inflated their numbers and made them look bad. So a lot of schools were like ‘OK we’re not we’re not doing this anymore.’ So it is kind of a weird situation in terms of the ambiguity in the state laws. Very few states seem to have just like a very cut and dry system.

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WTP: Let’s talk about some of the big takeaways for your story on sexual assault. What do you think your story offers student journalists?

GG: These folks who I interviewed​, the student reporters who have undertaken the difficult reporting of sexual assault, ​I think that​ it can sort of open up an opportunity for a lot of student journalists to go, ‘OK this is difficult, but it was much harder ten years ago or 20 years ago to do this.’ And there are student journalists that are doing it, but doing it in a really professional way and​ that are making you know they’re making policy changes too. That’s the other part actually that I would maybe add is a lot of these reporters you know their schools have changed policy based on their reporting.

WTP: For mine, I think it’s definitely a tool to help students looking into concussion numbers better understand the trouble they might have. Between the difference in tracking rules and schools misusing FERPA and HIPAA, there are a lot of problems these student journalists have to overcome. But hopefully this will help them find new avenues to get that information, and maybe we’ll see more reporting on this topic from high schools and colleges.

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GG: Well, thank you so much for telling me about your story and what you think people can learn from it. I think that’s going to be exciting.

WTP: Yeah, and thank you so much for coming on the podcast. I think this is going to be a huge help and hopefully people who read these stories will get something out of it, and we’ll be able to help their reporting a bit.

[Music]

WTP: That’s it for this month’s SPLC podcast. If you want to learn more about the topics we discussed, links are in the show notes. Thanks to Gabriel for chatting with me about his story. Music by Joshuaempyre. Thanks for tuning in, we’ll see you next time.