When it comes to reporting on sports teams and athletic departments, the court or field is most of the time where the action happens. However, a lot of information about those sports teams, coaches and administrators happens behind the curtain out of the public view. That’s where many stories lie, and it’s not always easy to get access and find information — even if you have a right to it
Knowing the law can open many locked doors, and make you stand out as a sports reporter. Many times, stories from athletics leak into other more “newsy” realms: police reports, the courts, social justice and politics. Even if your beat is covering the basketball team, it doesn’t mean you can’t check to see if you school has Title IX violations or question why student athletes are transferring or leaving.
This guide provides some tips on using the law to gain access to the people, places and documents you need to report your story and find out what’s happening behind the scenes.
The Basics: Your Rights
It is important that all reporters, which includes those covering sports, know they have the access and ability to find out what’s going on at their school or university beyond what their spokespeople or administrators tell them. Depending on whether you go to a private or public school and are in high school or college, you have varying degrees of right to publish this information.
Public universities have laws that protect them strongly, notably the First Amendment. Courts have been consistent in ruling that at the public colleges and universities, school officials, including student government officers, may not exercise the power of a private publisher over student publications simply because they provide financial support. For more information on public university freedoms, check out our Guide to student press freedom at public colleges.
If you are at a public high school, the most important factor is what state you are from. New Voices laws restore student press freedom that was stripped in the 1988 Hazelwood U.S. Supreme Court case. There are 16 states with these laws, and many more in the process of trying to institute them. If you aren’t in a New Voices state, students will have to look through district policy for clauses to protect speech or press. Without a policy, there is potential for long-held practice where student media is respected as a public forum or limited public forum. Without any of that, you go to a Hazelwood school, meaning your school can censor you on almost any ground — including saying content is “poorly written.” For more information on circumventing press freedom issues at private schools, check out our high school freedom & censorship guides.
Private school officials generally have much more leeway in controlling student voices and media. For more information on circumventing press freedom issues at private schools, check out our Guide for the private school press.
Law Enforcement Records
Athletes, coaches or other staff sometimes have run-ins with the law and end up behind bars, or previous legal issues become prevalent again with new information. As a sports reporter, you may need to brush up on your intro journalism class skills to get information to break the story before anyone else does.
Your access to law enforcement records will generally depend on the agency you are dealing with. Some police departments are very open about records, but others release the bare minimum to stay in compliance with the law.
Daily police blotters, incident reports, investigation reports, arrest and booking logs, miscellaneous crime records, accident reports, parking ticket records, 911 tapes and transcripts, criminal histories, safety policies, security budget reports and incident reports at specific addresses are among the police records you may want to ask for at any given time.
For more information about covering crime, see the SPLC’s publication Covering Campus Crime: A Handbook for Reporters.
Court Records and Proceedings
In the same vein as police records, you may need to request court records for an athlete’s dispute with their university, a criminal trial or an NIL litigation.
Open meetings and records laws may not necessarily apply to legislative and court hearings; however, these proceedings and the records surrounding them, for the most part, are also open to the public.
Criminal, civil, divorce, bankruptcy and probate records can all be extremely valuable sources of information — and all you have to do is go in and request them.
When it comes to court records, however, you may want to call ahead and find out if the court requires record requests to be in writing. You may also want to ask what kind of information would be most helpful in a clerk’s search for the records you want.
The job of a court clerk is always made easier if you come armed with as much information about the records you are trying to obtain as possible (for example, parties’ names, dates of birth, approximate case dates, etc.).
Juvenile criminal records are generally not available to the public, but check your state law. An increasing number of states have opened juvenile records and court proceedings if the defendant has committed a felony or other adult-like offense.
While excellent stories can be found in press releases, from phone calls and on bulletin boards, only the glory-seeking and the attention-thirsty will receive coverage in your newspaper if you stick to these sources. You owe more to your readers.
Open Records Laws
Public records requests are a crucial way to get information on ledes, get the numbers or learn more about a topic without an interview. Requests often take some time to be filled but could lead to story ideas and revelations you would never find through talking to a source.
Using an open records law is usually as easy as simply asking the appropriate official for a copy of the record through writing a letter request. To make things easy for you, the SPLC has an automated freedom of information law letter generator. Government agencies, public schools or universities and other similar public institutions will usually have an office or a board who will deal with these requests, and typically, they have a website to submit requests to.
If a reporter requests a record but it doesn’t exist, the reporter isn’t entitled to receiving it. If the information exists in several places instead of in one document, the records curator is not under an obligation to compile that data into a document for you.
Additionally, it is up to the public entity to cite a legal reason if they are not to fulfill a request. Just because a record exists does not mean a reporter automatically entitled to them. An that occasionally confronts reporters is the federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act that was passed by Congress in 1974 to ensure students access to their educational records and to protect students from unauthorized dissemination of their records.
Because of FERPA, many records having to do with a student’s academic life, and even those that are extremely newsworthy, can be either difficult or impossible to obtain by outside parties. Unfortunately, however, FERPA is frequently abused by school officials and pointed to as an all-purpose excuse to avoid disclosure of information that should be available.
To learn more about FERPA and what you can publicly request, check out A sports reporters guide to FERPA & public records.