How to Recognize & Fight Censorship as a Sports Reporter

Covering a beloved team or athletic department is a dream for many, but what happens when your dream means only asking coaches softball questions, being pressured into noncritical stories and worrying about your press pass being taken away? 

Censorship is often not easily identifiable and may be indirect. You also may have been assured what could be considered censorship is just how it is in this industry. It’s realizing this censorship, or self-censorship, and knowing how to fight it that will make you a better journalist going forward. You work for a publication with the mission of educating the public and serving the community — not the athletic department. 

When fighting any censorship, there are risks involved, especially in sports where access is everything. It’s important to think through your options, know the law, talk to your editors and fight back as you see necessary. 

The following provides some time-tested strategies for fighting — and winning — a censorship battle.

Understand what censorship looks like for sports journalists

Censorship in sports journalism may look and feel different than what higher management or news reporters experience. Reporters have a relationship with the team they cover. They have the same sources each time they cover a game, breaking news story or feature. Access is everything when your source selection is so condensed. Without it, it’s borderline impossible to complete your job as you were hired to do. 

Censorship is the suppression of expression deemed unwanted by someone or an entity that is in a power position. Athletic departments have power to hold access to players, games or other vital information from reporters. They can accept, reject or void press passes. In some cases, they think they can “fire” reporters working for newspapers through cutting access. 

With this in mind, think about whether you have seen a change in how you are treated by an athletic department through this lens. Have you been punished for getting a scoop? Did a critical story lose you a press box seat at the big game? Do your emails get left unread? Does the department fill public access requests incorrectly, take too long to do so or deny them outright?

Another form of censorship of self-censorship. This is the act of excluding newsworthy stories or topics from your coverage based on either an actual or perceived threat. Do you write stories trying not to “rock the boat?” Do you not ask certain questions at press conferences worried you will not be invited back? Are you not chasing a lede in fear it might cost you your access? Are you worried a story you write will hurt the team you are covering or the university you go to? Are you shying away from a newsworthy story?

Practice sound journalism

Nothing can help you more in your censorship fight than a well-researched, well-written, fair and accurate story. Similarly, nothing can sink you faster than a sloppy, mean-spirited article full of factual errors and grammatical mistakes. 

Write something you’d be proud to stand by and defend publicly — because that is what you may be called upon to do. Before publishing a story that you know might provoke a censor’s pen, take the time to make it “censor-resistant”: carefully check all facts, confirm quotes, make sure you have talked to all sides. Ask yourself, “Does it make sense? Is it fair?” Have multiple sets of eyes review it for grammar, spelling, punctuation and editorial errors. In short, be a good journalist. Do not give censors an easy target.

Pick your battles wisely

Fighting for a free student press is a worthy endeavor, but the truth is some censorship fights are worthier than others. Do you really want to go to battle over the right to use a piece of insignificant information? Or the right to publish a rumor-filled column? There are no hard rules for determining when a fight is worth the time and effort involved, but the question should always be asked.

Be ready to take the lead

Your adviser — unlike you — is probably a school employee with a mortgage to pay and perhaps a family to feed. Their bosses know this — and many shamelessly use it to their advantage. As an employee, your adviser’s bosses have substantial leverage over what they say and what they can (or can’t) do. 

Students are not bound by the employer-employee relationship and have much more freedom to push back against school officials and take a principled stand. Because of this, we will generally suggest that your adviser step back and cheer you on quietly from the sidelines. In such cases, you and your student colleagues must be willing and able to take the leadership role. Moreover, it is a student publication. Your publication. Courts have made clear that it is your legal rights — not the adviser’s — that are at stake. If a fight must be fought, it should primarily be your fight (and ideally, one that parents, alumni and other community members are willing to join). From the beginning it should be made clear to school officials that their battle will be with you.

Do your homework

The law related to free expression in school can be complex — take the time to understand your rights. Every case has its strengths and weaknesses and it is important that you’re able to accurately assess where you stand. Sadly, few administrators know — or sometimes, even care about — the law related to student free speech rights. Too often they act without taking the time to figure out what they lawfully can and cannot do. You may need to help educate them. After today, you should feel better prepared to explain the relevant legal standards and to refute the erroneous — but commonly held — belief that public school officials can censor at will.

Meet with the censors

As soon as the threat of censorship emerges, the student staff — preferably a small group of student editors — should set up a meeting with the censor. The purpose of this meeting is to air all sides’ concerns and to resolve the situation before it heats up. Confront the threat, but avoid being confrontational. At all times, be courteous and show the appropriate respect. Take good, accurate notes of what is said and by whom. 

It may be possible to meet with someone like the athletic director before you even start reporting on a beat to build your relationship, ask questions and hear each other’s possible concerns. It would give you a direct line of contact to the person who ultimately could cut your access. You may get story ideas, and they may trust you more as a reporter. It’s also completely possible you receive more pressure or threats. At the very least, you know a little bit more about the beast you are dealing with.

If the principal is the censor and refuses to change his or her mind and reasonable compromise is not possible, take your case to the superintendent or school board for high school or university administrators. Take time to explain your role as a student journalist. Remind school officials that the press’s goal is not to publish good news or bad news — just the news. Failing to reach a compromise, it is important that these initial meetings end with administrators understanding that the student staff considers censorship a very serious matter. Make it clear that you hope to avoid a fight, but also leave no doubt that you are prepared to take a stand.

Use the court of public opinion

Public pressure can be very effective. A publication may decide to run a column, editorial or news story talking about a censorship experience or pattern and what they feel needs to change. It’s important to relate back to why this censorship is important for the general public to care about, especially if it is a dearly beloved team or athletic department. You need to prove your argument for why this censorship is worth caring about just as much as whether this is an act of censorship.

Remember, despite your best efforts to resolve the matter quietly, officials have chosen the option to censor. Sometimes, rather than a gentle nudge to do the right thing, they need a shove. It is, therefore, crucial that you now do whatever you reasonably can to make sure they are held publicly accountable as censors.

Consider your legal options

If, after appealing the censorship within the school system and making your case in the court of public opinion, school officials still refuse to budge, your next step may be a court of law. Unfortunately, cases that are worth challenging administratively and publicly are sometimes not always appropriate for a legal challenge. The facts of a case, the quality of evidence, the availability of witnesses and the history of court cases in a particular jurisdiction are among the factors that must be considered. An experienced media law or civil rights attorney can help you weigh the pros and cons of filing a lawsuit. Student journalists and their advisers who need information or assistance should contact us here. All of our services are free of charge.

In the end, however, a positive court ruling is not the only measure of victory. In fact, many successful censorship battles have ended with the censored material never published. The victory in such cases is achieved in the battle itself — in having the courage to stand up for what is right. While a completely free and independent student press may not always be achievable, the very act of reminding others why it is important and worth defending — fighting the good fight — is always an honorable accomplishment.

Need more help? Contact SPLC’s free legal hotline.