One new adviser navigates his uncharted territory into media advising at a private school.
By Robert L. Kaiser
The first sign I was destined for a strange relationship with Canisius College’s athletics program came at 8:48 on a sub-freezing, snow-encrusted Buffalo night in mid-February 2011, when the college’s mascot — a mutant creature straight out of Greek mythology — connected with me through social media.
“Petey Griffin is now following you on Twitter!” an email in my Canisius inbox trumpeted.
“Petey” is a student dressed up as the Canisius Golden Griffin. According to the ancient Greeks, a griffin has a lion’s body and tail, an eagle’s head and wings, and the general disposition of an air traveler navigating security at LaGuardia. As mascots go, it would be an inspired and inspiring choice – if only it didn’t invoke an image of a sinking ship, in this case Le Griffon, an ill-fated 17th-century French sailing vessel that sank in the Great Lakes after an Iroquois prophet supposedly placed a curse on it. It’s an ominous portent for teams trying to stay afloat in conference standings.
I can’t say whether Tom Parrotta, the amiable head coach of the Canisius men’s basketball team, was himself affected by the old prophet’s curse, but during the cold early months of 2011 Parrotta might have felt like the captain of a sinking ship. That February, even as Petey Griffin was cheerfully using Twitter to build the Canisius fan base, Parrotta’s program was taking on water. The Golden Griffins were losing more games than they were winning, and behind the scenes a storm was brewing that would test not only Parrotta, the program’s fifth-year coach, but also me, the greenhorn faculty adviser to students putting out the college’s weekly newspaper.
I had a lot to learn that winter, my first semester as a college professor. Only a few months earlier, after 25 years as a journalist, I had traded newsrooms for classrooms, joining the Canisius faculty as a tenure-track assistant professor of multimedia journalism. The landscape of my new world was daunting for its vastness and urgent imperatives as well as for its unfamiliarity. Canisius had started a journalism program effective with my hire; signing my contract, I knew that besides facing the steep learning curve attendant midlife career changes I was assuming a great deal of responsibility. By my second year I would be the director of the college’s journalism program. By my second semester I would be the adviser to the student newspaper, a tabloid called – you guessed it – The Griffin.
Now the second semester was upon me, and I was beginning to realize there would be no easing into the adviser’s role. Mine would be a baptism by fire – one that burst into full flame with an email I received from sophomore journalism major Nick Veronica at 10:38 a.m. on March 9.
Fraught though they were, the events Veronica’s email set in motion proved invaluable in my own education at Canisius — as a teacher, as an adviser and as an outlander to academia in general and to private colleges in particular. I was forced not only to evaluate and inform, early on, my approach to faculty advising — a perilous balancing act between doing too much and doing too little — but to examine ethical and legal questions at the very heart of journalism. Also, to navigate a foggy and dangerous intersection: that of universities and open-records laws, which in the real-world journalists wield like swords but which in the halls of academia can be as squishy as an April thaw in Buffalo.
“Hey Professor Kaiser,” Veronica wrote in his email. “I was wondering what time you are on campus today. I wanted to ask you a question about a story I’m reporting on.”
- A few weeks earlier, on Feb. 21— as Parrotta’s charges were reeling from a three-game losing streak that included the horrible indignity of a defeat at the hands of archrival Niagara — Veronica had heard the first rumblings of trouble in the basketball program, though he didn’t immediately recognize them as such.
That day, one of Veronica’s hockey teammates had strolled into the locker room griping that his iPod, a Christmas gift from his mother, had been stolen from his room.
At first Veronica “didn’t think anything of it,” he later told me. Then on March 8, a Tuesday, while walking with a friend in one of the underground tunnels that connect campus buildings south of Main Street, Veronica learned that his teammate had recovered the stolen iPod. The friend who told Veronica this as they walked in the tunnel was the sister of his teammate’s roommate, who also had lost an iPod in the theft and subsequently recovered it.
Before Veronica could ask how the iPods had turned up, his friend – “she was pretty pissed” – huffed something about not being able to believe that the thieves were basketball players.
“My ears perked up,” Veronica recalled later in a written account of his reporting process that I asked him to send me. “I knew that would be a story.”
According to Veronica, that night he interviewed his teammate for an hour and a half, all on the record. Veronica’s teammate told him how events had unfolded. He also told him the names of the three players involved, which they had learned from campus police after reporting the theft. At the time of the theft, police said, the players had been at a party and at least one of them had been drinking.
Only one of the players admitted to the theft, and that player, a freshman, subsequently returned Veronica’s teammate’s iPod with a telltale photo of his daughter set as the screen’s background wallpaper.
The next morning Veronica called the campus public safety department and asked for an interview with the investigating officers, though he didn’t say why. Instead, he was granted an audience with the head of public safety, Gary Everett, who had the report of the incident on his desk when Veronica walked in.
Everett would not confirm for Veronica the names of anyone involved or that they were members of the basketball team. When Veronica asked whether those involved had been drinking, Everett changed the subject.
“In retrospect,” Veronica wrote me later, “I really should have pushed the envelope and grilled him on that, but that’s easy to say now.”
It was only a few hours after Veronica interviewed police that he sent me the email asking to talk.
I had no inkling then that Veronica wanted to discuss Parrotta’s basketball program, no idea anyone was accusing any of the players of anything except ineptitude. None of the Golden Griffins seemed all that adept at stealing the ball from an opposing point guard, let alone boosting an iPod from a dorm room. The two players who sat on the front row in my COM203 class were likeable, respectful and, so far as I could tell, honest.
And so, as I responded to Veronica’s email with an invitation to drop by my office in Lyons Hall after his 1 p.m. class, I was curious but unexcited. Within minutes, I wasn’t giving our email exchange another thought.
By the end of the day, I wouldn’t be able to get Veronica’s email or the story he was pursuing out of my mind.
Nick Veronica is at once shy and cocky, and, while I saw in his demeanor something of a challenge, I also saw in it a reminder of what I was like when I was young.
As a working journalist I had climbed to the pinnacle, was a star at the Chicago Tribune, a go-to guy recruited to that paper so I could write long, important stories for the front page. But a tire-squealing career change at a time of life when many men are buying red Corvettes had tempered my arrogance. As I learned a new career, I felt free once again to ask and emulate, to not only admit to fear and confusion and uncertainty but to occupy them completely and to laugh about it. I had almost as much to learn about being a faculty adviser as about being a teacher.
That early-March afternoon, I welcomed Veronica into my office and sat listening and asking questions as he told me about the story he was working on. My instincts as a journalist came rushing back like riding a bike. When Veronica was finished, I leaned back in my chair and launched into my first meaningful contribution as faculty adviser: a measured monologue on the power and peril of the story that was welling up around us.
What Veronica had on his hands was a big story, that was plain to see, and I felt invigorated merely by my proximity to it. Sports and crime are powerful engines in our media culture, and here Veronica had both in one potentially explosive article.
“This is the kind of story that’ll make The Griffin a ‘must read,’ ” I told him. “Nail this and you’ll have The Buffalo News chasing you.”
“I have to tell you something, though,” I said.
It was then I gave voice to my concerns, which had started gnawing at me the moment he told me what he was working on. Veronica, and the paper along with him, was stepping into a legal and ethical mine field, I pointed out, and I felt it my obligation as faculty adviser to point out all the potential pitfalls and the best ways around them – not only for Veronica’s sake and that of his editor, Kate Songin, but also for the sake of the college; Canisius could be at risk of a libel suit if the story was not handled carefully.
My greatest concern was this: Veronica, who had the names of the basketball players involved and seemed eager to publish them, didn’t have the information from a single privileged source; the police had not verified the names nor confirmed basketball players were involved. In fact, Veronica’s only sources on the identities of the perpetrators were the victims of the theft, and because they had decided against pressing charges, all we had were students accusing other students of a crime without any objective official source to corroborate their claims.
I asked Veronica if he had seen the police report. He said he hadn’t.
“You need to get a copy of that,” I said.
And then it hit me:
I was sitting in a building with a statue of a saint in the hallway.
I felt a headache coming on. This was a private college. How did open-records laws apply, if at all? Even the registrar’s office probably wasn’t obligated to divulge, confirm or deny the barest of information about students’ comings and goings.
“Let me do some research,” I said. “Please don’t run the story until we’ve talked again.”
With that, Veronica left my office. I gulped down two Excedrin and swiveled left to my MacBook to begin scouring the Internet for information about open-record laws and universities — in particular, private colleges. To my dismay if not my surprise, the preponderance of evidence seemed to show we had no ground on which to stand. The best article I found on the subject was “Accessing Campus Police Records at Private Universities: Transparency and Accountability when Operating under State Executive Authority,” a Dec. 20, 2004, dissertation by Robert A. Morris at the Indiana University School of Law at Indianapolis.
Morris began his paper with a story about a 2003 incident at Taylor University, a private, Christian, interdenominational, liberal arts university. In the spring of that year, Morris wrote:
… expensive camera equipment was stolen from the Communication Arts Department of Taylor…. As a student journalist enrolled at the time of the incident, Justin McLaughlin had an interest in the details of the crime. When his in-person request for relevant documentation was denied, he followed it with a written request in September 2003, citing the Indiana Access to Public Records Act as the basis for his request. This request was also denied. The Indiana Access to Public Records Act preamble asserts the public policy ‘that all persons are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those who represent them as public officers and employees.’ Moreover, the Act is to be liberally construed, with the burden of proof on the agency to establish a valid rationale for non-disclosure of requested records. McLaughlin believed this language would enable him to access the records. He filed a formal complaint in September 2003 with the Indiana Office of the Public Access Counselor, hoping an advisory opinion asserting the same would persuade Taylor University. The advisory opinion stated that the Act did not apply to the university because it is a private entity. A handful of other states have directly confronted this issue through public access counselor opinions, formal adjudications, or legislative actions, with varying results. In all instances, the conflict is whether to classify police departments of private universities as agencies of the state for purposes of access to information, or, conversely, to classify them as private entities that are outside the purview of such laws.
In the last few years, some states have taken measures to hold private universities accountable to open-records laws, according to the Student Press Law Center, which reported in 2006 that “gaining access to campus crime records has often been an arduous task for journalists at private colleges and universities.”
Summarizing what I’d found and providing a link to the Morris paper, I sent Veronica an email at 2:33 p.m. on Wednesday, March 09:
“I found the attached document. … Bottom line: There’s no clear consensus on the issue. Consequently, you may ask for the record and they may deny it and by the time you got through fighting it in the courts, if you were so inclined, we could all be of retirement age and The Griffin would have passed through several generations of editors. …
“I think your best bet is to see if the kid whose stuff was stolen will give you a copy of the record. HOWEVER, if the record isn’t public, the fact that you have it and can cite it as a source doesn’t necessarily afford you legal protection. So you would have a decision to make about whether to go with the name.”
The next afternoon, Veronica brought me a draft of the story to read. All the facts were there except for the players’ names. I told him I thought it was ready to go and that the paper should not wait to run it until Friday, when the next print edition came out, but post it on the website immediately lest they be scooped.
As I had predicted, The Buffalo News soon followed with a story, crediting The Griffin. The News eventually updated the story to include the players’ names, as did The Griffin when the players were suspended indefinitely from Canisius.
In the written account I had him to provide me after it was all over, Veronica summed up his experience reporting the story this way:
“You can’t get away with that just because (especially because) you play basketball, despite the fact it probably would have been covered up and thrown under the rug if I didn’t do the dirty work (and I have a sneaking suspicion they knew about it before the season ended).”
That’s probably what I’m most proud of, that I brought justice to a situation that would have otherwise been covered up.
PS- …I can feel myself getting better, and that might be the most exciting part of all.
Rob Kaiser is the director of the journalism program at Canisius College, where he is an assistant professor of journalism. A full-time journalist for more than 25 years before trading newsrooms for classrooms in August 2010, Kaiser has been a reporter, columnist, editorial writer, magazine writer, senior editor and writing coach. His work has appeared in numerous publications including the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Tribune Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun and the Orlando Sentinel. Kaiser has a master of fine arts degree in writing from Spalding University in Louisville, Ky., and a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kentucky.