Debate: Blurred lines of sports journalism



Editor’s note: When reviewing the Kentucky Kernel’s Code of Ethics at our annual retreat this year, we debated whether reporters should accept free food or items from sources. It has always been a policy that Kernel reporters have abided by — except for sports reporters who have typically eaten the free food at press conferences and games. Kernel editors ultimately decided to enforce the policy consistently, so that sports reporters would no longer accept the free food from the university, unless it is paid for by the Kernel. Is this a huge issue? Probably not. But we do think it’s a window into an important discussion about media ethics and the influence of athletics on college campuses. Editor-in-chief Rachel Aretakis and

By Rachel Aretakis | Editor- in- Chief

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Between dodging beer bottles and running from riot police pepper spray, I had been on my feet for hours as I covered the infamous State Street riots of 2012. I was exhausted, but right as I turned around, someone had set up a buffet right in the middle of the street for me.

Yeah, right. OK, I’m kidding. The food didn’t magically appear. Though I did report on the burning couches and flipped cars after UK beat the University of Louisville in the Final Four, there were no perks for the journalist at the end of the day.

Yet, there’s often a buffet of food or free treats for reporters at UK games and press conferences.While some journalists choose not to walk down the buffet line, many can’t resist the convenience of the provided food in the press box.

For those not familiar with journalism ethics, it isn’t acceptable to take any gift or free item from a source. We do this in order to remain free of influence or obligation when reporting a story, according to the Kentucky Kernel Code of Ethics. But to be honest, the Kernel hasn’t always followed its own policy on this topic — that’s why we are addressing it in this debate. We have that policy for a reason, to hold ourselves accountable to good journalism. While it seems trivial arguing about free food at a sporting event, it raises important ethical questions that cannot be ignored.

In the way UK Athletics often separates itself from the university as a whole, sports journalism tends to separate itself from the profession. The lines are blurred with sports; somewhere along the way it became OK for sports reporters to indulge in freebies from the university, the very entity they are covering.

When speaking with Kelly McBride, who specializes in ethics at The Poynter Institute, I realized this is a problem many newsrooms often deal with, but never talk about. “Why do you think they feed you?” she asked me referencing the university. “To keep you complacent so that you feel beholden or obliged to them. They do it to gain favor.”

Most, if not all, reporters would say they still ask the tough, hard-hitting questions of the team they are covering.

While I agree that for many, a $7 food voucher or hot dog won’t cloud their judgement, I can’t help but feel it changes the relationship between the source and the reporter. At the very least, it changes the perception of the relationship.

I’ve covered meetings where I’ve been offered food or drinks, and every time I’ve had to begrudgingly decline (credit bobby). As much as I would like to accept, it only takes one time for someone to accuse me of biased reporting. It would be the beginning of a bad habit.

So whether or not accepting free food influences a reporter’s writing, it risks chipping away the moral authority of the newspaper. And these days, newspapers need that more than anything.