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Football, FERPA, and Investigative Reporting

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... oh my.

As part of UNC's First Amendment Day event on Tuesday, a panel discussion was held regarding the First Amendment, the Federal Educational Records Privacy Act (FERPA), and football reporting during the NCAA investigation. Highlights of the event were tweeted and video of the discussion is posted at the excellent site, UNC's digital news project from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Members of the discussion panel included former football player Deunta Williams; Dr. Ruth Walden, journalism and media law professor; Jonathan Jones, senior writer and former sports editor of the Daily Tar Heel (who you should be following on Twitter @jjones9 if you aren't already); and Dan Kane, investigative reporter for the News and Observer.

The panel discussion was lively, with Williams providing the insight of someone who has lived the NCAA unpleasantness as both a player and a target of the investigation. Jones spoke from the point of view as both a student and a reporter, and Kane added his opinions as a professional journalist. The range of discussion ran from FERPA (the reporters and the professor believed UNC, and in fact pretty much all universities, misuse the law as it was intended) to parking tickets (Jones suggested that parking tickets helped complete the puzzle and the entire room seemed to agree they were not educational records protected by FERPA) to the University restricting athlete's Twitter accounts (a position emphatically supported by former player Williams, by the way). There was also a testy exchange between Williams and Kane, when Williams essentially said that reporters have a job to do in writing stories and selling papers and Kane countered that his job is to write and expose and not sell papers.

Williams, who has been doing solid analysis work for the Tar Heel Sports Network during this football season, also had the best line of the day in talking about Marvin Austin's famous Club Liv tweet, wondering if the whole NCAA mess would have come about if he had put the "tenant rate" line in quotation marks and typed "Rick Ross" after it.

But the most interesting part of the panel discussion was the participation of Kane, a late-comer to the N&O's coverage of the football investigation who has written a series of articles in the past few weeks specifically questioning issues in the Afro-American Studies department. Kane, who is billed as the paper's investigative reporter, has been responsible for seemingly meaty stories that have turned out to be mostly gristle.

One of the issues brought up in the questioning on Tuesday was Kane's article in August in which he raised the issue of how Marvin Austin was allowed to take an upper-level AFAM course the summer before his freshman year at UNC. Kane and the N&O somehow obtained a partial internal transcript that appeared to have been printed sometime in Austin's sophomore year, raising significant questions about how the N&O could get access to that kind of information. On Tuesday, Kane declined to elaborate on that topic or identify the source and instead tried to shift focus from how the paper received protected student information to the questions raised on the transcript.

This article was the first of three in which Kane highlights significant issues and then is either unwilling or unable to follow through to the point of identifying actual wrongdoing on the part of UNC or its officials or professors. This is what is known as the "I'm not saying, I'm just saying" school of journalism. In this particular article, Kane sets up that AFAM seems to be a very easy course of study that caters to athletes, but is then forced to concede that it is only "a distant fourth" in popularity among majors of UNC's football and men's basketball teams. He also offers comment from "a prominent critic of big-time college sports" to suggest Austin was enrolled in the 400-level AFAM class to protect his eligibility (which is a moot point anyway because as a first-semester freshman, he would have been eligible for the entire year) but offers no other proof from the partial transcript. Kane dangles the notion of easy courses for athletes and lets the reader draw a conclusion without offering specific support for his assertion.

Kane followed the Austin transcript piece with the revelation that sports agent Carl Carey was hired by AFAM department chair Julius Nyang'oro, the professor at the center of the Michael McAdoo plagiarism issue and the Austin approval for the AFAM 400-level class. Kane points out that UNC athletic officials warned off their athletes from taking Carey's summer school class, but that doesn't stop him from insinuating that his presence on campus was problematic. He further advances the idea that Nyang'oro's hiring of Carey was less than above the board, but stops short of actually accusing Nyang'oro of any wrongdoing. Again, this demonstrates the "I'm not saying, I'm just saying" method of investigative reporting.

Kane's most recent article exposed UNC's looking into independent studies classes offered by the AFAM department. Kane notes that 20 percent of the enrollment of these courses have been football players (meaning 80 percent of them are not) and again quotes outside sources, one of which is a five year-old New York Times article citing independent study course irregularities at Auburn. And again, after setting up statistics showing football player enrollment in these courses, seems to contradict himself by saying, "Anecdotal evidence shows the department is popular with football and men's basketball players, but only a handful of them identify it as their major." Anecdotal evidence? As opposed to actual evidence, Dan? And one more time, Kane offers up the idea that there is something fishy going on in the AFAM department but stops short of actually making an accusation against Nyang'oro.

And so the fine line that people in the Woodward and Bernstein division of a newspaper have to walk is exposed, as is the point Deunta Williams tried to make in the panel discussion but Dan Kane scoffed. The issues that Kane makes are legitimate ones: Who approved Austin's enrollment in an advanced class and why? How was McAdoo's plagiarism missed (or was intentionally overlooked)? Did Nyang'oro mislead UNC officials about the hiring of Carey? Are the directed studies classes being abused? In other words, what in the world is going on in the AFAM department? And yet we keep waiting for Kane to make an actual accusation of wrongdoing instead of just suggesting something and letting the reader draw their own conclusion.

But therein lies the rub (and Williams' point): there would appear to be serious problems in the AFAM department at UNC, but the athletic connection to them is tangential at best, and the AFAM issues have little if anything to do with UNC's NCAA troubles. If only 20% of the students in the directed studies classes are football players, that means 80% are not. And the fact that Austin was given a grade of B-minus in his summer school class is not an anomaly - every student in the class, athlete or not, made at least a B-minus. This is potentially a serious academic issue for UNC, but one that is not nearly as interesting if student-athletes are not involved. The fact that football players are involved sells papers, whether Kane wants to admit that or not.

The one thing in which UNC fans and alumni can take solace is that the school seems to be actively addressing the shortcomings raised by the NCAA investigation and the subsequent Honor Court and AFAM issues. But with so much out there regarding the football mess, it's time for Dan Kane to stop with the insinuations and actually make an accusation against Nyang'oro or UNC.