Student-athlete sources question Ann Arbor News reporters' methods

BY GEOFFREY GAURANO AND JENNA SKOLLER
Daily Staff Reporters
Published April 3, 2008

Several Michigan student-athletes interviewed for the first story in The Ann Arbor News's recent four-day series "Academics and Athletics" say the paper's reporters misled them about the topic of the series and how they would be portrayed in it.

The article, titled "Athletes steered to prof," suggested that academic advisers in the University's Athletic Department directed student-athletes into Psychology Prof. John Hagen's independent study courses. The story said Hagen graded the courses liberally and required students to complete minimal coursework.

LSA senior Chad Kolarik, a member of the Michigan hockey team, was quoted in that story as saying Hagen "really likes the athletes."

Kolarik, who has taken four courses with Hagen, one of them an independent study, was also quoted as saying, "(He's) not one to yell at you if you don't bring your assignment in, and he'll give you the benefit of the doubt most of the time."

But Kolarik said he was misled by Ann Arbor News reporter John Heuser, who interviewed him for the story, about the article's subject matter.

"He told me it was going to be a tribute to Hagen's retirement, because he retired from one of his jobs this past fall," Kolarik said.

Kinesiology sophomore Greg Mathews, a wide receiver on the Michigan football team who was also quoted in the story, said he too felt misled about the focus of the story.

Mathews said the Ann Arbor News reporter who interviewed him - he said he didn't know who that was - told him the story would be a tribute to Prof. Hagen because he had retired from his position in the Society for Research in Child Development in the beginning of September.

"He just said it was a tribute to Prof. Hagen because he was retiring, but he didn't say anything about the actual news article," Mathews said.

Several other student-athletes included in the story declined to comment.

Heuser did not return multiple phone calls seeking comment.

In an e-mail to all Michigan student-athletes on March 26, University Provost Teresa Sullivan echoed Kolarik's and Mathews's comments, writing, "We have also learned from several students that they were misled into giving interviews to reporters who claimed they were preparing a tribute to a faculty member who was a focus of the series."

Prof. Hagen said students who were approached by reporters told him they were under the impression the newspaper was preparing a tribute to him.

"I heard that indirectly from the students, that the only reason they talked to them was because they were told it was a tribute to my retirement," Hagen said.

Daniel Okrent, who was the first public editor at The New York Times from 2003 to 2005, in which he wrote columns independent of the newspaper critiquing its coverage and addressing ethical issues at the newspaper, said that although he hadn't read The News' series, based on journalistic principle, it would be unethical to mislead interview subjects about an article's subject matter and then use information obtained from them.

"If the reporters represented themselves as doing a tribute to this professor, then based on what I know about the article, it's deceptive," said Okrent, who was an editor at The Michigan Daily in late 1960s. "It's simply deceptive."

Ann Arbor News sports columnist Jim Carty, who collaborated with Heuser and others the series, said he thought the reporters' intentions were made clear to the interviewees.

"There was no mention of Prof. Hagen's retirement," Carty said. "We were very careful before we began these interviews to make it clear that we were not misrepresenting what we did."

Ann Arbor News Editor Ed Petykiewicz echoed Carty's comments about the reporting of the first story. He said the staff was told to "be clear, be direct, be careful not to imply anything."

Petykiewicz said reporters working on the story told him they informed athletes they "were doing a story about Prof. Hagen and that they knew that he taught a lot of athletes."

"I don't know what Chad Kolarik would read into that or feel that he was misled," Petykiewicz said. "But we told the truth that we were doing a story about Professor Hagen."

Petykiewicz said the newspaper has transcripts of all their interviews for the series, but added that the newspaper doesn't release interview records and transcripts.

According to Okrent, phrasing an interview request in the matter Petykiewicz instructed would be ethically suitable, as long as there is not any deception.

"If they ask about grades, it's up to the athletes whether they answer about grades or not," Okrent said. "If they do not interview, they won't get the interview."

Michigan hockey coach Red Berenson said he thought the series mischaracterized why student-athletes took independent study courses with Hagen.

Berenson said Hagen's courses helped student-athletes "find a way to make it."

"But to take that story and try to flip it like players were trying to take the easy way out, I don't think that's true," Berenson said.

Several student-athletes interviewed for the story said they felt their words were misconstrued and taken out of context.

Mathews said that although he spoke highly of Hagen and his courses in his interview, he believed his quotes in the story were misconstrued.

Mathews was quoted as saying the class was not "terribly challenging" and that he was primarily taught by Hagen's assistant, Steve Pacynski.

"When they put my words together, they made it seem like I was talking down," Mathews said.

Kolarik said he was unhappy with the story because his private academic information was published in the article without his knowledge or consent.

"I was taken advantage of," Kolarik said. "My GPA was on there without my permission."

Carty said he and the other Ann Arbor News reporters in the series didn't inform anyone interviewed for the story that they had the student-athletes's academic information, but defended their decision to use the information in the story.

He also said student-athletes interviewed for the story weren't notified that their transcripts had been released - something he said reporters working on the story had been "up front about that all along."

"We did not make it clear whose transcripts we did or did not have, and that was a decision we made," Carty said. "And we stand by it."

In The News' first story in the series, Associate Psychology Prof. Stephanie Rowley was quoted as saying that she accepted one to three independent study students per year, and that her involvement in independent study courses "really can be intense, particularly if they're spending time in an independent research project."

After the series was published, Rowley wrote a letter of support to Hagen saying reporters didn't tell her that her comments would be juxtaposed against statistics regarding Hagen's independent study courses, only that the story was "about independent studies."

"I feel badly that my words were used as an indictment of John's work," she wrote. "I didn't know until much later what the story was going to be about."