Three SOJC students win investigative journalism award

Story and photo by Aaron Nelson

SOJC students Kenny Jacoby, Jared Denner and Cooper Green work in the Daily Emerald office.
IRE award-winning SOJC students Kenny Jacoby, Jarrid Denney and Cooper Green work in the Daily Emerald office.

UO School of Journalism and Communication students Kenny Jacoby, Cooper Green and Jarrid Denney won the Investigative Reporters and Editors award for student reporting at a small paper for their investigative story for the Daily Emerald about former Oregon Ducks tight end Pharaoh Brown.

The story began when the students heard a rumor about an alleged violent incident between Brown and a teammate through sources involved with a separate investigative story involving the University of Oregon football team.

Jacoby said that he and other Daily Emerald reporters recognized a pattern of violent behavior between the alleged altercation and a 2015 investigation by Eugene police, when Brown was accused of strangling his girlfriend.

Through their reporting, the students uncovered a total of three violent incidents involving Brown during his time at the university. Following each altercation, Brown received no disciplinary action from the team, the university or the police.

“We didn’t have anything strong enough to report on one of those things, so we needed all three to establish a pattern,” Jacoby said.

Throughout their investigation, the students overcame obstacles from the university and as a result of a student privacy law, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

When Jacoby submitted a records request for emails between coaches and trainers for the weeks before and after each alleged incident, he received no reply for several weeks before the school’s public records office finally gave him an estimate of $700 for his request.

Several other publications, including The Register-Guard and The Chronicle of Higher Education, reported on the substantial estimate Jacoby received for his request, which spurned the University of Oregon’s Senate Transparency Committee’s decision to begin looking for solutions to flaws in the record-request process.

The UO Athletic Department also came under fire after one of its officials threateningly suggested that the Daily Emerald may have its media credentials stripped for the 2016 Civil War rivalry game against Oregon State, after Jacoby attempted to speak to a player about the story over the phone.

UO President Michael Schill ordered an investigation into the athletic department’s media policies, which suggested that such behavior should be avoided in the future.

Without the paper trail that would have been left with any disciplinary action, and due to the difficulties acquiring records from the university, the reporters knew the only potential evidence of the truth was confirmation from someone who had witnessed the events firsthand.

But finding someone willing to speak out was no easy task.

“Football players are not really ones to talk about their teammates,” Jacoby said.

After placing dozens of phone calls to former and current players over a two-month period, Jacoby finally found individuals willing to go on the record.

“Nobody at the university even talked about it,” Jacoby said. “The athletic department didn’t acknowledge it. The administration didn’t acknowledge it.”

When neither the university nor the athletic department attempted to make corrections to the story, Jacoby says he and his fellow reporters knew they had their facts straight.

Judges for the IRE award committee wrote that “these tenacious reporters prevailed by finding sources to verify the findings of their investigation. Their determination is an example for all investigative reporters: They refused to quit or back down to a powerful athletic program.”

Jacoby says he is drawn to in-depth investigations. He has since reported on the removal of a faculty committee overseeing the athletic department and on a system of neglect within Eugene nursing home communities.

He calls the IRE award a validation of his efforts and a source of pride as he moves forward in his career.

“It was an exhausting and strenuous reporting process, and those stories don’t come up all the time,” he said. “But it definitely gave me a hunger to do more of that kind of work.”

Aaron Nelson ’17 recently graduated from the SOJC with a bachelor’s degree in journalism, with a focus in photo and multimedia journalism. He worked as a photographer for the Daily Emerald and has freelanced for KVAL. He has also held previous internships with Scout Recruiting and the music-review website Daily-Beat.