BYU’s Universe wins Associated Press awards

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BYU student Jacob Molnar stands in front of his award-winning breaking news article about the meth lab at the Riviera apartments. (Jenna Koford)
BYU student Jacob Molnar stands in front of one of the articles in the series about the meth lab at the Riviera Apartments. Molnar took first place in an annual news contest for his first breaking news article in the series. (Jenna Koford)

The Universe at BYU has won three awards in the 2015 Utah Idaho Spokane Associated Press Association’s annual news contest.

The Associate Press awarded BYU student Jacob Molnar first place in the Breaking News category for his article “Police respond to meth lab at Riviera Apartments” and student Ashley Robinson second place for her article “Obama visiting Utah Friday, April 3.” BYU students Jenna Koford and Bret Henkel took third place in the “Series or Special Project category for their Catfishing series.

The Universe competed in the category of newspapers with a circulation between 10,000 and 15,000.

Molnar, a public relations major, was a Universe reporter when he witnessed a drug bust at the Riviera Apartments in Provo. Molnar, was a resident at the Riviera at the time.

Molnar started inquiring about the issue when police cars, fire trucks and a Hazmat vehicle arrived at the Riviera.

“I stepped outside and my whole ward was out, watching cops taking stuff out of a student’s apartment,” Molnar said. “When I saw soda bottles filled with weird chemicals and the Hazmat team, I decided to start taking pictures of the scene.”

Molnar said the most challenging part was writing a story about a returned missionary from his ward and school.

“This young man wasn’t just some Mormon down the street. He was a fellow priesthood holder from my congregation, and even if I didn’t know him, I had to think of ethics (in journalism),” Molnar said.

The duty of a journalist is to report the news, but Molnar said he felt responsible that everyone knew about this student’s actions.

“During this whole time, I prayed for him every day because I knew he was also a victim of all this,” Molnar said. “But if I didn’t write this story, someone else would have done it. This was going to happen and I feel blessed to be the one who did.”

Molnar said he feels honored to receive the first place AP award.

“One day I was just a student reporter in a newsroom and the next day everyone knew about my story,” Molnar said. “The story got over 2,000 shares on Twitter just in a few hours and The Universe website even crashed the next day.”

President Barack Obama speaks at Pellissippi State Community College, Friday, Jan. 9, 2015, in Knoxville, Tenn., about new initiatives to help more Americans go to college and get the skills they need to succeed. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
President Barack Obama speaks at Pellissippi State Community College. Universe reporter Ashley Robinson broke the news about President Obama visiting Utah  and held the story for more than two days. (AP Photo)

Another BYU public relations students was at the forefront of a breaking news story for The Universe. Ashley Robinson, a 21-year-old public relations student, received a credible tip from a trusted source that President Obama was coming to Utah. Robinson, who was covering politics for The Universe, started researching right away.

Robinson contacted the media team at the White House, and while she did not get an official confirmation, nobody denied the information about President Obama visiting Utah. Robinson felt like she had enough of a lead, and she started writing the story.

“It was nerve-wracking to publish a story that I did not know for sure was happening,” she said. “About five minutes after I published it, I started to doubt my decision. ‘What if President Obama does not end up coming to Utah?’ I got nervous that he was not going to come.”

Robinson did not give away her source, despite calls from various Utah news organizations, so no other news outlet was able to publish the story until the White House sent out a press release a few days later confirming President Obama’s visit to Utah. This gave exclusivity to The Universe for over 48 hours.

Bret Henkel, a senior studying public relations at BYU, teamed up with journalism student Jenna Koford to cover a series of stories about “catfishing” where a 24-year-old woman pretended to be a young man and deceived eight Utah women. The woman running the hoax, referred to as the “catfish,” entertained phone and Internet relationships with some of these women for up to three years.

But the catfish’s victims soon discovered the truth. Henkel and Koford heard from Hilary Hayes, one of the victims, and the two decided to cover the women’s experience and help raise awareness of the potential dangers connected with Internet relationships.

“Reporting on the catfish story was interesting because we knew the girl’s name but chose not to put it in the articles,” Henkel said. “We figured we could warn the public of the catfishing scam happening to many girls in Utah Valley without ruining the catfish’s future by revealing her name.”

The Dr. Phil show, "The Co-eds and the Catfish," aired April 24, 2015. BYU's Universe reporters Bret Henkel and Jenna Koford broke the story after hearing one women's tragic series of events. (YouTube)
The Dr. Phil show, “The Co-eds and the Catfish,” aired April 24, 2015. BYU’s Universe reporters Bret Henkel and Jenna Koford broke the story after hearing one woman’s side of the story. (YouTube)

The reporters managed to interview the catfish and get both sides of the story in a series of articles. Their stories soon received national attention.

Koford said she had to find the catfish’s Instagram account to get in contact with her. The catfish emailed Koford, and the two set up a phone interview. “When she called, the phone number didn’t show up. She was very secretive, but she knew why I wanted to talk to her,” Koford said.

The buildup to publishing the article made the two reporters feel nervous, Koford said. But their first story was published on Mar. 17, 2015, and people began to react to it.

“It was interesting to see our article take off. Within days, Cosmopolitan, Daily Mail and other large news companies had picked up our story,” Henkel said.

The stories even made it to national television. Dr. Phil’s team filmed an episode based on the story, in which the Utah women explained their love misadventures.

“We watched the Dr. Phil episode and felt that it conveyed the story pretty well, with drama added, of course,” Koford said. “It was interesting that some women who wouldn’t speak to us for the newspaper were willing to speak to Dr. Phil. Either way, they told their story, and we have some sweet writing experience.”

The catfish reporters had to deal with threats from the catfish and competitive pressures from the Dr. Phil Show. Their three-part series took more than a month to complete, but their work brought them an AP award.

“We didn’t back down,” Henkel said. “It was our story, and it was our right to publish the follow-up articles for our readers.”

The Universe is a laboratory campus news organization that has a weekly print edition that circulates on the BYU campus and is daily online at universe.byu.edu. The Universe has one of the largest reporting staffs of any news organization in the state, according to director Steve Fidel.

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