University media relations: help or hindrance for j-schools?
College and university journalism schools offer their students a built-in community to cover: the institution that houses their program. A campus offers practice in covering politics, budgets, race, education, crime, social trends – in short, many aspects of life in the wider world.
The institution’s media-relations personnel can play a key role in helping – or hindering – journalism educators who use the campus as a teaching tool. They can help students find scholarly and administrative sources for their stories, whether for class assignments or for the student media, or they can use their power to block access and prevent students from gaining needed reporting and interviewing experience.
The argument can be made that students must learn to deal with recalcitrant media-relations personnel, whom they will surely encounter as professionals. But questions arise: When does learning this lesson cease to be useful? What is the responsibility of a university administration to aid in the pedagogical efforts of the journalism program it sustains? Where the relationship has been problematic, have the parties resolved tensions and established useful working relationship? If so, how? What makes a good working relationship possible?
At Stony Brook, the opening of our School of Journalism in 2006 coincided with the departure of the university’s longtime spokesman, a former Newsday sportswriter. His replacement was the spokeswoman for the university hospital, who added the rest of the campus to her responsibilities. She has one assistant. And no journalism background. She claims that university officials are free to speak with student journalists, but in practice, she has created an atmosphere in which nearly every administrator refers all questions to her. Those who spoke to student journalists directly in the past have gradually stopped doing so. Officials deny student reporters access to any event that hasn’t received her explicit approval for coverage. Last month, one of my colleagues had his broadcast students turned away from a hot-dog eating contest because she hadn’t signed off on their presence.
My colleagues and I chafe at these restrictions, and our frustration is growing. We wonder whether such policies and practices are the norm or an exception. I’m told that at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which houses one of the oldest journalism programs in the nation, student reporters have unfettered access to any professor or staff person on the 42,000-student campus. No one filters their requests, and the university lives with the consequences of having stories published by students engaged in the process of learning to be journalists.
I’ll be looking into this question systematically in the coming months and would welcome comments about how the relationship plays out elsewhere, particularly at public universities. You can reach me privately at Barbara.Selvin@stonybrook.edu.