Update: University media relations departments and j-schools

My post on the sometimes tense relationship between university media-relations departments and journalism professors who seek to use the campus as a teaching tool generated a gratifying number of responses — including some positive moves from the media-relations department at my own campus, Stony Brook University.

In the week since my post appeared, Lauren Sheprow, the interim media-relations director whose methods I criticized, has reached out to the editorial board of at least one campus news organization. On Wednesday, she met with editors of The Statesman, Stony Brook’s oldest student newspaper, to discuss matters of access and communication. And one Statesman reporter tells me that Ms. Sheprow responded to her request to interview a top university financial official with alacrity — after hours, no less — and arranged the interview well within the reporter’s deadline. This surely is not be the first time Ms. Sheprow has responded effectively to a Statesman reporter, but it is unusual enough to merit notice — and praise.

Whether my post galvanized Ms. Sheprow to take these steps, I can’t say, but whatever their impetus, I welcome them.

In one of her several comments on my post, Ms. Sheprow wrote:

…it is tragic that there are those who feel it is appropriate to mention someone by name in a disparaging blog post, yet fail to sign their own name at its conclusion. Why not take credit — and responsibility?

Gotta say I agree with you on this one, Lauren. While those comments reflected years of frustration with stonewalling, calls returned after deadline and the resulting inability to tell complete stories, nastiness is never dignified. And while I understand that current students may hestitate to criticize Ms. Sheprow on the record for fear of an even deeper freeze-out, I — like most readers — have much greater respect for those with the courage to sign their names.

A few other points:

A couple of commenters criticized Stony Brook journalism professors for “assigning” (their words) campus stories exclusively. That’s simply not the case. We train students to find their own stories; finding ideas is one of the basic skills we work to instill. As a community of 35,000 people, the university offers plenty of material for coverage, particularly as state funding has been slashed about 20 percent over the past two years. Covering the campus is an important role for our student journalists. There are lots of good stories — about cutbacks, oft-delayed construction projects, a controversial hotel proposal, the abrupt removal of programs from our innovative Southampton campus to our main campus, to name a few.

About half of our students live in residence halls and about half are commuters.Reporting off-campus requires a car, something many residents lack. And in the nearly 50 years that Stony Brook has had a university, it’s never become a college town. The campus is cut off from surrounding communities by train tracks and highways. Public transportation in mid-Suffolk County is abysmal. While students with cars often cover off-campus stories or beats, circumstances limit some students to on-campus coverage — and there’s no reason they should apologize for that.

Clarification on the hot-dog-eating contest–the students attempting to videotape the contest for a class assignment were not turned away on orders of the media relations department. Whether the employee who threw the students out hid behind Ms. Sheprow’s name or simply believed that he or she was following correct procedure, I used that example to comment on the atmosphere that has pervaded the campus and that I hope will now change.

Finally, is Ms. Sheprow overworked? Absolutely. That a $2 billion-per-year institution has one (interim) spokesperson is absurd. She has to pump out press releases, work with the professional news media and respond to the student press, let alone field questions from j-school students. It’s an insane workload, which is all the more reason to loosen reporters’ access to university faculty and staff.

    • tom moore – york college cuny journalism professor
    • October 28th, 2010

    thanks for the thoughts about a college’s “communications” or “media relations” mission and how that relates to the school paper and journalism students. here at york – i rely on our faculty and staff as a source of a lot of our stories. keep it up barbara.
    cheers. -tom moore, asst prof cuny-york college.

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