Overcoming policies that get between you and your sources
College journalists are learning how to navigate — and when to challenge — administrative policies designed to show sources and the institutions they represent in the best light.
On the first day of publication for the Fall 2012 semester, the new guard at The Harvard Crimson made a declaration for how its staff would report: No longer would the paper allow quote approval.
In the past five to 10 years, four of the top Harvard administrators started agreeing to interviews only if the quotes could be approved, said Julie Zauzmer, the Crimson’s managing editor at the time, in a phone interview. Once these requests started to be granted, more and more administrators began asking for the same policy.
“If you’re saying, ‘Yes, the provost can have it,’ you’re not going to say, ‘No, the registrar can’t,’” she said.
She said that after reporters would send their quotes in for review, they would get emails back from sources saying things like, “Can’t use that. Can’t use that. Here’s what I meant to say.”
“In a sense, we would just lose these written quotes all together,” she said.
Zauzmer dealt with the policy as a reporter, but said in that role it was “hard to see that this is a problem that is happening to everyone.”
After she became managing editor, she saw how much this policy affected Crimson reporters’ coverage. She and then-Crimson President Ben Samuels decided that when they returned to campus in the fall, they would implement a no-quote-review policy.
Editors announced the Crimson’s new policy in a letter to its readers. By the end of the first semester of the new policy, only one mid-level administrator had not agreed to the policy, Zauzmer said.
“We were very glad that all other administrators at every level respected our new policy after some discussions,” Zauzmer said in an email, calling it “a victory” for those beat writers who dealt so much with the policy.
Reporting as a student journalist can be difficult for many reasons, and the job can be complicated by administrative policies that add distance between reporters and their sources, like Harvard administrators’ former policy of requiring quote approval.
Moreover, the problem is not isolated to certain campuses.
For instance, last fall, New York’s Ithaca College implemented a policy that required student media to contact media relations for any interviews with 84 administrators, according to Kelsey O’Connor, who was editor-in-chief of The Ithacan at the time. O’Connor said she was informed of the new gatekeeping policy during a back-to-school meeting with the president.
“We have never encountered anything like this before,” O’Connor said, adding that the policy made it easier for certain people to avoid interviews with The Ithacan.
“[It] eliminated the personal contact with 84 people who were running our college,” she said.
What was also frustrating was that the policy applied only to student media, O’Connor said. Other news organizations and even student reporters for classes did not have to follow the guidelines.
Ithacan staffers kept records of how the policy delayed their reporting, O’Connor said. They also kept track of how often they contacted certain administrators, like the president.
After seeing the effect the policy was having on the paper’s reporting, Ithacan editors decided to write about it, and O’Connor said the community showed a lot of support for the paper.
Within weeks, the college rescinded its policy. In the end, O’Connor said it led to many more people on campus making an effort to talk with the paper’s reporters and editors.
In extreme cases, journalists have been victimized by the misapplication of student conduct policies by sources who try to characterize ordinary news-gathering activity as a disciplinary infraction.
Cassie Negley, the editor-in-chief of The Stylus at State University of New York’s at Brockport, had student code of conduct charges brought against her after the newspaper published a story about money that was unaccounted for in the paper’s account, which is managed by the student government business manager.
She said members of student government brought the charges, which were eventually dropped, against her.
“We cover them harder and with more truth than has happened in years, and I’m sure that doesn’t make them happy,” Negley said.
She said the code of conduct officer that she met with told her that the other students said they were “intimidated” by her.
Negley has continued to report, but she said it’s always in the back of her mind that she must be aware of her conduct, because she doesn’t want to be told that she’s doing something wrong.
From a public relations standpoint, there are certain reasons colleges establish administrative policies to deal with media.
Felicia Blow, a member of the Public Relations Society of America’s national board of directors, said the goal of PR officials is to shape the reputation of the organization for which they work.
Blow, who is the vice president for institutional advancement at Paul D. Camp Community College in Franklin, Va., said organizations need to have a consistent message.
“You definitely have to shape the reputation of your organization,” she said, and the media plays a critical role in shaping public opinion.
She said she believed companies and schools have a right to ask their employees not to reveal certain information because it may disable the company from continuing to function.
In her role at Paul D. Camp Community College, she said she does not want faculty or staff running off and haphazardly talking to the media. She said they run the risk of damaging the reputation of the organization “that they alone can’t repair.”
The aims of journalists and media relations officers are different, but “the competing interests can still be supportive of one another,” Blow said.
She said that she believes in transparency for her school, but if she agreed to share everything with the media, then she wouldn’t be doing her job as a public relations officer.
Quote review is not something she would ask for, because it would insult the journalist working on the story, Blow said.
“Some people do,” she said. “I think it’s out-of-bounds.”
There are other ways that gatekeeping policies “can and do go too far under the law,” said Frank LoMonte, the executive director for the Student Press Law Center.
He said it’s certainly not constitutional for a public university to impose a complete gag on its employees.
If an employee wants to talk about certain problems on campus, like parking or safety, “then they absolutely have a constitutional right to do that,” LoMonte said.
An official spokesman for university policy can regulate access to people when the reporter is looking for a statement that is a matter of official college policy, he said, but if a reporter is looking for someone’s individual opinion, the policy can’t limit that person from sharing his or her views.
Ones of the ways gatekeeping policies can be overturned is for employees to protest the gags that are placed on them, he said. Even if policies are in place, there are ways student journalists can still report, he said.
First, LoMonte suggested using public record requests to get documents that might be a substitute for getting an actual interview.
Secondly, he suggested student reporters show up at events where the official would be easy to find for an interview. It can hard for them to elbow a reporter aside in public situations, he said.
“If you can’t stand up for yourself with a 20-year-old and a tape recorder, you probably shouldn’t be running a $500 million business,” he said.
Quote approval can also be a problem because student reporters want to avoid giving readers a sanitized version of the story, LoMonte said. A danger is that people will use that as a story to clean up after themselves or to seem more competent.
Students reporters should avoid being talked into a situation in which an administrator might demand quote approval as a term for an interview, he said.
A lot of the way administrators deal with the media is a matter of habit, he said, “and habits can be changed.”
Student government associations can be more difficult to get information from if they have their own administrative policies, LoMonte said. For instance, because they may not be government employees, not all email correspondences would be public record.
This year, for instance, reporters at the University of Pittsburgh’s Pitt News found themselves facing a new policy physically restricting access to student government offices.
If student journalist’s access is limited, they can always consider writing about the situation, LoMonte said. If all of the reasonably acceptable front door methods have failed, then public pressure is a viable option.
“Not only acceptable to write about obstructions,” he said, “it’s absolutely necessary.”
By Taylor Moak, SPLC staff writer.
reports, Spring 2013