ALABAMA — Student journalists at the University of Alabama said they are unable to easily interview school officials after the university implemented an unwritten policy that requires reporters to contact the school’s media relations office for access to university faculty and staff.
The controversy went public after a story published March 8 in the student newspaper, The Crimson White, detailed student journalists’ frustrations with the policy, which the story said started last summer when the university hired Media Relations Executive Director Deborah Lane to improve its public image.
Crimson White Editor in Chief Marlin Caddell said the since the new policy has been in place at the Tuscaloosa campus, it has “filtered” information from all levels of campus administrators — from low-level department directors to the university president.
Caddell said Lane told him “you go through us or you don’t get the sources.”
“It’s really creepy and something that I’m not accustomed to,” Caddell said. “They are limiting what we can do.”
University spokeswoman Cathy Andreen disputed Caddell’s claims, saying that all news outlets have to contact media relations to interview campus officials.
“Some people in the university prefer that all media — not just student media — go through media relations office for interviews,” Andreen said. “We may be a bit more formal about it now, but the students are getting the interviews they want almost all the time.”
But Doug Ray, executive editor of the Tuscaloosa News, said his reporters typically do not need to contact the media relations office to interview administrators. He said that regular staff turnover at student newspapers could be a reason for the problems.
“We have established relationships with folks,” Ray said.
Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate at the Student Press Law Center, said the policy could be considered censorship if The Crimson White is treated differently than other news outlets, as it “complicates the process for news stories to be written.”
“It’s an attempt to homogenize a message and that’s the worst reflection of an academic community you could have,” Goldstein said. “The best way to fight something like that is to not cooperate.”
Caddell said his newspaper has complied with the policy until now, but said if a source directed student reporters to the media relations department, the newspaper would print that they declined to comment.
“We don’t need to follow this policy,” Caddell said. “We’re going to defy it.”
Should the new policy remain in place, it would hurt student journalists’ ability to learn and build relationships with sources on campus, Caddell said.
“As student journalists, we have a high turnover rate,” he said. “There will be nobody who remembers how things used to be and an that this is an accepted way of doing things.”
Lane was unavailable for comment.
By Jared Taylor, SPLC staff writer