For education reporters, PR staff increasingly limit access to sources

Last year, Emma Nelson was working on a story investigating a clinical drug trial that took place at the University of Minnesota about a decade ago. She wanted to talk to a school official about some allegations surrounding the handling of the trial, so she set up an in-person interview.

During the conversation, the official veered off-topic in response to one of the questions, Nelson said. She tried to pull him back in, but a communications representative (who was also present) stepped in to attempt to “explain” the dynamics of the case. It was hard to get the conversation back on track: The communications representative kept trying to interject when Nelson really wanted to hear firsthand from the other official, and she walked away feeling like she didn’t get substantial answers to her questions.

The repeated interruptions were “jarring,” she said, and at that point she wasn’t used to that kind of outside supervision during an interview.

Since then, though, Nelson and others — at The Minnesota Daily and campus news outlets across the country — have found themselves growing increasingly accustomed to such reporting constraints. They’re getting canned statements, losing access to top officials, being shut out of interview opportunities or, if they can get an interview, being asked to do so under highly controlled conditions.

Some of the obstacles facing student media are par for the course in any reporting job: Delayed responses, tough-to-reach sources, officials who want to protect an institution’s reputation —the list goes on.

At colleges and universities, though, public information offices and restrictive media relations practices can make it especially difficult for students who lack the years of reporting experiences that might teach them how to navigate around public relations barriers. Student reporters can also be more cautious by virtue of attending the same institution they’re trying to hold accountable.

To student and professional media alike, universities’ attempts to stifle reporters’ questions are even more troublesome when you consider the setting.

“Colleges should be a place where students are encouraged to question, and universities should be open, transparent environments of thought, thinking and discussion,” said David Cuillier, president of the Society of Professional Journalists. “Of all institutions in this country, universities should be completely open to all sorts of criticism and debate … So it is ironic when universities end up being some of the most secretive, closed and controlling institutions in the nation.”

Reporting with more restrictions

In her role as the managing editor of The Minnesota Daily last year, Nelson found herself trying to coach reporters to work around ever-tightening restrictions on communications with campus officials.

“Our access has become increasingly limited in a short amount of time, and is constantly getting worse,” Nelson wrote in a response to an informal Student Press Law Center survey. “It’s disturbing to all of us, and is something we’re teaching reporters to work around.”

The Daily has policies against sending specific interview questions in advance or conducting email-only interviews, Nelson said, and editors stress those rules to new reporters. What Nelson really worries about, though, are more tightly controlled reporting conditions that her peers might — knowingly or unknowingly — be accepting as the norm.

A few administrators will talk to the Daily directly, she said — but even in those cases, a public relations representative is always present. Some reporters have noted that even “long-time sources” throughout the university have recently started redirecting their interview requests to the University News Service for approval, Nelson said.

Some student reporters, especially those who are just starting out at the Daily, “don’t necessarily have the confidence to push back against that or realize they can, or don’t fully realize their access is being cut off in some way,” Nelson said.

When Nelson started out, lining up unsupervised interviews without prior approval from a central office wasn’t an issue. In the last year or so, though, she said it’s become increasingly common for employees across the university — admissions officers, clerical workers, custodians, the general counsel — to have someone sit in on the conversation. (It’s less of an issue with professors, she said.)

Nelson asked the communications office about the practice recently, and she was told that no specific instructions had been given to require departments to supervise interviews.

Sometimes communications officials will mediate plans for an interview in advance, asking for specific information about the questions to be asked or other details about the potential story. Other times, Nelson said she’s shown up to an interview with a source and has been surprised to see someone from university relations there without any advance warning.

Still, the Daily’s relationship with the university’s communications office is generally diplomatic — student journalists have a fine line to walk if they want to preserve the access they do have, Nelson explained.

“We try and stay friendly with them — a lot of times they’re our only option,” she said. “If we want to talk to the administration, we typically don’t have any choice but to go through them.”

At George Washington University, the staff of The GW Hatchet encounters similar constraints. For every interview with a university administrator, student reporters must send specific questions to a media relations representative several days in advance, said former managing editor Sarah Ferris. They can also expect someone from the media relations office to sit in on the interview — which sometimes results in scheduling delays, if the PR representative has a conflict.

Brianna Gurciullo, former news editor and now editor-in-chief, said it’s especially difficult to veer off-script when someone from media relations is present.

“In cases where we do bring up [other] questions, this person will jump in and say, ‘It’s not fair, you didn’t give this person time to prepare,’” she said.

That’s happened in response to questions about residence hall renovations, campus police patrols and other topics — even in conversations with officials whose job it is to oversee such issues — Ferris and Gurciullo said.

Hatchet reporters are actively discouraged from trying to talk to school officials after university events, outside of more formal interview settings, Ferris said. They’re also relegated to a far side of the room at Board of Trustees meetings, she said, where they must ask to speak to the officials present and must wait for officials to be escorted to the press table by media relations representatives.

In-person and otherwise, the university’s tendency to decline comment has been so prevalent that the Hatchet started devoting a space in each print edition to pointing out “What the University Won’t Talk About This Week.” (It’s appeared at the top of the opinions page in each issue since February 2013, and 2013-14 editor Cory Weinberg said the Hatchet had no trouble finding things “to call GW out on.”)

Ferris and Gurciullo stressed that there are exceptions to the culture of “micromanaging the message” — there are sources within the university who are genuinely responsive and who understand the Hatchet’s goals toward informing the campus.

But officials’ attempts to stifle questions at upper levels of the university have trickled down to other departments within the university, even to some student groups. Beyond creating a rift between student reporters and top officials, Ferris said such restrictions make it “very difficult to talk to any of the middlemen in office — anyone who’s actually shaping policy or studying problems or dealing with students.”

The Hatchet reporters understand that GWU is a complex institution, Gurciullo said, and that’s why they want to understand the nuances of the issues facing their university — so that they can communicate those accurately to their readers.

“There’s definitely cases where students are not getting information to be able to understand really kind of murky processes — like the campus judicial system, campus police processes, the way financial aid works and the way the administration works,” Gurciullo said. “There’s a lot of missing context in stories that we’re finding in other ways.”

Students and pros share similar struggles

If nothing else, students can rest assured that they’re not the only ones experiencing tight controls from public information officials. In 2013, the Education Writers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists teamed up to examine the relationship between journalists and public information offices at schools of all levels.

While a majority of the 190 respondents “said they had a positive working relationship with the [public information officers] on their beat,” those surveyed still indicated frequent attempts from school officials to control interview conditions or otherwise restrict media access.

Eighteen percent said officials (public information officers or administrators) monitor their interviews most of the time or all of the time, according to the survey. Many also reported that interview requests are re-routed through public information officers: 15.1 percent said it happens “all the time,” 22.1 percent said it happens “most of the time” and 39.5 percent said it happens at least “some of the time.”

The impact of these barriers were also apparent to many surveyed. About 76 percent agreed (“strongly” or “somewhat”) that “the public is not getting all the information it needs because of barriers schools, institutions or departments are imposing on journalists’ reporting practices.” Meanwhile, 63.4 percent also said they considered the controls they faced to be “a form of government censorship.”

The survey also included stories from reporters, all anonymous, about the reporting roadblocks they’ve encountered. One reporter, for example, said employees at one school district “are prohibited from talking to the media without approval from the PR department.” In another response, a reporter said “there is a very high level of discussion about my newsgathering activities almost every time I make a phone call” — something that became apparent thanks to public records requests for email communication.

Several shared stories of being cut off from certain departments or officials altogether because of their reporting.

“I was banned from speaking to the head of University Police after I had exposed that the previous chief was a convicted felon,” one reporter wrote.

Overall, the takeaways were mixed: Despite the challenges facing some reporters, others were eager to point out that they’ve had positive experiences with PR offices.

To Cuillier of SPJ, the survey results nonetheless painted a bleak picture for professional journalists — but he said he suspects conditions are even worse for students. Cuillier, also the director of the University of Arizona School of Journalism, said the inherent power imbalance between students and administrators can make it all too easy for students to feel hesitant to push back against campus media restrictions.

“I have seen universities and administrators bully students and intimidate them, try to get them to hold off stories or even saddle them with threats of retaliation,” he said. “Even if they don’t do anything, just the fact that they can is a chilling force.”

At GWU, the Hatchet staffers said they’ve frequently heard lectures from media relations officials on what is and isn’t newsworthy. At the University of Minnesota, Nelson also said the tightened public relations controls have been “couched in language about helping student reporters learn their beats.”

“Many of our interactions … center on the fact that we’re students who need help learning to report,” she said.

Teresa Valerio Parrot, a former media relations staffer at the University of Colorado who now provides consulting on the issue to colleges and universities, said it’s important to keep in mind that some of actions from media relations personnel aren’t inherently malicious.

For example, she said she finds it helpful to have a staff member sit in on an interview to coordinate any necessary follow-up — like locating certain data points that might have been referenced by the main subject. The same goes for routing interviews through a central communications office, she said: That could be a way to make sure a journalist’s questions are answered promptly and thoroughly, not a way to delay.

When using these or other tactics, Valerio Parrot said PR staff need to be mindful of their role: “They’re not there as a roadblock, they’re there as a gateway to information.”

Universities need to keep in mind the critical role that student journalists play, Valerio Parrot said: They deliver news to the school’s “most important audience,” its students.

“Student media, specifically, can ask a different type of question because of who they are and what experiences they bring to the table and can help admin to share that news across their campus as well,” Valerio Parrot said.

To allow student journalists to fulfill their responsibility, she said, “we have a responsibility to give them the information they need to tell their story.”

“When administrators have difficulty separating the student’s role as a journalist and role as a student, that’s where I see issues,” she said. “Interviews are not a time for a teachable moment, they’re not a time for a paternalistic role. They’re a time to recognize their role as journalists, to treat them accordingly and to give them what they need to meet their job requirements.”