At some universities, there are blurred lines between public relations and student media

This past fall, Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University’s Board of Trustees twice voted to remove University President Elmira Mangum from her position.

Both Oct. 20 votes — one for cause, the other a vote of no confidence — failed, with the vote of no confidence falling one vote short of a majority. Over the next nine days, a board member resigned and the chairman stepped down from his post.

FAMU Forward, found online at and branded as the university’s official news source, did not report any of the board’s actions or the subsequent campus-wide controversy.

Instead, those interested in the votes, the resignations and student protest surrounding the events could turn to The Famuan, the student-run newspaper at the university. is an administration-operated news outlet. Its relaunch in September caused controversy among the student journalists of the Famuan after Mangum said it will be a “real newspaper.” Mangum later walked back that comment and said the relaunch was a way to better provide updates for the university’s official communications, “especially in light of various blogs and other social media pages that misreport information about the university.”

“I respect the role of an independent student-run newspaper, and this site is separate and distinct from The Famuan,” she wrote. “In fact, many universities have an official administration news site and an official student-run news site.”

While many universities do have an official news site run by their public relations teams, some media onlookers have expressed concern that some colleges, like Florida A&M, have blurred the lines between journalism and public relations.

“There are a lot of different things that can be news, and a public relations person can make news. Anyone can make news, it doesn’t necessarily make it an act of journalism,” said Andrew Seaman, chair of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Ethics Committee. But disclosure is a must, he said.

“If there is something there that may somehow affect how you are reporting it, hopefully that would make that into the story somehow or be added as a footnote,” Seaman said. “If there is something coming from a university press office or marketing office, somewhere on their publication should be a disclaimer saying this is a piece of marketing or this is coming from a press office.”

The FAMU Forward has a notice that it is “powered by” the university communications office, and the website is trademarked to Florida A&M. But those disclosures are in small print at the bottom of the website, underneath a stream of stories about campus news and paid advertisements, causing some of the Famuan student journalists to remain uneasy about the distinction between the FAMU Forward and traditional news sites.

Famuan editor-in-chief Reggie Mizell, who did not respond to requests for comment, wrote an editorial criticizing the relaunch of FAMU Forward.

He was especially concerned about the financial imbalance, he wrote. While the FAMU Forward has sponsors and advertisers, the Famuan is in the midst of a budget struggle and is only able to support one publication a semester.

“In our efforts to raise money for the publications, the president and administrators seem to have found support for their new publication,” Mizell wrote. “They have managed to get money from organizations to support a publication that has not proven it can succeed.”

Florida A&M alumna Clarece Polke, who worked at the Famuan when she was in college, said she’s concerned that FAMU Forward will work to squeeze out objective, potentially critical, voices in the media — which, she said, is especially troublesome because it has institutional advantages over the student newspaper.

“The role of the public relations department is to manage the reputation of the university — not produce the news, not produce a newspaper,” said Polke, who is now a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter. “The role of PR and the student newspaper are completely different and you need that critical voice.”

Varying levels of disclosure

The level of disclosure among universities’ public relations departments vary. Some are clear and obvious, like hosting the news website on the university’s domain address. Others are a little more suspect, like proclaiming the university publication to be the “official” news source.

The University of Missouri-Saint Louis also publishes a news website, the UMSL Daily, which styles itself as an online newspaper of sorts. Unlike the news website at FAMU, the site is hosted on the university’s .edu domain.

“Because of the volume of university news items and stories written by our small (but prolific) team of writers, we’re able to update the website daily during the school week, thus the name,” said Ryan Heinz, UMSL Daily editor and university communications manager, in an email.

But Heinz said UMSL Daily does not see itself as competing with the weekly student newspaper, the Current.

“Our content is more comparable to what you would find on other university and college websites,” he said.

Heinz was once a student editor himself at The Western Courier at Western Illinois University.

“We also provide the student journalists with information for their stories, and we always make ourselves available when staff members of the Current seek career advice,” he said. “After all, we were once in their shoes.”

Unlike FAMU Forward, USML Daily does not seek advertisements. Instead, they direct advertisers that contact the publication to the student newspaper, Heinz said.

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the communications department launched a blog, On the Record, this past fall to address “negative” aspects of press coverage. The university has been plagued by scandals in recent years, including academic fraud that disproportionately benefited athletes.

The first post on the blog was a letter to the campus newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel. Joel Curran, vice chancellor of communications and public affairs, criticized the student newspaper’s editorial board for failing to speak with Chancellor Carol Folt, who — according to the blog post — was willing to be interviewed and whose input would have benefitted multiple editorials.

“Seems like the editorial board is already swinging, and in this case, missing,” Curran wrote.

A later blog post claimed that a statement in the Daily Tar Heel attributed to a campus administrator was not “a complete representation” of what he said.

Daily Tar Heel editor-in-chief Paige Ladisic said while she would prefer that administrators make their points in the pages of the student newspaper, she isn’t offended by the university blog. “I want the administration to respond when they feel that they have been misquoted or inaccurately represented or when they’re just angry at us, because there are a lot of days that they are just angry at us even when we’re right,” she said.

But Ladisic said she doesn’t feel that the blog is a good use of university resources or the best way to respond to the DTH’s articles. “I think that … writing a letter to the editor is a far smarter way to do that, but they’ve chosen to do it in their own way as the university tends to do,” she said.

UNC already had a public relations publication, the University Gazette, which, like UMSL Daily, is presented as a news website but lives on the UNC domain, along with On the Record.

Rooting for the home team

At Indiana University, a controversial partnership for students in the sports media program has caused some to worry that the division between journalism and university public relations has been blurred out of existence.

On September 22, the university announced a partnership between the Media School and Indiana’s athletic department that “will significantly enhance coverage of IU sports while providing students with access to unique sports media facilities.”

The move comes on the heels of a consolidation of the School of Journalism, Department of Communications and Culture and the Department of Telecommunications into the Media School, which took place at the start of the 2014-15 school year.

The partnership will allow students studying at the Media School opportunities to work with the university’s athletics department to gain experience in broadcasting and production, including making “marketing and promotional videos” and running IU Athletics’ social media accounts. Students also have the opportunity to create “fan-focused content,” which could include writing, audio and video, graphic design and media relations.

But critics say the partnership puts journalism students in a precarious situation. In an editorial published by the Indiana Daily Student, the partnership was cast as “a misguided merger.”

“True journalistic integrity does not seem to be the focus of this partnership,” the editorial read. “And the Editorial Board believes this relationship has broken the healthy and necessary separation between independent news organizations and the athletics department. How can audiences know with certainty the truth is being told? How do we know that IU Athletics won’t keep information from its reporters? In this case, we cannot. Trust is lost when interests conflict.”

Sports editor Taylor Lehman at the IDS declined to comment for this article, saying he and the paper’s staff were uncomfortable sharing their perspective since they covered the issue and wanted to retain their journalistic integrity.

In an interview, Media School Dean James Shanahan said the partnership will not affect the integrity of the independent student media at the university.

“I think some good points were raised [with some of the recent criticism]. I just want to stress that there was never and nor has there ever been any real institutional change that would threaten the independence of any of our student media,” he said. “More to the contrary, I used the opportunity to tell them, by all means — if you wish to write articles that are critical of this partnership or of me or of the school or whatever, please do so because it makes the point that we really don’t control them.”

Still, media professionals have been skeptical of the unusual arrangement. When media blogger Jim Romenesko posted about the partnership on Facebook, criticism flowed in.

“Dean James Shanahan’s nuanced explanations do not wipe away the fundamental ethical problems he tries to blur,” wrote David Cay Johnston, an investigative reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner at Al-Jazeera America. “This is a bright line test unless you believe students in the partnership will never be journalists, just flacks and functionaries for the sports industry.”

Seaman said it isn’t necessary for journalism students to avoid elective courses that instruct in public relations, but the overall journalism curriculum should remain free from unnecessary entanglements.

“If they’re a journalism student, universities should stick with teaching them journalism to be sort of traditional journalists, and that means unbiased, free of [any] conflicts of interest to produce [unbiased] content,” Seaman said. “Otherwise they should probably just give kids their money back and stop pretending to be a journalism school.”

Despite the critiques, Shanahan said he thinks the formal partnership allows the school to best serve the needs and wants of students across disciplines in the Media School.

“Our school — not just in the area of sports, but in all areas — tries to be as broad as possible and focusing on any of the communication careers that people can have,” he said. “It’s obviously not just journalism. It includes public relations, advertising, the studying of media from a social scientific perspective, the study of media from a humanistic perspective.”

Journalism at a crossroads

Since the 1980s, the number of public relations professionals has grown substantially, while the number and salary of journalists has largely stagnated.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 2004 and 2013, the number of public relations professionals grew by more than 36,000, while the number of reporters and correspondents shrunk by 8,920. During the same period, the median income for reporters and correspondents decreased by about $3,000 in 2014 dollars, while public relations professionals saw a $900 increase in purchasing power at the median.

In the book “The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution That Will Begin the World Again,” authors Robert McChesney and John Nichols warn that with newsrooms collapsing and journalists switching careers to public relations, “the waters of editorial integrity” are muddying.

“As editorial staffs shrink, there is less ability for news media to interrogate and counter the claims in press releases,” they wrote. “And powerful interest will be better positioned than ever to produce self-promotional ‘information’ — better described as ‘propaganda’ — that can masquerade as ‘news.’” 

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