NEW YORK — Student reporters of The Saint Rose Chronicle used to freely interview employees of The College of Saint Rose in Albany, but since 2017, that access has been slowly taken away from them, they said.
Aileen Burke, former executive editor at The Chronicle said that starting in 2017, employees who were usually happy to go on the record stopped speaking to them. Then, in the middle of fall 2019, after a new media policy had been instituted, the staff started getting the same message from most employees they reached out to for interviews: “All media requests should be directed to the marketing department.”
In December, Burke and her Journalism II class published an article in The Chronicle detailing their struggle with speaking with college employees.
Because Saint Rose is a private college, employees aren’t afforded the same First Amendment protections as those at public schools. Employees at private schools can be fired or otherwise punished for saying something the administration doesn’t like, Student Press Law Center Staff Attorney Sommer Ingram Dean said.
“Because they’re a private school, they don’t have to be accountable like a public institution, but just because you don’t have to be accountable doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be,” Burke said in a phone interview.
When the student paper reaches out to a source within the college, they’re now often referred to Jennifer Gish, associate vice president for marketing and communications. Gish’s arrival at the college in 2017 marked the start of student press members losing access to interviewing as many employees as they had before, Burke said.
Gish said the college’s media policy, which was instituted in March 2019, doesn’t prevent employees from speaking to the media on their own accord about their personal opinions.
“Our employee media policy, which is similar to the policies of numerous colleges and universities, is a guideline that we ask employees to follow when media (including student media) are seeking the College’s official position or College-wide information,” Gish wrote in a statement to the SPLC.
The policy states that employees should refer any media requests seeking the institution’s comment to public relations. Employees are also asked to notify public relations if the media requests their comment on individual work.
Burke said The Chronicle is still allowed to interview employees, but that Gish is usually present at group interviews. Gish and other employees have also requested that Chronicle reporters send questions in advance of certain interviews.
Requiring that all questions be filtered and scrubbed by a public relations person before they can be answered feels like a cowardly way to shield sources from accountability.
“Funneling reporters through a PR person has the potential of keeping the full truth at bay,” Dean wrote in an email. “Forcing reporters to ask their questions through PR or requiring a PR person to be present during interviews can keep discussions about important topics on the surface level rather than allowing the reporter to have an earnest conversation with their source that isn’t watered down or bent to the preference of PR.”
The Chronicle quoted SPLC Senior Legal Counsel Mike Hiestand as calling the restrictions “ridiculous” in their December article about the crackdown on access.
“It’s truly unfortunate that St. Rose students are required to filter their questions about the school through a PR office instead of being allowed to simply call and conduct an interview with those whose salaries their tuition dollars are paying for,” Hiestand told the SPLC in an email. “Requiring that all questions be filtered and scrubbed by a public relations person before they can be answered feels like a cowardly way to shield sources from accountability.”
Gish told The Chronicle there aren’t any repercussions for violating the policy, but Burke said some employees told her they believe they’ll face retaliation for speaking to the media.
“The lack of First Amendment accountability can have a chilling effect on these teachers and faculty members who must be all-too-aware of how saying the wrong thing to media could land them in hot water,” Dean said.
Saint Rose alumni penned a letter to the editor, which was published Jan. 14 in The Chronicle, calling for all alumni to stop donating to the college until they change their media policy.
Putting a barrier between students and the truth and calling it learning is not a good practice
“Now, more than ever, we must encourage the voices of our younger generation to be inquisitive and fight back against injustice,” the 29 Saint Rose graduates wrote. “However, in an effort to save face, the administration has decided to risk stunting this generation’s growth as well as to tie the hands of its employees and students in a bid to control the narrative. A narrative they wish to skew in their favor at the cost of employee freedom and student learning.”
Isaiah “Shy” Agojo, one of the letter’s authors, said when he was a senior at Saint Rose in 2016, he made a documentary about the firings of some faculty members, and he was able to interview a number of employees. Agojo said that documentary taught him to “speak truth to power,” and if students can’t do that now, education at Saint Rose has gone downhill.
Agojo said he was most frustrated about the college saying navigating through public relations is good practice for student journalists.
“Putting a barrier between students and the truth and calling it learning is not a good practice … That’s the logic of big companies and four year olds,” Agojo said.
Burke said she didn’t see any former Chronicle staffers on the letter’s list of names — they’re just a group of concerned former students.
“They all sent that letter purely and genuinely out of concern for the state of information and learning at the school, which I think was pretty clearly illustrated,” Burke said.
The Chronicle hosted a panel Friday Jan. 24, ahead of Student Press Freedom Day to speak about the state of reporting at Saint Rose.
Burke, former Chronicle editor Jackson Wang, current co-executive editor Emily Paolicelli, Saint Rose professor Angela Langford and Chronicle advisor Cailin Brown sat on the panel to discuss student press censorship, and the importance of the media, according to an article on The Chronicle website. Around 50 Saint Rose community members attended.
“My favorite part of the whole night was how loud the library was after the panel. It was the loudest I’d ever heard it. Apparently the audience had a lot to talk about, which was great,” Brown said.
Brown, the journalism department chair, has been at Saint Rose for 15 years, and has advised The Chronicle for around 12, she said. On Friday, for the first time Brown knows of, the marketing department emailed all school employees the media policy. She said the email was sent out just before the panel started, but the administration didn’t say anything about the event afterward.
Brown said the policy has slowed down her students’ reporting and researching process, and prevents important information from getting to the Saint Rose community.
“We’re opening up the discussion because we want to show people that this is an issue at our school, and maybe more than they know,” Burke said.
Student Press Freedom Day takes place on Wednesday Jan. 29, 2020. Learn more about it here.
Correction: A previous version of this story said Gish often asks to sit in on interviews, we corrected it to clarify this is only for group interviews (where reporters are talking with multiple sources). We also clarified that several employees have asked to be sent questions in advance of interviews.
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