Editorial: Better media relations can only benefit CWRU’s community

Editorial Board

Journalism cannot exist without sources. In some cases, people are willing to share their experience or expertise on the record, with their name cited for reference. Other times, people  do not have this luxury because telling their story may threaten their employment or relationships. In both instances, stories are driven by sources.  

For college journalism, sources are equally as important—especially when seeking to address issues within the university. Students and faculty are commonly consulted for input on weekly articles. Moreover, many articles require direct input from the administration, which, for our purposes, includes anyone who is employed by Case Western Reserve University but is not a faculty member. Anytime The Observer would like to have input from Bon Appétit Management Company workers, directors of administrative offices or just to gain a general comment on an issue, we must go through Media Relations and Communications, which cites efficiency, accuracy and context as the justification for this process. 

It is common for universities to have a public relations process so student media organizations can ask questions to, and receive comments from, their administration. Private universities certainly face additional complexities compared to public schools, as the former are able to more tightly restrict information releases. That said, in the name of freedom of speech, there is no reason universities and their respective student media organizations should not have transparent and productive relationships. 

 We at The Observer feel that there could be drastic improvements in our professional relationship with Media Relations. The News and Opinion sections, and more recently our new Investigative team, contact Media Relations weekly for insight on campus-related events or concerns. These requests typically take two forms––we either request an interview with a specific person, or we request connection to someone who’s knowledgeable about a certain issue. Rather than an interview, we are typically advised to send a list of questions to which we’ll receive responses within three to five days. 

It is completely understandable that not all staff members have availability for an interview on short-notice—even with the ease of Zoom. However, there are real concerns with the university promoting written, question-based interviews rather than in-person ones. This is primarily problematic because the continuous use of these questions allow administrators time to consider, write and edit responses, as well as ignore inquiries. When journalists are able to interview workers live, we can more easily facilitate a conversation about students’ concerns and better understand how the university makes decisions. Moreover, we can urge interviewees to answer our questions instead of deflect.  

However, when we’re not offered this opportunity, we are forced to hope for productive responses to our questions. Unfortunately, we’ve had too many occurrences where administrators and Media Relations fail to answer our direct questions, and instead write a completely unrelated statement or try to deflect to another issue. We’ve seen this happen recently with staff members in University Health and Counseling Services and the Office of Sustainability—as well as many other offices. 

In response to this specific concern, Media Relations responded that a member of their team “consults with the individual(s) to whom the questions are posed to determine how best to respond to them. In some cases, answers are provided to each question; in others, the nature of the questions posed and/or the topic itself are more effectively addressed in a holistic manner.”  

We find this approach concerning due to its lack of transparency and refusal to have a productive conversation about issues affecting the student body and our community. 

Vice President for Student Affairs Lou Stark sent out an email last week about the recognition of Case for Life on the principle of freedom of speech. If our administrators are going to so adamantly involve themselves in the approval of clubs—including ones that a majority of the student population is concerned about—then they have an equal, if not greater, responsibility to explain these decisions and provide us thorough opportunities and insight into issues impacting us. The Observer exists, in part, as a connector between the administration and student body. As long as we continue to be kept at an arm’s length away, we cannot offer this important service. 

There is a nearly unanimous opinion among the Editorial Board that our relationship with Media Relations is poor, at best. We do not pursue pieces with the pure intent of attacking or criticizing the university. Rather, we seek to learn about the process behind institutional decisions to better inform the student body and encourage higher standards. However, when the university then fails to answer our questions, it leads us to further critique them for a lack of transparency and willingness to openly communicate with students. In other words, failing to respond to our inquiries hurts the whole CWRU community.  

The Observer would like to see Media Relations better engage with us, especially during the pandemic, when there is an increased number of student concerns. They can start by responding to our assigned questions, and may improve upon this relationship by encouraging staff members to take 15-30 minutes out of their day for an in-person interview.