Editor’s Note: When administrators, News Office think you’re the enemy

By Megan Bennett, Editor-In-Chief

For readers who have noticed the administration’s participation in articles shrinking each week, it is not because of The Chronicle’s lack of trying.

As readers can see in several Chronicle stories this week and many more throughout this semester, there has been a clear change in the college’s communication practices. Instead of in-person interviews with administrative sources, The Chronicle is now receiving emailed statements only—an insult to not only professional practices but also the expertise administrators have to offer.

The use of cookie-cutter statements is often expected in time crunches or more sensitive stories that may include accusations of misconduct from the administration, and The Chronicle accepts that. However, it has now become the norm even for non-controversial reports. In this week’s Page 4 story regarding the college’s  agreement to take in students from a closing college, a generally positive story, requests to speak with Columbia’s enrollment and student affairs leaders were denied and substituted with an email. Speaking with leaders from the closing college proved to be a much easier and informative experience than speaking with our own college’s staff. The university president even  directly offered her assistance.  

The same issue occurred with the Page 3 story regarding the dean search for the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences after a request to speak with Senior Vice President and Provost Stan Wearden about what  he will be looking for in a dean candidate, an interview that would likely take no more than 10 minutes.

What is the reason for Columbia’s secrecy?

It is unclear whether this change is coming from the very top or the News Office, but it is troubling, regardless. It shows an unwillingness to provide proper context for complex stories. Emailed statements don’t offer the ability to ask more nuanced questions or follow-ups, which are necessary to not only help navigate complicated issues but also ensure accuracy. The requested sources are knowledgeable in their field, and statements from the News Office, whose employees do not have the same expertise, do not have the same weight with readers. It can also cause unneeded questions: Are they not talking because there is a bigger issue being hidden?

This makes it more difficult to balance a story, particularly for controversial subjects, when the newspaper only receives short statements as the only other perspective. It unquestionably makes the college look bad and causes more harm to the administration. Emailed statements are not candor, they are a mask to hide behind and don’t allow college leaders to properly communicate.

Most importantly, it shows that the college administration, the News Office, or both, are unwilling or not interested in speaking with students or answering the questions of students who are simply trying to do their job and receive a professional journalism education. Often, Chronicle reporters are the only students with whom these two groups regularly correspond. However, they are not given the courtesy of a short interview that would allow the Columbia community to become better informed. If the administration is uninterested in speaking with representatives of the student body, perhaps working at a college shouldn’t be in their career path.

The Chronicle’s attempts to resolve this issue have not been successful and ignited accusations that this is a reporters’ problem, not the administration’s. It has not yet clicked that these students will come and go, but they are the ones here long term. This means that the inability to discuss major decisions will affect them more than the students who attend.

These administrators and spokespeople will—and have—set the tone of the college’s overall environment and communication tactics. The current status quo will not suffice, and it will perpetuate a climate of secrecy, paranoia and elitism.