To the students, faculty and staff of Webster University,
Recently, our university’s media policy has caused confusion and concern for many members of the Webster community. Since the beginning of the semester, The Journal has heard different interpretations of this policy from faculty, staff and administrators alike.
On Jan. 6 of this year, I was called in to a meeting with Barbara O’Malley, associate vice president and chief communications officer, and media relations specialist Susan Kerth. In this meeting, I was informed of a new media policy that would require any media seeking interviews with Webster University administration to go through the public affairs and public relations offices to get the necessary information.
This seemed straightforward and simple enough to me at the time. But in following this new procedure, we at The Journal began experiencing discrepancies between what we’d been told by public affairs and what was happening when students began reporting stories.
I want to make it clear that it was this disparity between the written policy we received (which is available on our website) and what seemed to have been communicated to faculty and staff that motivated us to investigate freedom of information on our campus. As both a student and a journalist, I understand the importance of going through the proper avenues to get accurate information.
What became clear to me was that some faculty and staff felt their voices were being stifled. Employees were saying, “I can’t talk to The Journal.”
People we’ve spoken to on a regular basis, teachers and even student employees, told Journal writers they couldn’t speak to us without permission.
The written policy we received states that administration, faculty and staff are encouraged to speak with media regarding their area of expertise. But when Journal staff writers approached people who would seemingly be experts, they were turned away. When an unknown substance was found in the Admissions office, I asked Kerth for permission to speak with both Admissions employees and Public Safety officers. I was given a press release, but could not get a comment from either of those groups.
We were told that reporters can no longer approach President Elizabeth Stroble’s office directly to request interviews. In writing a story about the residence Webster’s Board of Trustees bought to serve as a president’s home, I requested either a comment or an interview from Stroble. A week later, I was given a press release from the public affairs office, but was not allowed an interview or personal comment.
It was these situations, along with confusion as to what faculty and staff were allowed to say, that led us to write the article “Media policy causes confusion, concern” which you find on the front page of this issue.
I feel it is important for the university readers to know that Larry Baden, our faculty advisor and professor, was not a contributor in any way to this article. It is against our policy to use Journal staff as sources in our stories. On top of that, Baden removed himself the editing or consulting process after being invited to speak at The Faculty Senate regarding the policy. As Editor-in-Chief, I removed myself from the reporting process as well. I knew I wanted to write this letter to the readers and could not report on a subject I would then write about in the opinion section.
Regardless of the number of times we receive “no comment,” The Journal will continue to provide the Webster students and community with the information they need to know. In some ways, the media policy is pushing us to become better reporters and writers — it encourages us to pursue in-depth coverage from a variety of sources. The bottom line is, every day you will find this paper online and on newsstands around campus.
As an academic institution, Webster should support a free flow of information and ideas. How else can learning, or growth, take place? This new media policy, not in the writing but in the interpretation, seems to be limiting speech. That is not the Webster I am used to.
In interviews and releases, O’Malley and Stroble have both stressed that this media policy is intended only for administrative office use, and that it has been misunderstood. I truly hope that in the next few weeks this policy will be clarified. I want this to be a misinterpretation only, and I hope everyone in the Webster community will again feel comfortable expressing themselves.