December 2, 2020

An in-depth look at media policies and protocols at St. Louis-area schools

Like Webster University, several local institutions have protocols for how they handle media inquiries. The Journal contacted media relations’ department specialists at five area institutions, and four indicated that their school either doesn’t have a formal media policy or they had never seen a copy of one. Only one institution — Washington University — had a formal media policy that is available to read on the Internet.

Washington University

Steve Givens, WashU associate vice chancellor for public affairs, said his institution’s media policy has been in existence for a “long time.” WashU’s policy states: “… Because our scholarly, research and learning activities generate news media interest, faculty and students are encouraged to cooperate with reporters who express interest in talking with them about their areas of expertise.

“While there are guidelines that apply to news media seeking to visit the University’s campuses, members of the University community may speak to the news media without the permission or the presence of University administrators.”

Givens said the purpose of the media policy isn’t to restrict media access, but rather to help organize it. Because WashU is a private university, the policy can help the school keep track of which media outlets are speaking to the school’s faculty, staff, administration and students. But if reporters already know the sources they want to interview, they have free reign to do so.

“(Faculty) have the additional right of academic free speech,” Givens said. “We don’t need to be in the way for that unless my office can help the media find the right person. Many of our faculty will do interviews on their own — sometimes they tell us, sometimes they don’t. They don’t get their hands slapped if they don’t do that. Most administrators, if they get that kind of request, they will ask the media to give us a call first.”

Givens said the policy can apply to student media as well, but WashU gives the student media more leeway because of their status as a part of WashU’s community.

“I think student media are a part of our community, and if they have a faculty member or administrator they want to interview, they will go direct,” Givens said. “We don’t ask them to do anything different than that. They still do come to us because sometimes they’re looking for a university statement. But if they want to talk to the chancellor, they’ll call the chancellor’s office and ask to speak to the chancellor.”

Saint Louis University

Saint Louis University’s Jonathan Ernst, a senior communication and environmental studies major and editor-in-chief of The University News, a student-run newspaper, said SLU doesn’t have a formal media policy. Ernst said The University News falls under the school’s board of trustees, but still tries to operate as an independent agent from the college.

“We kind of try to keep it separate,” Ernst said. “In terms of for our sources and contacts, they pretty much treat us like we’re the Post-Dispatch or any other media agency. We try to have the divide where you’re a professional media agency rather than just an entity on campus that needs something from us at a certain time. They really do treat us with the respect that other media outside of here get from the school.”

SLU’s administration has butted heads with The University News in the past. Former University News Adviser Avis Meyer was removed from his position and banned from entering the newsroom in 2008. Meyer’s school-appointed replacement, Jason Young, advised The University News for four years before resigning in 2011.

Ernst said the tension that resulted from Meyer’s dismissal as adviser by SLU President Lawrence Biondi doesn’t really exist any more.

“From my vantage point, I’ve talked with the administration, to the other parties involved with that and honestly it’s just kind of the quality of the newspaper was No. 1 in everybody’s opinion, even upper administration,” Ernst said. “They want people to be quoted right, they want people to have accurate information. When the tension was there, our quality really wasn’t as well developed as we wanted it to be.

“I think we’ve really buckled down in the last several years to bring up the quality again, become reputable. The university completely trusts us to do our job, and we trust them to do their job. We really keep them in check, and honestly they keep us in check, making sure we’re quoting people right, asking people fair questions that aren’t loaded, recording people and asking them permission to be recorded if that’s appropriate. We’re doing the right things.”

Ernst said that even though the SLU adviser position has had its fair share of turnover during the past several years, Ernst and his staff have not hesitated to publish stories the administration might disagree with.

“I’ve been a part of some of the most hard-hitting stories that we’ve run,” Ernst said. “I’ve covered almost anything you can imagine that’s happened on a college campus for four years and I’ve never thought ‘Oh, man, SLU’s not going to like this.’ If we do good journalism, if we do our jobs, they can’t say anything about it.

“This is journalism, this is what we’re doing, this is what we’re chartered to do. If we do something that’s not journalistic, then yes, they have every right to do whatever they want, because that’s not in our charter. Our charter is to be a good journalism institution. If we do our job right, we don’t have any hesitation on that. That’s the stance we’ve had, and we’ve never felt scared to publish anything. If I hesitate to publish anything, it’s like, ‘This isn’t good journalism, guys. That’s crap.’”

St. Louis Community College-Meramec

Meramec President George Wasson said outside media are asked to go through the community relations department, which has representatives on all four STLCC campuses as well as the downtown administrative office, as a courtesy to let the department know there will be reporters coming on campus.

“I’ve been here for 25 years, and I’ve seen a pretty free flow of information,” Wasson said. “I think that’s not just with (Meramec’s student-run newspaper) The Montage, but with the media in general. We have people on and off the campus constantly — we’re inviting media to certain events. Whenever there’s representatives on campus, they talk with people, ask questions. Over the years, I can’t think of any real limitations I’ve seen on that.”

Shannon Philpott, Montage faculty adviser, said in her five years at Meramec, the faculty, staff and administration have been helpful in working with the community college’s student media. The Montage’s staff sends surveys to all sources to ensure the accuracy of quotes and information. Philpott said sources do not demand prior review, and Montage reporters do not show their finished stories to sources.

“(Being interviewed) is a personal decision for each faculty and staff member,” Philpott said. “I think they’re more willing to talk with student journalists because faculty members’ primary goal and mission is to help educate a student. So, by providing them that opportunity to work on interviewing skills and gathering information, they’re really fulfilling the mission they were brought on to fulfill. We have not had a lot of resistance from faculty members.”

Philpott said if both the media and sources have a high level of professionalism, a degree of trust will be built and sources will be more likely to consent to interviews.

“I think what administration and also what community relations needs to realize is if they are unwilling to participate in interviews and provide information, they’re causing a huge disservice to their students, readers and the community,” Philpott said. “Every story needs a balance and needs to be fair and accurate, and if you are not willing to provide those interviews or provide that information, you are really stifling what the reporter is trying to do.

“The misconception is that reporters are out to only cover the ugly stuff on campus. That’s not true. A student reporter’s role is to cover the good, the bad and the ugly — the reality of what the campus has to offer. Our administration realizes that we’re not a public relations venue. We’re not a newsletter or promotional material for the campus. We’re a newspaper, and that means we want to provide fair and balanced news for our students, but also for our faculty, staff and administration.”

Fontbonne University

Elizabeth Brennan, Fontbonne University senior communications and marketing coordinator, said the private school does not have a formal media policy, though it does have a protocol for handling media requests.

“Generally, we ask the media to contact our office and we can disseminate their request throughout the university,” Brennan said. “If a member of the media does contact administration or staff, we generally ask that they just communicate it with us, so that we can either help out or monitor the news for any mention of Fontbonne.”

Rachel Lalk, a Fontbonne University senior English major and editor-in-chief of The Fontbanner, a student-produced online publication, said at Fontbonne, sources decide if they want to be interviewed. She added Fontbonne’s small enrollment simplifies contacting sources for interviews.

“We have a lot of leeway as far as stories go,” Lalk said. “For the most part, we can do a story about anything. We have a professor who’s kind of the overseer of everything that’s getting done, but pretty much everything goes through me. If we wanted to do a story that’s pretty much going to blow the roof off of Fontbonne, we could. There’s always some hesitation with what exactly we want to have said, but as far as contacting people goes, we don’t have to run it by anybody.”

University of Missouri-St. Louis

Maureen Zegel, the University of Missouri-St. Louis’s assistant director of marketing and communications, said UMSL has had the same media protocol all 16 years she has worked at the public institution. Associate Vice Chancellor for Communications Bob Samples is UMSL’s official spokesperson. He handles stories related to the administration.

Zegel and her staff separate the university into a beat system. If a reporter wants to speak to an UMSL criminology expert, either Zegel or someone from her staff connects the reporter to the appropriate person. Zegel said student media as well as the media at-large likes to go through her department to get connected with the right experts.

“It’s a pretty open process,” Zegel said. “We are a public place, and I think that has a lot to do with it. Private schools in the area can say no to the news media. The media will call and say, ‘I want to come onto campus and talk to students about protests going on downtown.’ Well, a lot of times, campuses will say no. ‘We don’t want you interfering with the academic process. You can’t come on our campus.’ And they have the right to do that. Whereas this is a public space, a public university — (the media are) more likely to be here.”

Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville

Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville takes a similar approach as UMSL. Doug McIlhagga, SIUE’s director of marketing and external affairs, said the public school doesn’t have a formal media policy, but there are “structures and standards for handling certain inquiries, requests and situations.”

Media inquiries typically go through SIUE’s media relations’ specialists. The specialist takes the request to the authority on campus to see if he or she is willing to speak on the subject. If that’s the case, the specialist connects the authority with the reporter so that the interview can take place.

McIlhagga said the key to there being a good flow of communication between the media, public relations and the institution is for the media’s information requests to be accurate.

“It’s obviously that the request that comes in is actually what they are seeking, and that there is not some sub-subject or some other agenda lurking beneath the surface,” McIlhagga said. “If people get broadsided with something they weren’t anticipating, or the subject matter was supposed to be one topic and it was taken to a different one where people suddenly feel as if they’ve been ambushed, that will get people off on the wrong foot and will make people reticent in the future.”

SIUE Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Narbeth Emmanuel said for there to be a good communication flow between the media, the media relations’ department and the institution, all parties need to respect the policy or protocol that exists.

“I think the best way to strengthen and enhance any conversation is to value and respect the protocol that is in place,” Emmanuel said. “And for the media to really walk with the public relations office, since that office is most qualified and most able to respond in the most effective way with the media. And once that office feels it needs to contact other individuals, they ought to be able to do that.”

Maryville University

Maryville University’s Sue Davis, executive director of marketing and community relations, said Maryville has a protocol for handling media requests and will probably consider developing a media policy in the future. The media can freely contact sources at Maryville, while the marketing and community relations department will assist reporters if they need help getting connected to the proper sources.

“If (the media) already have a relationship with someone and know who they want to contact, we encourage them to do that,” Davis said. “It’s not that everything funnels through us. In our student media, I think it probably works both ways, depending on how familiar a student is with our campus when they’re writing for a student publication.

“Some of them would go directly to the faculty members involved or the administrator involved. It’s the administrator or faculty member’s decision on whether they conduct an interview. Then sometimes students call us if they’re looking for a certain angle and they’re not sure who would be the best contact. So it works both ways.”

Maryville’s Barb DeSanto, director of the communication program and a professor of communication, said from a faculty standpoint, the key to a good flow of communication is knowing the institution well.

“I think being able to pick up the phone and talk to people that need to be in the loop on what you are talking about,” DeSanto said. “Being familiar enough with other people to direct questions that other people could have good insight into is very helpful. Being a smaller institution where faculty know each other really does help with that, and we have an inside knowledge of what peoples’ specialties are, what their experiences are. I think that helps in directing media to the correct people.”

Missouri Press Association

Kent Ford, Missouri Press Association editor, has worked at MPA for 22 years. He said media relations’ departments are valuable resources, but reporters should have the ability to choose how they contact and request interviews with sources.

“I think it would be better if (reporters) could go straight to the source rather than go through a media department,” Ford said. “Then again, the media department might be very useful if you’re looking for some particular information. It might be helpful to go to the media department, tell them what you’re looking for, and they might be able to steer you in the right direction.”

To read Webster University’s media policy and why it is causing confusion and concern, click here.

Share this post

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail