Editorial: Cal State Fullerton’s treatment of media presents huge transparency issues

In Editorials, Top Stories

front_stdIn recent semesters, CSUF media relations officials have developed a shameful track record of delaying and denying inquiries from Daily Titan reporters.

Strategic Communications, the department that oversees media relations, has kept the university so tight-lipped that a great deal of information important to the interests of the CSUF’s students, faculty, staff and parents has gone unpublished.

CSUF media relations officials block the Daily Titan’s access to administrators and require reporters to submit all questions through email, denying requests for in-person or phone interviews. When a response is received, sometimes more than a month later, the information it contains is often watered-down, filtered and written by a media relations officer.

“It’s a terrible practice that signals an organization that is hiding something,” Frank LoMonte, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center, a nonprofit legal assistance agency that advocates for student First Amendment rights said. “It shows a lack of transparency, a lack of accountability and is also an indicator that the institution has much bigger problems.”

A small sample of stories that have met this type of roadblock includes coverage of how the university handles rape accusations, expired elevator permits, campus deferred maintenance, new trash cans on Titan Walk, the smoking ban and a profile story about a campus custodian.

“It’s a terrible practice that signals an organization that is hiding something… It shows a lack of transparency, a lack of accountability and is also an indicator that the institution has much bigger problems.” – Frank LoMonte, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center, a nonprofit legal assistance agency that advocates for student First Amendment rights.

Even a story about the university swapping grass lawns with drought-tolerant plants was met with obstruction and a refusal to grant an in-person interview with an official. For weeks, the reporter corresponded with Christopher Bugbee, the director of Media Relations as he served as a go-between between the reporter and administrators.

In an email forwarded to the Daily Titan on Nov. 5, 2014 answering the plant inquiry, Bugbee made this remark to a university official about answering a reporter’s question: “Handled—off the hook ‘til early next week. I’m hoping they’ll get tired of this and go with what they have.”

The above response is not an isolated incident. For years, Bugbee has been rude and unprofessional with Daily Titan reporters. His actions are not appropriate as a representative of the university.

These actions are a failure on the part of a public official to be accessible and to provide public information on the university in a timely manner. The plant inquiry shows an attempt to use delaying tactics to purposefully kill a story.

A reporter might expect to be stonewalled when an administrator is trying to hide something, but the fact that even the most innocuous stories are being met with firm roadblocks sends the message that the university does not hold transparency as a priority.

In response to an inquiry on university media relations policy in February, Bugbee, a university spokesman, denied that he is responsible for a decrease in access to administrators, but that the blame lies with university President Mildred García.

In a Tuesday, Feb. 3 email, Bugbee wrote that when compared to interaction with the media under President Milton Gordon, “Under President García, the rules of media engagement have clearly shifted to a more centralized, less free-wheeling process.”

We believe the university is better than hiding the truth from the public it serves.

When a media relations official does return responses to a reporter, they contain a disclaimer that states, “All information in this email is provided on background and may neither be quoted nor attributed to specific individuals without negotiation case by case.”

The Daily Titan does not agree to these terms and, therefore, is under no obligation to abide by this disclaimer, LoMonte said.

“Under President García, the rules of media engagement have clearly shifted to a more centralized, less free-wheeling process.” – Christopher Bugbee, director of Media Relation and University Spokesman

In-person and phone interviews are key to the journalistic process and to deny them allows the university a massive opportunity to conceal public information. Denying the news media the opportunity to question university administrators directly is an intolerable disservice to the students who bankroll the majority of the university’s operating fund.

When Strategic Communications mediates a media inquiry, the interaction almost never ends with an in-person interview.
This semester, despite a long, cordial relationship with the Daily Titan, even University Police officials are now required to submit to mediation by Strategic Communications.

Media relations officials must change their interactions with the Daily Titan so that we might better achieve our objective of serving students and everyone else at CSUF by providing campus news in a timely and accurate manner.

Interception on the part of Strategic Communication limits our breadth of understanding on university issues. Interception does not give university administrators an opportunity to provide explanation or context to a reporter and allows far too much opportunity to avoid addressing issues.

Key to remember is that university communications policy does not require university officials to submit to mediation by Strategic Communications.

According to campus media policy, Strategic Communications’ media relations office exists as a resource to aid media inquiries but that “members of the campus community” can “elect to speak with the news media directly, including the Daily Titan.”

A small handful of campus administrators do elect to speak directly with the Daily Titan, citing a need for contextualized information in reporting and increased accuracy.

We applaud these people and urge more administrators to follow their example.

We urge President García to take notice and put a stop to the unreasonable actions by her Strategic Communications department.

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9 commentsOn Editorial: Cal State Fullerton’s treatment of media presents huge transparency issues

  • Great editorial. And it’s worth noting that while the issue sounds more widespread and coordinated now, it has deep roots. When I was the editor of the Titan in the late ’80s and we did a series on the Business school teetering on losing its accreditation, we faced the same roadblocks. The administration not only wouldn’t acknowledge our inquiries, but officials threatened our positions at the paper and its funding after they realized our reporting would reveal truths they didn’t want public. Good times. Keep at it Titan staff!

  • MaryAnne Shults

    Five stars – excellent editorial! Kudos to the staff, both past and present. This was happening years ago too (and to read Andre’s comment below, sounds like this has been an issue for decades). (DT staff reporter, 2010)

  • Walter Baranger

    Outstanding. Simply outstanding, and a great example of giving a
    governmental body plenty of time to ponder its policy before resorting
    to a front-page response.

    That Daily Titan has a long history of defending the principles of open government and a vigorous student press.

    In the early 1980s I was the Daily
    Titan’s managing editor and was threatened with arrest when I refused to
    leave a student government meeting that was being closed in violation
    of the state’s Ralph M. Brown Act. The meeting stayed open.

    More than a
    decade earlier, bundles of The Daily Titan were illegally seized by
    state officers because Governor Reagan’s administration objected to the
    coverage of student protests on campus.

    Because the student body
    is virtually replaced every five or six years and the university relies
    on adjunct faculty who may not have many years of service at CSUF, even
    recent lessons in campus openness quickly dissipate. This is a reminder
    that the C.S.U. system is a government body, and an important one to
    every Californian.

    I congratulate The Daily Titan’s editors on a
    thoughtful and measured response to this threat to the public’s right to
    know. Congratulations also to The DT’s adviser, Bonnie Stewart, and the
    dean of the College of Communications, Dr. S. Irene Matz, on fostering
    an atmosphere in which these student journalists felt that they could
    air this important matter.

    No doubt they’ll hear from President
    Mildred García. If President García is the smart person I think she is,
    that inevitable meeting will give her an opportunity to announce that
    henceforth journalists seeking interviews with campus officials will be
    accommodated on the record by either the requested official or a direct manager.

    the students who invest much of the their savings and future income in
    pursuit of a Cal State Fullerton degree, I urge you to continue to
    support The Daily Titan in print and electronically. You chose to attend
    a public university – an outstanding one, at that – and so you have a
    right to know where your money and your fortunes are going, and that your
    personal safety is secure during your time on campus. That’s the Daily
    Titan’s job.

    To President García: The good news is that you’ve
    got some fearless and talented Daily Titan editors who are ready for the
    job market. I can’t think of a downside to that; can you?

    And to the alumni, the trustees of the
    California State University and the public: Why is there no system-wide C.S.U. goal
    to reflect the spirit of open government? Must the state legislature prod
    the trustees? Or is $17 billion in revenue, expenditures and economic
    impact not enough to care about?

  • In 1986-87 I was the DT’s opinion editor. I am confident I never wrote a better one than this piece. Bravo.

  • I’m still waiting for the University to provide an update on its review of the Children’s Center’s policy after a former employee was arrested in August 2014 on child molestation charges. The former employee was also a former CSUF student, and to this day, no one has answered the question of how this or other students are selected for placement in the Children’s Center.

  • Excellent article. This is a good example of the recent troubling trend of secrecy in government at all levels. Administrators, even at state university level, tend to error
    on the side of not disclosing seemingly innocuous or mundane information for fear of losing power or revealing possible embarrassing conflict of interest situations.

    Also as public institutions become more privatized this secrecy trend will only become worse. I remember being a political science major back in 1989 and I had a professor named Sydney Baldwin who was extremely distressed and distraught that CSUF would become the first public university west of the Mississippi to have a major hotel chain built on it’s property (Marriot 1990). As a professor of public administration he was very sensitive to the encroachment of private for profit corporations taking over public institutions. Unfortunately his concerns were not only justified but very prescient considering the corporate take over of the commons in recent years.
    It is an article such as this that restores my faith in journalism and hopefully reminds
    administrators that this is first and foremost a public university that should be open, honest and transparent with all inquiry requests. Keep up the good work and never stop speaking truth to power.
    C.S.U.F 1990

  • Brittany Howard

    Good job, Titan! You do us proud. Chris Bugbee is probably swimming in a room of shredded paper by now. He doesn’t realize it’s the students who pay his salary!

  • redsox1002003

    I wrote a full response to this article at this link: http://therunneronline.com/?p=7647 but to sum it up for the comments, it was a well written editorial from your staff and very impactful on the future of student media. Luckily for us at CSU Bakersfield it’s not nearly as bad as your predicament, but this type of action cannot be tolerated and I’m glad you guys are taking a stand. Thank you for doing this. Best of luck with your efforts in this endeavor and I hope you are able to come out on top.

    Josh Bennett
    EIC of The Runner at CSU Bakersfield

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