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that a great deal of information important to the interests of the CSUF’s students, faculty, staff and parents has gone unpublished.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.