As the Good 5 Cent Cigar writers have collectively tried to write more in-depth and investigative news stories concerning the University of Rhode Island, I have recently noticed that there are more structures and regulations in place when it comes to speaking with URI’s staff. Since the Cigar launched its redesign and restructured news staff in September, student journalists like myself and the rest of the Cigar staff have found that URI has begun to treat us like they do external reporters.
The Communications and Marketing office at URI explained that procedures are used to make sure that the information distributed about important issues is clear and accurate. To achieve this, Director Linda Acciardo and Assistant Director David Lavallee work with any reporters whose stories may affect or produce institutional issues and attend the interviews that could have an impact on the university, including one of the interviews for the recent three-part towing story by News Editor Ryan Wichelns. With smaller stories that feature just one student or a single professor discussing their field, Acciardo and Lavallee do not see any reason to be a part of the process.
“[If] the university has a stake in it, whether it’s legal or not, we’re interested in how that gets resolved,” said Acciardo. “In the case of the towing, it’s impacting our student body and we want to be aware of what’s happening with it and respond appropriately.”
Unfortunately, I and other members of the staff have felt that departments are increasingly deferring us to the Communications office, for fear of overstepping a boundary or breaking protocol. For multiple factual and objective stories in recent weeks, I have been sent to Lavallee despite his insistence that interviews need only go through him and/or his office when they may affect the university’s perception, such as subjective or controversial stories.
With towing being a prevalent issue for many URI students, Lavallee felt that the Communications office needed to be involved because of the police reports being filed with URI’s campus police and the possible legal ramifications. “Even on the difficult stories we’re not about hiding,” said Lavallee.
Meanwhile, I have been turned away from financial aid advisers in enrollment services, parking services and even students who are applying to be or are already RAs on campus. This difficulty in gaining access to people in interview even for the most objective stories seems, in my opinion, to be linked to a confusion at the university about what stories/interviews need to be sent through the Public Relations staff, including Lavallee, here at URI.
I believe that the paper’s recent successes, including Staff Reporter Eliza Radeka’s viral story about Ivy (the husky) being removed from Peck Hall, have both increased our popularity on campus and emboldened our reputation. However, this may be the source of the spreading discomfort that I have faced on campus about doing an interview with members of the URI staff without a Communications representative involved and/or present. This increased hesitation to participate in interviews with myself and other student reporters, as well as the delays that going through Communications can cause, can slow the spread of important information from our staff to students.
“We don’t prohibit any reporter from talking to anybody on this campus, so let’s be clear about that,” said Acciardo. “I think we try to respect the fact that [reporters] have a job to do and we hope and expect that they understand that we have a job to do… [But] we are not managing [their part] of it, we are managing the university’s response to it.”
Acciardo and Lavallee believe that, without sitting in on interviews for important stories, it actually hurts both student and external reporters because they cannot help with any fact checking processes afterwards.
“If we were not in on that interview, we can’t help them,” said Acciardo. “They may have had the interview with the Provost, or a dean who is no longer available, [and] that’s our job to do that follow up. So it’s a necessity for us to be a part of some of those interviews, so that we can speak intelligently on it and provide additional information later.”
Acciardo emphasized that her office get weekly calls from reporters and writers looking for experts and asking for her help. She believes this communication is necessary in some cases because her and her staff know which people would be the best to speak to about specific issues.
“There are certain people who are designated as the spokespersons for [an] issue because they’re involved in it, they have correct information about it [and] they know the status,” said Acciardo. “So that’s one of the major reasons why we get involved, because we know who the most appropriate person [to talk to] is and we try to provide the most knowledgeable person at the highest level.”
Both Acciardo and Lavallee majored in journalism, so they do understand that student reporters need to have access to information to keep other students and the public informed in their own voice.
“It is sort of a guiding principle that we see ourselves as sort of a conduit between the media and the institution, that we’re here to help them find the answers that they need and to make sure that they’re accurate,” said Acciardo.