EDITORIAL: The reality of being a student journalist at CMU
Reporting is difficult to do even under the best of circumstances.
Reporting the news at Central Michigan University? Bringing you the facts sometimes feels like an impossible task.
As we close out National Newspaper Week, observed Oct. 3-9, we want to show you behind the scenes of Central Michigan Life. From our perspective, this is what reporters and editors see when we are trying to cover the university: Administrators who value marketing over the truth. Publicity stunts over addressing real issues. Public relations instead of transparency.
This is Central Michigan University in 2021.
We’ve had enough.
For more than 100 years we’ve told your stories. Each year telling your stories gets a little more difficult. In recent years, it has also gotten significantly more frustrating.
Here are two recent examples.
After weeks of complaints from parents and students about new food service provider Chartwells, we requested a copy of its contract with CMU using a Freedom of Information Act request.
After waiting two weeks, what did we get?
A contract that had all financial information removed. CMU redacted the information because pricing is considered a "trade secret."
No numbers. No answers. Just black boxes covering up the facts.
Meanwhile, we already had the Chartwells contracts from Eastern Michigan University and Oakland University. Those universities didn't redact any financial information. We are working with the Student Press Law Center to appeal CMU's decision to withhold pricing information.
That is what we face when we ask CMU for answers to basic questions – how much are you paying a company that CMU does business with?
In addition to being denied public information, every year University Communications and Athletics personnel try to exert more and more control over reporters while restricting access to administrators, coaches, staff and even students.
This week we scheduled an interview with a student-athlete who agreed to tell their story over a month ago. Although the athlete expressed interest in speaking with us, we wanted to show professionalism and respect, so we formally requested the interview through Athletics.
They denied the request for the interview.
Why? We were told the athlete was taking "personal time" and that we would have to pursue the story at a later time. In reality, the student never told them that. Athletics never discussed the interview with the athlete.
In this office, we cross our fingers every time we send an email – hoping to score five minutes with an administrator, football player or faculty member. Will we – students who pay tuition or "customers" – even be "allowed" to do our jobs in the future?
That's not how "media relations" is supposed to work.
Sometimes the university purposely disregards the line between fact and fiction.
In 2018, CMU announced that Kathy Irwin was named Dean of University Libraries. The university did not disclose what happened to the previous dean, Jeff Luzius.
That was left to us. We did our job.
Luzius was fired by CMU after the university received multiple sexual harassment complaints about his behavior. CM Life obtained his personnel file and was able to verify the complaints. To this day the university has not acknowledged he was fired.
We expect to receive the "most favorable" version of the truth when working with University Communication. But omitting – disregarding – the truth is just a form of lying.
A transparent university is a good university and one students or parents are comfortable with. In case no one has ever mentioned this in a focus group or brainstorming session: Transparency, honesty and honoring public information requests might be a great marketing campaign.
We do transparency? We do the truth?
We would like to see CMU try that strategy sometime soon.
Want to work with CM Life? Submit news tips, story ideas or guest opinion pieces to firstname.lastname@example.org. Support and share the work we do!