18 Nov SPJ Western Washington expresses concern with Central Washington University student media obstruction
The Society of Professional Journalists Western Washington Professional Chapter Monday morning alerted Central Washington University of our deep concerns with the university’s practice of screening interview questions before granting faculty access to student journalists.
The Observer reported on Nov. 6 that administrators “have been increasingly requiring student journalists to send in interview questions before giving any university worker, including faculty and student employees, permission to be interviewed.”
The journalists of The Observer said this policy amounts to media censorship. We agree. We submitted the following letter to President James L. Gaudino, several senior faculty members and the Central Washington University Board of Trustees this morning.
Dear Central Washington University faculty,
The Board of Directors of the Society of Professional Journalists Western Washington Chapter, wishes to express our deep displeasure with Central Washington University’s practice of requiring department heads to review student journalists’ interview questions before granting faculty permission to proceed with interviews.
It can be argued that the singular purpose of every educational institution is to teach its students how to be in the world. In the case of universities this means teaching students to enrich our society by making their best contributions to their chosen professions.
The various CWU departments demanding interview questions in advance are not teaching student journalists how to be in the world. In fact, they are undermining these young journalists’ training.
The Society of Professional Journalists unwaveringly believes that transparency — that is, a free, open and spontaneous exchange of information and ideas — is essential to a functioning democracy.
Collectively, we of the board have decades of experience working in journalism and are well-steeped in the best practices and ethics of our profession. We hold ourselves and our membership to a high standard of fairness and even-handedness when gathering information. We expect our sources to be well-prepared to answer our questions, yet we also understand it can take time to gather and prepare accurate information that best-serves our readers.
These standards have been hardwired for decades into modern journalism practices at the highest levels. Never has a policy of reviewing interview questions before allowing an interview to go forward proven necessary. On the contrary, it has often been an indication of an institution that has something important to hide from the public.
Some CWU faculty members say they would like to receive in advance a broad overview illustrating what a story is about in order to best prepare for interviews. This is already a standard journalistic practice, and in most cases it’s quite reasonable. But there’s an important distinction here: The journalist provides a high-level overview of the story and its angle, not a list of specific questions that must be approved by a department head before moving forward. More still, a broad overview can be discussed in a matter of a minute or two at the beginning of an off-the-cuff interview; it needn’t always be put in writing. A source is always free at any moment to decline the interview or ask for more time. It’s clear that standard journalistic practices render the demands of certain CWU departments moot.
As a practical matter, digital communication has reshaped how journalism is conducted and made the exchange of information faster and more convenient for reporters and their sources alike: A quick fact-check by text, for example, or requests for hard facts, such as names, dates numbers and data. It’s also true that when sources are traveling and schedules are tight, an email interview may be the most viable option. All of these questions are to be left to the discretion of reporters and their sources. They are not meant to be enshrined in policy and ramrodded at the reporter.
In fact, the public relations industry’s best media trainers advise that organizations not ask for questions in advance. The reason: Requests for specific questions almost invariably rankle journalists and get media engagements off to an unnecessarily rocky start. The point of an interview, even many PR pros agree, is to vigorously tell an accurate, engaging story — not simply to answer rote questions.
Some CWU faculty have said they want interview questions in advance because they’ve too-often encountered student journalists who are too unsure of their story’s focus asking last-minute questions.
In such cases, it’s appropriate for the subjects of these interviews to discuss the situation with student editors and journalism faculty so that, if necessary, students can hone their time-management, critical thinking and interview preparation skills. Based on coverage of what has unfolded on the CWU campus, it sounds like that’s exactly what has taken place, and the Board supports that.
The point is to teach young journalists how to be successful. Forcing them to deviate from the most core principles of their profession is no way to accomplish that goal.
The journalists at The Observer and Central News Watch, as well as the campus faculty guiding these students to vital professional careers serving readers, viewers and listeners, have the full support of SPJ Western Washington’s Board.
We urge CWU faculty demanding interview questions in advance to reverse this practice immediately.
The Board of Directors of the Society of Professional Journalists Western Washington Professional Chapter