OPINION: Claremont Colleges Should Emphasize Transparency, In-Person Communication With Journalists
Kellen Browning | April 13, 2018, 2:18 a.m.
I recently became aware that The Claremont Colleges Services, which supplements the 7Cs with support like the Honnold-Mudd Library and Campus Safety, requires journalists to submit their questions for sources in writing, and does not permit members of TCCS to conduct in-person interviews with reporters.
I’ve been a journalist for nearly five years, two in Claremont, and I’d never heard of anything like this before. This policy deeply concerns me. In-person, face-to-face interviews are the staple of any story because they provide context to quotes and allow both interviewers and interviewees to have a more fluid discussion than an email exchange or a phone call allows.
To me, an organization that prohibits in-person conversations with reporters is trying to obfuscate and delay stories, and has something to hide. That may not be true of TCCS, but that’s the impression they’re giving.
Emailed questions give sources the chance to converse with public information officers, lawyers, and spokespeople who will water down responses to bland, uncontroversial, and boring statements. Speaking in person requires interview subjects, who are purportedly knowledgeable in their fields, to be well-prepared and much more honest.
People are more likely to tell the truth when they don’t have time to think about how to hedge their answers. Quotes from face-to-face interviews are better and more genuine.
TCCS spokesperson Kim Lane told me the email rule was implemented three years ago, before she came to Claremont.
“It is my understanding that the policy was developed to ensure that we provide accurate information, document our responses, and keep a record of the types of inquiries that we receive,” she wrote in an email to TSL.
If I’m seeking an administrator’s opinion on an issue, there should be no need to double-check that against some rulebook; an immediate, in-person response sounds fine to me. If I’m asking for statistics, sure, send me a follow-up email after we’ve talked.
As for documenting responses — by all means, document away. Take notes, bring a public information officer buddy, or record your own version of the conversation if you have to.
But keeping reporters at arm’s length altogether tells me that TCCS is afraid their administrators will wilt under in-person media scrutiny from student reporters. If that’s true, I think we need some new administrators.
I’m sure that’s not true, though. Our administrators, from what I’ve seen, are smart, talented, competent employees, and I’m sure they can handle some questions without a day’s advance notice.
The individual 7Cs have their own ways of responding to media. Like TCCS, some methods are frustrating, while others are transparent and make me more inclined to believe they want to be cooperative.
Pomona College’s former Dean of Students Miriam Feldblum was one of the most accessible administrators I’ve communicated with, and was always more than willing to answer my questions. When I investigated a spike in alcohol transports in the fall of 2016, she gave me a long, in-person interview, and addressed the problem head-on.
Here’s to hoping that Pomona remains as transparent and open with reporters now that Feldblum is gone. Based on my interactions with their public information officers, my hunch is that it will. When reporting on the controversy surrounding Pomona’s new art museum, as well as its hiring of sociologist Alice Goffman, PIO Marylou Ferry was prompt and helpful.
And they’ve got flexible scheduling: “Depending on schedules, we provide in-person, phone, and/or email interviews,” Ferry noted in an email to TSL.
Harvey Mudd College is also exemplary when it comes to responding to media inquiries.
Last spring, in the midst of a month of protests, meetings, and sit-ins sparked by TSL’s publishing of the leaked Wabash Report, President Maria Klawe was willing to do an impromptu interview and answer my questions in person, immediately following a contentious event in which furious students bombarded her with questions. She didn’t seem angry about my article, nor did she insist on speaking off the record, bringing in a public information officer, or even going out of earshot of students.
Klawe’s openness during a time of immense strife and struggle at Mudd is commendable, and should be a model for other schools to follow.
Judy Augsburger, HMC’s director of public relations, said in an email to TSL that Mudd will use “whatever communications vehicle is most appropriate and most convenient for both the interviewer and interviewee — whether that be in-person meetings, phone conversations, live video interviews or via email.”
I haven’t done much reporting at Pitzer College, though TSL’s news editors tell me Pitzer is prompt about responding to media inquiries.
But Scripps College and Claremont McKenna College both have policies that require journalists to go through the school’s public information officer (PIO) for all requests, which is unnecessary and wastes time for those involved. Is the media relations department afraid a rogue faculty member will reveal privileged information? Maybe not, but again, that’s the impression journalists get.
The good news, though, is that Scripps’ PIO, Karen Bergh, does an admirable job fielding media inquires. Last spring, when I was working on a story about the Scripps resident advisor strike, she provided information promptly and set up an interview with President Lara Tiedens when I asked for it. Not quite as accessible as HMC, but still not bad.
Recently, however, it seems Scripps has slipped a bit in terms of timeliness of replies. TSL reporter Lauren Koenig, who wrote a story last week about Scripps housing, said she struggled to get quick responses to her questions.
“Communicating over email and phone can take days, and sometimes emails fall through entirely,” Koenig told me. “It can be cumbersome and frustrating to get the information we need as writers working under tight deadlines, when we have to go through PR for even data-related inquiries.”
At CMC, when TSL has requested information via email for stories, such as with the Claremont-Mudd-Scripps track suspensions earlier this semester, PIOs Joann Young and Peter Hong have been happy to oblige.
But when I tried to arrange an in-person interview with Dean of Students Sharon Basso for a story about CMC’s new security program, it didn’t go so well. I was asked to provide emailed questions — which, again, is likely to elicit worse and delayed responses. I finally got the interview when I informed CMC we’d be publishing a story with or without comment from Basso. Miraculously, an opening in her schedule appeared.
Hong thinks asking for an interview with several days notice is not enough time for an administrator.
“I actually think providing you an interview with a vice president in a week’s time is quite reasonable,” he told me. “If one wants to have a discussion of a significant college policy, it is important to schedule a meeting in advance to thoroughly cover the subject, rather than talk about it spontaneously.”
We’ll have to agree to disagree. I think a 20-minute chat about a program that has been in the works for months, if not years, shouldn’t be too hard to arrange and to talk about it. I guess this goes back to my perception of administrators; apparently I’m overestimating their abilities to stay informed and answer questions without preparing first.
Kellen Browning is a Pomona College sophomore and TSL’s managing editor for news and sports. Have a news tip? You can probably find him drinking boba at Milk and Honey.