Administrative department creates roadblocks for reporting

by Bret Hauff / Beacon Staff • October 27, 2016

When I learned Emerson students were automatically charged for tuition insurance, I was immediately curious. How did this happen? Who made this decision? Why did the college do this?

But when I called student financial services, it repeatedly denied me access to those who could answer these questions.

This is a call for transparency.

Our goal at the Beacon is to represent the Emerson community. We seek to catalog the Emerson experience.

But our mission becomes exponentially more difficult when school officials erect barriers between their departments and our reporters. Unfortunately, this is the case with the Department of Enrollment Management.

This department—which oversees the offices of admissions, student success, and student financial services—requires anyone seeking information to complete an exhaustive form detailing, beyond identification and availability, specific questions and intentions of the inquiry. The form also requires students to allow the office a minimum of four business days to respond.

Douglas Struck, senior journalist-in-residence, said the practice is “absurd” and against what he teaches.

“What’s onerous is that they want specific questions,” Struck said. “This is over the line.”

We’re taught in our journalism classes that intimate interviews cultivate the best information: they’re guided conversations, I remember my introductory journalism professor telling me. In-person is best, phone calls are the most efficient, but email is unacceptable.

The Beacon encourages its reporters to tell their sources what they’re writing about, but we do not permit them to email specific questions. We do this because we believe it’s an industry standard. Sending questions in advance leaves no room for follow-ups that are essential to understanding an issue and produces formulaic answers that often do not tell the full story.

“No professional journalist would agree to this kind of limitation on news gathering,” associate journalism professor Mark Leccese said. “This [form] is trying to take advantage of inexperience to control information.”

In the year Noah Wood has worked as the executive assistant to the vice president of enrollment management, he couldn’t recall a time when the office granted an interview that wasn’t conducted via email.

“We work with a lot of facts and figures,” he said. “[Email response is] the most simple and we can guarantee accurate responses.”

The office has provided figures to the Beacon before, but statistics often raise more questions than they answer. The purpose of an interview is to understand a subject well enough to write about it; discouraging these conversations could lead to unfair, and even erroneous, reporting.

Of the more than 20 departments I spoke to about granting interviews to student media–including the office of the president–none of them had such strict policies.

Engagement Lab Communication Manager Sean Van Deuren said he is always happy when a publication wants to tell its readers about their work.  

“Our goal is to be transparent with everything that we’re doing,” Van Deuren said. “If you’re doing interesting and good work for the students, why wouldn't you want to let them know about that?”

Diane Paxton, director of disability services, said she required students to send questions in advance, but stopped when students continued to deny her request. She’s become more informal since, she said, simply asking students to provide the topic of their story.

“Their questions are organized, they rephrase things that I've said for clarification,” she said. “All-in-all, I've found it to be a positive process when I'm interviewed.”

Students are stakeholders at the college. We invest our time, energy, and money into this institution. I understand that Emerson is a private institution that is not required to disclose information, but it is imperative for the Beacon to engage with, and hold accountable, each facet of our community. This policy denies us the opportunity to do so.

“We all just want Emerson to be better,” journalism chair Paul Niwa said. “The bureaucracy we create inhibits relationships; we should be removing layers of bureaucracy so we can learn better as a community.”