Originally published April 30, 2013
Media Relations departments act as a link between an organization and the press. Their primary function is to put out positive releases and updates concerning their organization and draw positive coverage from the media.
At Stony Brook University, the Media Relations Department consists of less than five people that handle West Campus, Stony Brook Hospital and Medical Center. The Athletic Department has a separate team to handle media relations.
Stony Brook University also has a School of Journalism. Its primary function is to educate students about how to report across multiple mediums. Most of the stories produced are about the university.
Tensions are high among members of Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism and the campus Media Relations Department.
The two often butt heads over what stories should be covered for classes and campus publications, but this semester brought a whirlwind of new issues.
Michelle Frantino, a senior journalism student, took an advanced broadcast class this semester, which required new stories each week. One of her first challenges came when covering a story about a police vehicle hitting a student.
Brianna Bifone, a Stony Brook University student, was struck and pinned under a police cruiser for about 30 minutes on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013. As part of the student media, Frantino rushed to the scene with her camera to get answers.
“We were told by police officers that Media Relations was going to brief [us] tomorrow,” Frantino said. “We had our cameras ready…but a press conference turned into a press release.”
But the answers to the more specific questions never came. According to Frantino, Media Relations Manager James Montalto waited until Friday, Feb. 15, 2013—three days before Frantino’s news show and more than one week after the initial accident—to inform her that he could not release new information, but provided the same statement from Friday morning.
“In that case, you’re reporting the story,” said Media Relations Officer Lauren Sheprow. “You’re reporting the story and the name of the police officer hasn’t been released. That’s reporting the story. Whatever comes from that, comes from that.”
Frantino ran the story without the name of the officer. However, the decision to not release the name left more questions than answers for journalism students and faculty.
Jonathan Sanders, Associate Professor at the School of Journalism and Frantino’s broadcast professor, was particularly interested what he called a “cover-up” because he sees it as part of a larger issue.
“We need to stop this cover-up,” he said, “this refusal to help students. I have friends on the journalism faculty who say, ‘Well, the fact that they get in the way of students, they’re not helpful, that they obfuscate is good because it prepares students for the real world.’ I don’t think that should be the world on a college campus. I think that colleges should be in the business of educating students.”
The media culture at SBU
For journalism students, homework is more than reading a book or completing problems. These students have to report—which means scheduling interviews, doing research, writing, shooting and editing. In some cases, the Media Relations office denies students the ability to complete an assignment by either not responding to emails or trying to point students in a different direction.
Cameras have been denied for many interviews, even though Media Relations is aware that many classes require videos. But Sheprow denies telling students they explicitly cannot shoot something.
“There is no can and can’t do,” said Sheprow. “Students should do what they’re taught to do, and then, just like in the real world, they’re going to have to mold that into what they can get done.”
However, when a student is denied an interview, it’s basically telling them what they can’t do. And for many students, this results in a lower grade.
“And if I were to give [the Media Relations Department] a grade, I’d give them an F, four Fs: they are feckless, they are fearful, they fetter freedom,” Sanders said.
But Sheprow says it’s not her office denying students, per say. She would rather students get clearance before shooting anywhere on campus.
“If students want to film somewhere on campus and there’s a potential for someone out there who doesn’t understand what students are asked to do, [we ask that you] get clearance first,” she said. “It’s not a requirement, but it makes the process easier.”
However, Sheprow also said that students tend to rely on her office too much.
“Trust me,” she said, “we don’t need more students coming through the Media Relations office. We’re happy to help, but we get up to 20 requests a day [from students].”
Sheprow said she would rather students reach out to potential sources before coming to her office, but when it comes to students shooting, just a simple heads-up can help.
“If you want a smoother path, that’s the path that’s going to help get your job done,” she said.
Roots of the debate
This is not the first time Sheprow has seemingly contradicted herself when it comes to policies with student journalists. In fact, her opinion of School of Journalism students has flip-flopped over the past three years.
Professor Barbara Selvin blogged about the difficulty her students had getting through the Media Relations Department on Oct. 10, 2010. In her response, Sheprow wrote (under the pseudonym “SBU Media Relations,” whose IP address was tracked to Sheprow’s home),
“This stream is about the Media Relations department and students attending classes and completing assignments in the School of Journalism. Not reporters. The media relations office does respond to students in the same way it responds to reporter requests. Although most professional journalists know what they are writing about, have done their research and approach us when they need additional information, or help making a connection with faculty or staff.”
There was a clear distinction between reporters and students. This implication that students do not deserve the same treatment as external media outlets cast a shadow on the relationship between the School of Journalism and Media Relations ever since.
However, in April 2013, Sheprow said, “There is no differentiation for us. Media is viral now, so I see no line between student media and external media.”
She said she did not change her opinion on student journalists from her post in 2010. She said via email, “The difference is as follows: we ask students what class they are reporting for and who the assigning professor is. The mission of the university media relations office [sic] does not waiver in terms of trying to be equally helpful to all individuals who call for information and/or assistance. We strive to treat all reporters—students, student media, and external meda—with the appropriate dignity, respect and attention needed to assist with their assignment in the most efficient possible way.”
Not a typical relationship
At other SUNY campuses, Media Relations Departments are seen as more of an asset to students.
Aaron Mansfield, Editor in Chief of the UB Spectrum at the University at Buffalo, said the University Spokesman answers any inquiry.
“We typically email UB Spokesman John Della Contrada if we have a few days to work on a story,” he said, “though if it’s time-sensitive, we always call. He gets us set up with the right people, comments himself or simply states the university cannot comment on the topic.”
The Spectrum published in print three times per week and more often on its website.
“Professionals and adults are going to think they can bully college students no matter what,” Mansfield said. “It doesn’t really happen with us, though.”
The atmosphere at Binghamton University is similar. Mary Haupt, Lecturer in the English Department, said students in her journalism classes rarely run into Media Relations at all.
“While sometimes they’re held at an arm’s length, I can’t recall a time of being ordered out of a room or being told they’re in violation of something,” she said.
Christina Pullano, Assistant News Editor of Binghamton’s student publication, Pipe Dream, said although media relations tries to protect certain information, they are generally helpful.
“I think they do what they have to do,” Pullano said,” but at least at Binghamton, we have a good rapport with them. In some ways, it’s their job to butt heads with us sometimes.”
Back at Stony Brook, however, students have run into issues before, during and after stories are published.
Nick Batson, Editor in Chief of the Stony Brook Press, said that he received an email from Sheprow requesting that he remove an entire story from the Press’s website.
On March 1, 2013, reports of a suspicious death began to trickle through the university. Campus police emailed all students, asking them to stay away from the Chemistry building and the surrounding area.
By 8 a.m., journalism students and members of the campus media were at the scene ready to report.
A former Stony Brook University student committed suicide early that morning by jumping off the building.
Batson published the information on the Press’ website. Within hours, Sheprow sent an email to campus media, asking them to remove the content. According to Batson, the email included a study about how reporting on suicide only resulted in more suicides.
“I responded [to the email],” Batson said. “I was like, ‘I understand where you’re coming from. I read the study. I don’t really agree with it. I don’t think it’s any reason to stop covering the story because it’s important.’”
The story is still posted on the website.
Assistant Journalism Professor Wasim Ahmad took his class to live-tweet the ongoing investigation. Ahmad published a photo of the scene in one of the tweets.
Sheprow contacted the Dean of the School of Journalism, Howard Schneider, and claimed that “parents and concerned community members called to ask why a professor would be tweeting about a suicide on campus,” according to Ahmad.
Schneider was on vacation that week. Paul Schrieber, Undergraduate Director of the School of Journalism, contacted Sheprow to discuss the situation. The tweets and photo were not removed.
“It was ultimately Professor Ahmad’s decision [to keep the tweets],” said Schneider.
The Media Relations Department declined to comment on camera for this story. When additional footage or photographs to cover typed quotations in the video were requested, Sheprow declined because she did not want to end up on “Professor Ahmad’s viral twitter feed.”
Ahmad’s twitter is not linked to the blog, Journoblogs, where his students publish their work.
An unclear future
Schneider does not think that the Media Relations Department is putting a strain on students. He does recognize that some students fear questioning the higher-ups.
“One of the things students have to learn,” he said, “ is that when you leave school there are going to be people who are going to try to intimidate you. We will not accept intimidation and… students should be asserting their rights and understanding that it’s not about them. It’s about the job they have. They represent the public. No one, no one should push them around.”
Frantino agreed. If she could start over, she said she would have made more of an effort to gain trust of her sources instead of defaulting to Media Relations.
“Sometimes, it’s just a matter of talking to your source and really getting to know them,” she said, and showing them that they don’t need Lauren Sheprow to babysit during an interview. We’re just students, we’re not the Big Bad Wolf.”
According to Schneider, the School of Journalism is planning workshops with students and media relations representatives to get a better understanding of each other.
“With media relations, we have to continue to work to balance students’ going to media relations for help versus directly …to sources,” Schneider said.
“The law says that we have the First Amendment right to interview people, take photographs at any public area on campus,” Schneider said. “And I think most if not all of the campus leaders would agree with that in principle. Executing it becomes more complicated.”
Sanders believes that more responsibility should be placed on the Media Relations Department.
“The people in the press office here are part of the problem, not part of the solution,” he said. “This is a good example of a group of people who are out of their depth, who are out of control and who should be, in my personal opinion, out of office.”
Note: Alexa Gorman is in Professor Ahmad’s JRN 380 class and has taken courses with Professors Klurfeld and Selvin. She has taken classes or worked in campus media with Michelle Frantino, Frank Posillico and Nick Batson.