SPJ condemns CWU policy requiring approval of interview questions

I sent the following letter to the president of Central Washington University in response to reports that journalists at The Observer were required to submit interview questions in advance before being allowed to interview university staff and athletes.

President James L. Gaudino,

Central Washington University

Barge Hall 314

Ellensburg, WA 98926

Nov. 12, 2019

President Gaudino,

I am the regional coordinator for the Society of Professional Journalists, the nation’s largest and most broad-based journalism association in the United States. One of our core missions is advocating for the rights of all journalists.

I am concerned about reports about how departments at Central Washington University are handling interview requests from journalists with The Observer and Central News Watch. Specifically, I find the practice of asking journalists to submit questions in advance for approval by department staff before an interview is granted to be antithetical to the principles of transparency and accountability in public institutions.

According to several news reports out of Ellensburg, staff members in the Student Wellness Center and the Athletic Department have told journalists at The Observer that interview requests would only be granted if the questions are submitted in advance and approved.

In the case of the Athletic Department, this practice was used to bar journalists from interviewing former athletes about the departure of softball coach Mike Larabee. Why the department would restrict interviews with people who are no longer under its purview is a mystery to me. As a result of this policy, the story on Larabee’s departure lacked the perspective of his current and former players. 

This situation is especially appalling given that this issue was supposedly addressed in April, when it was agreed that the journalists would provide the context of the subject they were working on.

Speaking from my own experience as a professional journalist for more than 30 years, submitting interview questions in advance for approval is unheard of, especially when the person making the request is a public employee. There are several reasons for this.

First, it can be seen as a form of censorship. By requiring “approval” for the questions, it allows the subject to decide the content of the story by screening out information that may not fit with the party line. This was probably best illustrated by Associate Athletic Director for External Affairs Tyler Unsicker’s comment, as reported by The Observer, that the department didn’t want “athletes to say anything that would make them look bad to the community.”

The First Amendment clearly prohibits government officials from restricting speech or the press, and this policy appears to restrict both. Staff and others are barred from speaking openly on subjects of concern to the community, and the news outlets are restricted in the information they can publish.

Second, it restricts the flow of information by precluding follow-up questions or following the facts if they may lead off the path marked by pre-approved questions. As The Observer pointed out in its editorial, someone may say something that sheds new light on the matter and warrant follow-up questions, something that would not be possible if the interview were to be scripted by university officials.

Third, it raises the question about whether the answers being provided are genuine. Was the interview subject coached beforehand and told what answers to give in advance, or are they speaking genuinely from their knowledge and experience on the subject.

Finally, this practice shows a lack of faith in the staff and, in the case of the Athletic Department,  its athletes. These are people who are supposed to be experts in their particular fields, based on education, knowledge and experience. In the case of Larabee’s departure, who could better explain the contributions he made to CWU’s program than the athletes he worked with? It would also be safe to assume that the staff at the Wellness Center would have experience with student health issues and should be able to speak about them, or recommend someone with more expertise. After all, CWU is a university and should be staffed by experts in their particular fields.

I also find disturbing the reported comments by Director of Athletic Communications Will McLaughlin that The Observer journalists “are still just students” and the Athletic Department has the authority to dictate how they go about doing their reporting. We consider The Observer staff to be colleagues and fellow journalists who are entitled to the same rights and privileges as professional journalists. We don’t see a “children’s table” in journalism.

The Observer and Central News Watch staff conduct themselves in accordance with the standards of our profession. The only difference between them and a professional journalist is their degree of experience and paychecks. Do they make mistakes? Of course. But so do professional journalists, but we all strive for accuracy and quickly correct mistakes when they are made.

Such comments, as well as requiring them to jump through hoops shows a disdain for the profession. It is bad enough that the president of the United States publicly disparages journalists. We do not need to have it coming from people who are employed by a public institution of higher education, especially one that is committed to the pursuit of knowledge and truth.

I urge you to make it clear to all departments in the university that requiring questions in advance of granting interview requests is not appropriate, and that the staff of the campus news outlets be treated with  the same professional respect accorded to other news outlets.

If you would like to discuss this with me, you may call me at 509-379-7543 or email me at dmeyers@spj.org

Sincerely,

Donald W. Meyers,

Region 10 Coordinator,

Society of Professional Journalists

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