Scrutinizing “news”: Students challenge U. of Md. information site

A pitched debate about information is happening on the University of Maryland’s College Park campus.

The campus has a number of news sources, including an independent student newspaper, The Diamondback, which won SPJ’s overall Mark of Excellence best in show award this year.

The administration has created its own information source, called Maryland Today. It goes beyond press release portal — it’s presented as more of a news site or digital publication. It is produced by the school’s Office of Strategic Communications.

For several weeks, I’ve seen social media posts from current and past students, especially those who worked on The Diamondback, criticizing Maryland Today as spin and propaganda.

The pushback rose a notch last week with this piece in The Washington Post. Valerie Strauss of the Post handed over column space, mostly for a story and opinion piece by students in Dana Priest’s class. Priest is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner now teaching at College Park.

Priest scrapped a planned assignment and instead had her students scrutinize Maryland Today in her class called “From Censorship to Disinformation: The Global Battle for Political Power.”

The battle over PR vs. news on campuses is nothing new. This situation is different, though, because of the perception of Maryland Today as a journalistic attempt to compete against, or even try to blot out, existing news sources.

Students, in their story and opinion piece in the Post, examined Maryland Today for how it’s presented, whether it looks at all sides of a story, its ethics and its transparency — who is writing these stories? Maryland Today also was called out for not giving recipients the ability to opt out of a mass email.

This public dissection of Maryland Today on campus is fascinating. What was missing in the Post column, though, was a response from the Office of Strategic Communications.

(After the Post column was published, Priest tweeted that the Office of Strategic Communications has agreed to talk to her students, possibly on Monday.)

Curious, I checked on Wednesday with Joel Seligman, the associate vice president for strategic communications, to ask if he wanted to respond to the Post piece, in which students urged him to “study the dangers of state-sponsored disinformation.”

Students wrote: “In a small, local way, by pretending to be journalism and using the university’s millions to compete with the scrappy Diamondback, Maryland Today further weakens the free press.”

On Friday, Seligman wrote me back with responses on several points. I am posting them here in their entirety — maybe this will help further the debate.

*****

From Joel Seligman:

Maryland Today (today.umd.edu) is part of a full portfolio of communications for stakeholders of the university. Our comms all have the same goal — to make more people aware of the ways Maryland fulfills its mission as a preeminent public research university.

For example, a few of the communications* our team also produces —

— TERP Magazine, Award-winning publication mailed three times a year to faculty, staff, alumni and parents

— Legislative Briefs, emailed monthly to elected officials

— The Shell, emailed monthly to alumni

— umd.edu, the main website for the university

— UMD Right Now, a site for the working news media (https://umdrightnow.umd.edu/ )

 

Specifically to address Maryland Today:

— The primary audience is faculty, staff and students who are on the campus every day

— We have not had any factual errors reported to us — but errors are inevitable at some point and our writers/editors will correct them in a timely and appropriate manner when they happen

— The weekday email of Maryland Today has the highest open rate of any mass emails that we send

— The feedback from recipients is overwhelmingly positive

 

Specifically re: the criticisms:

— We do not agree with the writers of the opinion piece in the Post on the definition of news. “News” is in common usage for sites such as Maryland Today, including on the UMD Merrill College of Journalism site: https://merrill.umd.edu/news/college-news/ . Many universities actually name their products with the word news: see http://news.berkeley.edu/. (Note that we do not use the word “news” on the site, but I believe we could legitimately do so.)

— My view is that the critics in the Post piece are trying to convey that Maryland Today is not “journalism,” a word we have never used. It is not journalism.

— On the matter of identifying Maryland Today as a university communication, the “University of Maryland” universal navigation bar is at the top of the site, as it is with all of our sites. The text “Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Strategic Communications for the University of Maryland community weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays” has always been at the bottom of every page of the site. (We have made the text bigger, recently). The university’s logo and our office address appear on every page of the site as is the standard for all of the web pages we maintain. 

— On the matter of using red in our design which the writers in the Post say is the same color as the Diamondback — red is the color of the university and the dominant color on all of the university’s web pages.

— On the matter of using the same font as the masthead of the Diamondback — it is not the same font. Theirs is uppercase, ours is mixed case. We do use the same alphabet.

— On the matter of unsubscribing — I agree that we want people to be able to unsubscribe and we are working on that feature, timing TBD (it is not a violation of CAN-SPAM Act for the university to email its employees and students without an unsubscribe available…however, unsubscribe is a “best practice” and I wish we had it)

— On the matter of providing some bios of our staff, we are considering how best to do that. I like the idea but want to be fair across the board with the whole team, not just those who are assigned to working on Maryland Today.

 

As a final point, Maryland Today is in its infancy — less than 2 months old. It will evolve and get better thanks to input from all quarters, something we welcome for all of our work.

 

I’m looking forward to meeting with Dana Priest’s journalism class this Monday and will share the info above with them.

 

Thanks for including my thoughts.

 

Joel

 

* This list represents a small percentage of the overall output of our department which includes student recruitment marketing, alumni and donor marketing, digital, targeted email, media relations, social media management, advertising, video production, graphic design, editorial content, photography, producing Homecoming and Maryland Day and counseling the university’s leadership on matters pertaining to communication strategy.

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