A Phoenix news reporter, on the trail of a story about Loyola’s above-average abundance of women in STEM programs, emailed several professors from the department to try to set up interviews for a piece in the newspaper.
No response from them. What she received instead was an angry email from Loyola’s communications spokesperson, Evangeline Politis, who said her methods had been “disrespectful and unacceptable.”
Don’t believe it? Here’s the full interaction between Politis and our reporter.
To: Loyola STEM professors
From: Student Reporter
“Hi! I’m writing a story for The Phoenix about the amount of women who graduate from Loyola with STEM degrees. Dr. Linda Brazdil said that you would be a good person to talk to about the numbers and potential reasons why Loyola typically has a higher percentage of female STEM graduates. If I could give you a call sometime today or tomorrow to discuss this topic, that would be great. My deadline is Thursday. Thanks so much for your time!”
Response To: Student Reporter
“This is the third inquiry on this topic that has been forwarded my way, and I’ve been notified of several others. This is disrespectful and unacceptable. As I indicated in my email this morning (attached), I am the first point of contact for the Phoenix for University-related requests. I can get in touch with administration and faculty to answer your questions. I can work with Brian to answer your numbers questions (please send those along), and let me know of any other gaps in your story that I can facilitate fulfilling.”
Didn’t our reporter know the rules? Our reporter knew her job was to get the story, and she was doing just that.
Loyola and its President Jo Ann Rooney have cracked down on how media entities access members of its community. It’s not just outside papers and TV stations, however. The school has extended those restrictions to their own student media.
It didn’t used to be like this.
Even just a couple of years ago, when many of the people on this Editorial Board were just starting at Loyola, Phoenix reporters were more than allowed to reach out to professors, administrators, department heads, Campus Safety personnel, heads of facilities and student activities coordinators.
We usually got interviews — some over the phone, many in-person. We had the opportunity to follow up and ask for clarification.
Now, we have one point of contact we’re allowed to talk to — university marketing and communications (UMC). There’s little room to clarify the often-vague language received only via email from Politis and the rest of the UMC team.
“Attribute this to” precedes the name of who we hoped to talk to, followed by a robotic statement perfectly crafted by Loyola’s marketing team. That is, if we get a response at all.
In our own reporting on the Rooney Administration’s decision to, yet again, increase tuition, there’s a direct contrast with our reporting on a tuition increase before Rooney took office.
In 2016, The Phoenix’s story included quotes from an actual interview with then-interim President John Pelissero. In our story this year, Rooney refused to talk to us.
In an era when the press in the United States is under unprecedented attack, how could Loyola not realize the context they’re operating in?
For as many times as Rooney has issued statements decrying the actions of President Donald Trump and his administration, dealing with Rooney’s administration is no better than a White House press briefing led by Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
It’s possible this new media policy is a response to the barrage of media attention the university received during March Madness. It’s understandable that it would need to craft a solution to manage its press to bank off the basketball team’s success while also promoting the brand.
Yet, there’s an ulterior motive.
The Phoenix, a student-run publication, was given full access to Loyola’s campus, faculty and administrators.
So why are we included in the media policy now?
We can’t say for sure, but we have a guess. Plainly put, Rooney and her administration are afraid of us finding and reporting problems with Loyola, as we’ve done for 50 years.
They think we’re meddlesome student-reporters bent on damaging Loyola’s “brand.”
The school at least says as much. In an effort to enforce its new media policy, UMC offered a video seminar for professors and staff on how to deal with reporters. The link is on Loyola’s website.
Luckily, UMC only falls short of calling the press “fake news,” the same dog whistle the Trump Administration uses to try to delegitimize less-than-flattering stories.
Some gems from the webinar include:
The assertion that “off the record,” which in reporter lingo means something said during an interview isn’t for publication in any shape or form, has become virtually nonexistent.
The callous claim reporters will purposefully alter audio and quotes to twist your words, because as the former journalism majors running UMC say, “negative stories get clicks.” And that’s all we’re after.
And the claim that reporters will purposefully leave silence at the end of a source’s answer (which we’re taught to do so we don’t muddle audio, don’t cut off the end of a response or prevent the interviewee from adding more info if they wish) because “sometimes it’s a strategy,” with the goal of tripping the source up and getting them to spill some salacious detail.
All these and more seem to work to instill fear in Loyola staff members in the hopes that they won’t talk to press at all. Rather, the solution that’s demanded of them is to pass any and all requests to UMC.
But so often, reporting is predicated on talking to, and forming relationships with, experts. Experts on law, politics, the environment, sports, religion, science and anything else a newspaper may fill its pages with. Loyola, as a university, is filled with experts on any topic you can think of. These are the people we want to talk to and learn from.
The Rooney administration’s PR operation is an expert at obstructing and ignoring us.
There’s just simply no way a representative from UMC can talk intelligently about every topic The Phoenix covers. These representatives are only experts at protecting the brand, as the webinar hammers home.
But Loyola is more than a brand. It’s a university. Its priority should be keeping its students safe and keeping them educated.
There’s no better group to do that than the students themselves. The Phoenix provides an essential and unique role at this university. Our reporters, our editors, our sources — all are mostly students. They’re more plugged in, and yes, that means we’ll often hit on criticisms you won’t find in a Washington Post piece about Loyola.
In 2016, a report called “Threats to the Independence of Student Media” was released by a group composed of the American Association of University Professors, the College Media Association, the National Coalition Against Censorship and the Student Press Law Center.
The threats the group laid out are exactly what Rooney and her administration are doing to The Phoenix.
“These principles should apply to all student media, which should not be subordinated to an institution’s public-relations program,” the report said.
It continued to outline the fundamental role a student newspaper plays on any college campus.
“Candid journalism that discusses students’ dissatisfaction with the perceived shortcomings of their institutions can be uncomfortable for campus authorities,” it read. “Nevertheless, this journalism fulfills a healthful civic function. A college or university campus is in many ways analogous to a self-contained city in which thousands of residents conduct their daily lives … journalists keep watch over the delivery of these services, giving the members of their public a voice in the matters that concern them most.”
Students have a right to critically and fairly examine the workings of our own university, an institution that feeds, houses, protects and educates us.
Our reporting has done exactly that. It has exposed problems in the “matters that concern them most,” such as the Campus Safety Department, the dining halls, the residence halls, the Title IX office and the athletics department.
We perform a valuable function to every Loyola student. We’re members of this community. We’re the voice of Loyola students, working to hold those responsible for our health, safety and education accountable. Yet, Rooney’s administration is trying to muzzle us because it “protects the brand.”
We have one message. We don’t care about your brand. We care about the more than 17,000 undergraduate and graduate students you’ve been charged with shepherding into fulfilling lives. By muzzling us, you’re failing them.
You were brought here to instill us with your so-called Jesuit values. Act like it.