Editorial, Opinion

EDITORIAL: NEU administration have duty to support student-run media, not tear own students down

Media relations professionals at Northeastern University have proven themselves anything but professional in handling student press, and it is shameful.

Members of the school’s independent newspaper, The Huntington News, initially drew attention via Twitter to NEU President Joseph Aoun’s seeming inability to have found time for an interview with student journalists in seven years.

That’s what the Media Relations office had claimed when responding privately to these reporters’ inquiries. Yet, once this reason was brought up to scrutiny by The Boston Globe — a much larger, evidently non-student paper — the story shifted.

The administration has continuously refused The Huntington News this opportunity because the paper is “frequently inaccurate,” Michael Armini, NEU’s senior vice president for external affairs, told the Globe — without mention of Aoun’s impenetrably hectic schedule.

If this is the true justification, what, then, is the reason for misleading your own journalists-in-training with a cop-out excuse year after year?

More contradictory words from Armini appeared in the same Globe article: Media Relations does not single out The Huntington News when assessing which media inquiries are unworthy of response, he said, though it apparently singles out The Huntington News on the basis of its incompetence.

Figures gathered by former Huntington News staff member Hannah Bernstein, who has edited the paper in various roles, reveal the corrections rate has averaged 1.8 percent over 2017, 2018 and 2020. That statistic, even with a reasonable margin of error, hardly suggests “frequent” inaccuracy.

What is more common, however, is the appearance of former and current Huntington News journalists at respected media outlets such as the Globe, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. It’s hard to believe this would be the case if its staff were so inept at veracity.

NEU Media Relations seems to have a history of disparaging its student journalists as a frequent media relations tactic.

One 2019 email from NEU Vice President for Communications Renata Nyul to Deanna Schwartz, now Huntington News managing editor, stated she “can’t comprehend why [Schwartz] and [her] reporters make absolutely no effort to do [their] homework before [they] decide what is a story,” and that Schwartz appears to “spend no time looking at the facts on [her] own.”

The tone of Nyul’s message rings clear: The Huntington News is fake news.

This is what the University wants the public to believe, and it’s what the University hopes to gaslight its own student journalists into accepting. So, what does this administration fear?

Accountability.

The Huntington News has been performing its watchdog role, and it’s often these stories — the ones that shed light on some not-so-shiny aspects of the University — that have been met with rage and correction requests from administration.

Yet Media Relations frequently declines to comment or offer information when asked, according to tweets from Huntington News staff, so editors must go ahead with what they have. It is only after publication that critical details are publicly shared, which then warrants updates and occasional corrections.

Suggested corrections do not always have to be deemed journalistically valid. Sometimes sources simply dislike what’s in a story, and editors will recognize that these cases differ from genuine errors. Updates, meanwhile, are not corrections at all, no matter how frequent.

Regardless, a media relations department’s job, performed correctly, is to relate accurate and relevant information to the media on a timely basis. Continuous failure to carry out that function reeks as intentional, and perhaps even of sabotage.

Would it be bold to suggest the University is consciously allowing itself to discredit its only independent newspaper by refusing to let the outlet effectively perform its duty?

As a campus newspaper, The Huntington News is the main source of information for NEU students. None of the major news outlets that Aoun historically prefers speaking to are dedicated to extensive coverage of this specific school.

These larger publications do not have a comprehensive understanding of student life on any college campus. Students have firsthand experience with the faults of their administration and are more inclined to ask critical questions during interviews.

In the midst of mass confusion over an unprecedented campus reopening process during a public health crisis, the NEU community needs more than ever the scrutinizing coverage only The Huntington News can provide. It’s not just student journalists who deserve better from administration, but the entire student body.

If there’s one basic lesson public relations professionals should know, it’s that no matter how unfavorable a story is, choosing to comment almost always yields better results than not.

The Huntington News has been offering the University opportunities to share its side of each story, to address claims and criticisms, to have some control of the narrative. But administration is constantly making the mistake of forfeiting that chance — making clear its fear of bad press.

What does the University hope to achieve by undermining its own journalism program? If comments from the school’s own leadership are to be believed, how must that affect enrollment and public faith in NEU’s competency in teaching journalism?

Prospective and current students as well as alumnus have now witnessed the unprofessionalism of such passionate antagonism from University officials toward their own students, in what they are trying to pass off as attempts to “teach” aspiring professionals.

If such remarks are genuine, the University’s scathing critiques on The Huntington News’s journalism expresses a lack of confidence in the capabilities of its own students.

For prospective, incoming and current students, this relationship between Media Relations and journalism students is discouraging. Why would anyone want to join a journalism program at a school where the administration projects such apparent contempt of student reporting?

Public relations and journalism are intertwined professions. It is important that both student journalists and officials within administration establish some sort of working relationship to properly combat this problem.

The Huntington News editors are not asking for incessant interviews with the president. They are simply requesting one on-the-record interview per semester, at the least.

Students should not be begging for information from a consistently unresponsive administration. Reporters do not interfere with the ability of the University to do its job, and the University should return the favor.

Student scapegoats should no longer be used as a crutch for NEU’s own fear of transparency.

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