Illustration by Aiden Knabel
The Observer holds transparency between the publication and its readers as a top priority. We believe it’s our duty and a crucial factor in our pursuit of journalistic integrity. For these reasons, we are compelled to inform our readers about the past year working with administrators and departments on campus.
Student media censorship and regulation is more common than many may think, coming in many different forms. In our case, administrators have been increasingly requiring student journalists to send in interview questions before giving any university worker, including faculty and student employees, permission to be interviewed.
The Observer staff has attempted to resolve this issue directly and amicably with the CWU Public Affairs, Athletics and Student Success departments. We are now faced with the reality that there is no option but to defend ourselves using the same voice that has served the student body for over a century. We also hope that in doing so, we will maintain the transparency with our readers that is vital for our credibility.
The Observer, while a fully student-run publication, works under the same ethical standards and strives for the same credibility as any professional outlet. We constantly attempt to conduct ourselves as professional journalists and, in doing so, hold the expectation that we will be treated with a similar level of professionalism and respect.
Journalism and public affairs are fields that have the potential for both great synergy and conflict. The two professions have very different interests, and while we at The Observer acknowledge the interests of the university, we believe that moral and ethical boundaries have been crossed. Our mission is, and always has been, to serve the interests of CWU’s community with accurate, thoughtful reporting. We believe in the importance of an informed public and hope that the public believes in our ability to inform.
Why we don’t send interview questions
The Observer understands the general public may not understand our resistance towards allowing journalists to send interview questions prior to an interview. One of the reasons is because it prevents us from getting genuine answers from our sources. If, for example, interview questions were sent in regarding a sensitive subject, answers from administrators may be formed in advance with a focus on public image over truth.
Arguably one of the most vital reasons for not sending interview questions in advance is because it invites outside interference into story content. If The Observer allowed sending interview questions and the questions were sent back with “edits” or “suggested questions,” it could directly affect the outcome of the interview and thus the accuracy of the story. We believe this causes a strong ethical dilemma, setting a precedent for the future which allows interviewees to get out of uncomfortable yet necessary questions. Everybody has the right to deny answering any question asked during an interview, but that doesn’t mean that those questions shouldn’t be asked.
If a journalist is doing their job right, interviews are dynamic with follow-up questions that build upon themselves. There is no way to predict which direction an interview will take, because it’s a conversation between the reporter and the person being interviewed. During many of the most successful interviews, an answer that the interviewee gives can reframe the story, illuminating things that the reporter may never have expected. This fluidity makes pieces of journalism better, giving reporters the freedom to find truth rather than being given a tailored version of it.
The Observer models itself after a professional newsroom and holds itself to the same ethical standards and practices as any real-world publication. Professional journalists rarely send their questions before an interview. There are exceptions, such as in cases where the interviewee wouldn’t reasonably have a statistic or fact ready off the top of their head, but those are exceptions, not the industry standard. In most cases, it’s considered unethical.
In early April, The Observer planned to cover the Rock Against Rape event and Sexual Assault Awareness month, hosted by the Wellness Center. Then staff reporter Austin Lane reached out to the Wellness Center via email to set up interviews with Violence Prevention and Response Coordinator Kristen Perry and a student involved with the event, but was told to send interview questions in advance. Perry said that once questions were approved, Lane could go forward with the interviews. Lane asked why pre-approved interview questions would be required and mentioned that they had never been a requirement in the past. Associate Dean for Health and Wellness Shawnté Elbert replied that it was a “new standard of practice for the Division of Student Success in partnership with Public Affairs.”
This situation is what motivated The Observer to meet with administration in late April to try to resolve the issue of having questions approved before interviews.
The Observer meets with administration
In late April, The Observer staff, including then Editor-in-Chief and current Online Editor Mariah Valles, then Scene Editor and current Editor-in-Chief Cassandra Hays and The Observer’s Faculty Adviser Francesco Somaini met with administrators to discuss why The Observer would not engage in sending interview questions prior to interviews. Administrators present were Dean of Student Success Gregg Heinselman, Associate Dean for Health and Wellness Shawnté Elbert, Associate Dean for Student Living Jenna Hyatt and Vice President of Public Affairs Kremiere Jackson.
Valles requested to record the discussion, but Jackson said the meeting should take place without being recorded. The rest of the non-student media attendees agreed. While the meeting was not recorded, notes were taken by both parties.
The administrators present felt that when being asked by reporters to schedule interviews, they weren’t being provided with the context necessary to provide informed answers from the right experts and officials. The Observer, agreeing with the need for all interview parties to be reasonably prepared, agreed to provide general summaries of the intended story when scheduling interviews. Both Hays and Valles say, however, that all parties explicitly agreed that exact interview questions would not be sent under any circumstances except in cases requiring statistics or specific facts.
A new school year
On Sept. 25, Scene Editor Mary Park reached out to the Wellness Center via email for a story on seasonal affective disorder and gave context about the information she would be asking for during the interview. Park was asked to send specific questions and was told that the interview would need to be approved by Associate Dean for Health and Wellness Elbert, despite the fact that Park had appropriately described the nature of the interview.
Rather than sending specific questions, Park replied with context and general topics that she would be talking about in order to get the interview approved. Director of Counseling Dr. Cindy Bruns said she needed permission from Elbert in order to be interviewed by Park. In this case, Park ended up being able to go forward with the interview after sending the additional context to Dr. Bruns.
Current staff reporter Amy Morris emailed the Wellness Center with an interview request on Oct. 22 regarding her story about safe drinking on Halloween. The Wellness Center replied:
“All interview questions must be approved by the Associate Dean of Health and Wellness: Shawnte Elbert…When she has approved of the interview questions, we can schedule an interview with one of our professional staff members.”
Morris then emailed Elbert saying, “I am a reporter from the Observer and I am doing a story on the party scene at Central and how students can stay safe and healthy.”
She continued by saying, “I was told you have to approve the questions ahead of time but we are not allowed to send the questions before the interview.”
Elbert responded on the same day. In an email, Elbert wrote that sending interview questions gives her staff the chance to prepare in advance, as many of the topics The Observer covers are “quite broad,” which puts her staff in a position where they are not fully prepared to answer questions.
“Having worked at 3 other campuses, sending the questions in advance has never been an issue, and allowed me to be better prepared for the interview and share relevant data,” Elbert said.
In the beginning of the email Elbert referenced the April meeting between student media and Student Success and said, “At this meeting we asked that the questions or context of questions be shared to ensure the right staff were speaking on the desired topics.”
As mentioned earlier, this was not the agreement that all parties came to during the meeting. The agreement was that student journalists would provide context, but not questions. Despite giving context and being told that she was working on “a great topic,” Morris was still required to send questions, going against the agreement made last school year.
Holding firm with our previous agreement and our newsroom policies, we didn’t proceed with the interview, instead using information from a Wellness Center brochure. While this provided the necessary baseline information, it lacked the depth we seek in reporting, and the story suffered because of it.
Regardless of which academic year it is, sending questions prior to an interview will never be acceptable.
On Oct. 7, CWU Athletics announced now former head softball coach Mike Larabee would be leaving CWU to be a coach at the University of Maryland. Senior Sports Reporter Austin Lane, whose job is to cover breaking news within sports, reached out to the athletics department to set up interviews. The coach’s departure was announced on a Monday and The Observer goes to press on Wednesday morning, leaving about 24 hours to complete interviews, write, edit and publish the story.
Every time The Observer wants to interview anybody within the athletics department, reporters go through either the Director of Athletic Communications Will McLaughlin or Assistant Director of Athletic Communications Caleb Dunlop. Typically what happens is a reporter will send an email stating who they want to interview and what they want to talk about in general, and either McLaughlin or Dunlop will set up interview times.
On Oct. 7 at 11:54 a.m., Lane texted Dunlop to set up interviews with current athletes to get their perspective on Larabee leaving. Lane gave a list of times he was available on Oct. 7 and 8 to complete interviews. Dunlop responded at 4:56 p.m. and said that one interview was confirmed for the following day and that he was working on setting up the other two requested interviews. At 5:10 p.m., Dunlop said that another athlete was set up for 1:30 p.m. the next day but that he couldn’t get the third.
Dunlop, after confirming two interviews already, said, “Please email me your questions for the interview before noon tomorrow, thanks.”
Lane responded and asked why Dunlop needed questions, stating that The Observer does not typically send questions in advance.
Dunlop replied via text message that the CWU Athletic Department “reserves the right to request questions in advance.” Dunlop also said that, “the higher the magnitude of the subject matter, the more we want to know going in.” Lane was told the request from the department was for “informational purposes” and “to help the athletes get a chance to give the subject matter a thorough think through prior to.” Dunlop said Lane reserves the right not to comply with the request.
Lane then communicated with McLaughlin, who said he fully supported Dunlop’s decision to request questions. McLaughlin said in an email that Dunlop was “not out of line” in requesting questions in advance so that the student athletes knew what to expect. McLaughlin added if there was any disagreement on the subject that Lane could bring the matter to Associate Athletic Director for External Affairs Tyler Unsicker.
Lane did not send interview questions by the given submission deadline, Oct. 8 at noon, and therefore interviews with the athletes were cancelled.
Dunlop emailed Lane at 12:03 p.m. on Oct. 8 and said, “given the subject matter, and quick turn-around on your request for the interviews, I had hoped there would be a mutual understanding regarding the matter. As it appears we cannot reach that understanding, the interviews will not be conducted.”
In an attempt to still give readers the full perspective, Lane reached out via text to two former CWU Softball athletes who played under Larabee. One former athlete responded, offering that herself and another former athlete could proceed with interviews.
After multiple reschedules on both Lane and the athlete’s side, the athlete texted Lane the following:
“Well, we got a phone call today saying not to answer your questions. The athletic department wants you to send them your questions before anyone answers them. [Another athlete] and I just received a text about it. Once you give them your questions they will okay the players to interview with you as well as us! Sorry I really want to help you out, but gotta play by the rules on this one!”
In the May 2 edition of The Observer, Lane wrote a story on former CWU Basketball athlete Malik Montoya about his decision to declare for the NBA Draft. For that story, the athletics department told Lane that he did not have to go through them to speak with Montoya. This was because Montoya’s final basketball season was already over, making him no longer a CWU student athlete. This should have also been the case for former softball athletes.
Lane was able to contact Larabee via phone call and use the athletic department’s website for his story, but no student athletes were quoted. Without comments from student athletes, the story was missing the essential element of genuine, unrehearsed student perspective.
Meeting with CWU Athletics
A meeting was set up for Oct. 28 to discuss the matter with the athletics department. Those in the meeting for athletics included Dunlop, McLaughlin, Unsicker and CWU Athletics Intern Christian Bond. Those attending for student media’s representation include Valles, Hays, Lane, Somaini and Central News Watch Adviser Terri Reddout.
The meeting was not recorded but both parties took notes.
During this meeting, concerns were raised about the athletics department requiring questions for both current and former athletes.
When The Observer asked why there wasn’t an alternative to sending questions, for example sending more context if necessary, Dunlop said the reporter didn’t ask for an alternative. While not directly asking for an alternative, Lane said the publication does not send interview questions and Dunlop did not suggest an alternative either.
When asked why the athletics department was requiring interview questions for this story, they had two responses. The first was that the athletes wanted to know the questions, but this was not stated until Reddout communicated with CWU Athletics on Thursday, Oct. 10, when communication about the story began on Oct. 7. The second reason, provided by Unsicker, was that the athletics department didn’t want athletes to say anything that would make them look bad to the community, saying they didn’t want the athletes to speak from emotion.
Another point mentioned was that on two instances McLaughlin told current Sports Editor Nick Jahnke that he and The Observer staff are “still just students.” Mclaughlin said that since The Observer is student-run, CWU Athletics has the authority to dictate how the staff goes about reporting for stories within the athletic department. In the Oct. 28 meeting, McLaughlin denied ever saying such things to Jahnke.
This sort of conduct has not been typical of the athletics department in the past. However, in light of the current situation with other departments on campus and in the spirit of transparency, we felt it necessary to disclose everything that has transpired.
Journalists have spent years and gallons of ink justifying our existence over and over again, and we will keep doing so out of necessity long into the future.
In writing this piece, we seek two things. The first is recognition for the importance of student journalists. Not personal glory, but respect for the roles we are honored to fill. The second is the freedom to do our jobs, which we will continue to do regardless of however much respect we are given or deserving of. The writers of this piece will eventually move on from CWU, but student journalists and The Observer are here to stay.