Reporters at The Huntington News, a student publication at Northeastern University, took to social media this week to demand increased transparency from the school and its media relations office, which they say routinely prohibits access to key college officials.
The student journalists say they have not spoken with university president Joseph Aoun, some senior administrators, and multiple department heads for several years — despite repeated efforts.
“There have been few instances where we can interview higher-up faculty,” said Huntington News editor-in-chief Kelly Chan. “The whole process is very tedious and hinders student reporters, especially when we are reporting news that’s specific to the Northeastern community, like reopening school in the fall.”
Michael Armini, Northeastern’s senior vice president for external affairs, said inquiries from the News are evaluated the same way as those from other independent news outlets. (The paper separated from the college and severed all financial ties in 2008.)
“We are not singling out the Huntington News,” he said via phone. “When they reach out, we evaluate and assess the best way to respond.”
The newspaper’s online campaign began with managing editor Deanna Schwartz. In a June 11 Twitter thread, she called the level of communication between reporters and administration “unacceptable.”
“We ask for an interview with Aoun regularly, and they always turn us down,” Schwartz wrote in the thread. “I don’t know if Northeastern’s refusal to let us talk to the president comes from Aoun himself or from [public relations].”
Almost instantly, the thread resonated with a swath of reporters — many Northeastern alumni themselves — who sided with Schwartz and the publication. A few Boston University and Emerson College student reporters retweeted her as well.
Northeastern's PR department once again turned down our request for an interview with President Aoun, saying that he is "not available." We specifically requested an interview regarding fall reopening and NUflex. @HuntNewsNU has not been granted an interview with Aoun since 2013.— Deanna Schwartz (@deannaschwartzz) June 11, 2020
A day later, former News staffer Sully Barrett created a change.org petition demanding Aoun regularly meet with student journalists. It garnered more than 350 signatures in three days.
“The News works to ‘maintain a high standard of quality’ of reporting, but it is unable to do so without transparency from the university’s foremost leader,” read the petition.
Following the online pressure, Northeastern granted the paper a 30-minute joint interview with Provost David Madigan and Chancellor Kenneth W. Henderson on Tuesday. The interview could pave the way for additional meetings with administrators, including Aoun, said Armini.
Armini and two additional media relations specialists also sat down with Huntington News editors on Tuesday to talk about the organizations’ working relationship going forward.
“That’s something,” said Schwartz. “But we are the students of the school, and we are paying their salaries, and they need to talk to us regularly.”
Now Chan and Schwartz are asking that a Huntington News reporter be allowed to interview Aoun on the record at least once a semester.
Armini said the media relations office has declined interviews with the News in the past because the paper frequently makes errors in articles. “Our concern is that there’s a constant requirement for a correction after almost every story we read,” he said. “Stories are frequently inaccurate, and efforts to obtain critical facts are treated as a last-minute afterthought.”
But Chan said the News’ reporting has warranted few corrections in the past year — and none have been issued since she assumed the position in May.
Schwartz confirmed editors are sometimes sent suggested corrections from the media relations office that they do not deem valid.
Many alumni have also come to the paper’s defense.
A handful, including BuzzFeed senior creative director Rachel Zarrell, wrote a Huntington News op-ed signed by more than 50 graduates that scrutinizes the administration’s actions. (Zarrell worked for the Globe until 2013.)
She said the school pushes away the student journalists it claims to support.
“For a school that prides itself on being an experiential learning university, this stonewalling of student reporters contradicts that,” she said in an interview. "It’s hard to present yourself as caring about journalism if you don’t talk to your student reporters transparently.”
More of the same from Aoun. I got him to sit down in fall 2012 and it was the first time he went on-record with @huntnewsNU since 2010. So, what....maybe 3 interviews in a decade?— Colin Young (@ColinAYoung) June 11, 2020
He loves to promote experiential learning, but I guess not for journalism students. https://t.co/6TIn9YZ9rm
At least two Huntington News reporters also told the Globe they endured degrading remarks from a media relations specialist.
When alerting Schwartz of an error in a story published fall 2019, Northeastern’s vice president of communications Renata Nyul called Schwartz’s work “badly done.”
“I can’t comprehend why you and your reporters make absolutely no effort to do your homework before you decide what is a story,” Nyul wrote in an e-mail.
“You seem to spend no time looking at the facts on your own.... I know you are passionate about journalism, but if you are pursuing it as a career path you have to practice it with more rigor and adhere to the basic rules of integrity with every single story. Please consider asking professional journalists to help you.”
Armini said the comments were meant to be taken constructively as feedback. He also said the media relations team has been encouraged by the Northeastern journalism department to take advantage of teachable moments they encounter in the Huntington News’ reporting process.
After being read Nyul’s quotes by a Globe reporter, Armini said, “It sounds like the person on my team was trying to teach.”
Diti Kohli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @ditikohli_