Roadblocks to student journalism don’t help anyone

We wanted to write this editorial about UT’s response to shifting Title IX policies at the federal level. The Department of Education has proposed significant changes that will soon be implemented nationwide, and schools across the country are scrambling to respond before they take effect. 

Many fear these changes will make it harder for schools to punish sexual assault and easier for students to get away with it. These changes provoke anxiety for a lot of UT students. Sexual assault is as prevalent at UT as it is anywhere, and students are worried about what these changes could mean. 

We wanted to find out how UT will respond. And we couldn’t. 

We couldn’t get the information we needed to write our initial piece through the official channels. We didn’t get the chance to explain to students how these changes will affect them or how their University will implement broad changes to its response to rape on campus — not through the official process. Instead, roadblocks within University Communications made information about sexual assault policies inaccessible. 

We knew some parts of UT’s response. We knew UT maintained the Obama-era standard of proof because that information is on the Dean of Students’ website. We knew the System planned to push back against some of the changes, because The Daily Texan wrote a piece about it in February. 

But we didn’t have any information about UT-Austin’s response. What would these changes mean for students on this campus? How would they affect our peers, or us? 

We needed to get this information through interviews with University officials. 

We emailed the Title IX coordinator for UT-Austin, Krista Anderson, requesting an interview. Anderson agreed to interview with us that Wednesday and asked us to schedule the interview through the University’s communications strategist, Shilpa Bakre. 

After some back and forth, Bakre asked us how our editorial would be different from the February news article highlighting the UT System’s response. We tried to explain that we were looking for the University’s response, or any information specific to UT-Austin. We wanted to know how this would affect students like us. 

Her response: “There isn’t much else we can provide in addition to what was previously provided. We aren’t able to provide a voice from the Federal level as we aren’t a Federal entity. We are a state institution.” 

This was the end of the conversation. It looked like we weren’t going to get the interview we needed. 

We needed information about sexual assault policies — about how the University will respond to changes that will have a huge impact on the process for reporting and responding to rape. We couldn’t get it. 

This looks like a lack of transparency. It looks like an unwillingness to give reporters at the student newspaper access to key information about sexual assault. This information — which would ideally be available online — isn’t even accessible to students who go through the proper channels. 

Remember that the Title IX coordinator had already agreed to an interview. Remember that she told us when she was available. Remember that the communications strategist was asked to schedule the interview, not cancel it. 

Students are worried about weakening Title IX policies. Students will be affected by these changes. But we couldn’t get this information through the official process. To get the interview, the editor-in-chief had to call the head of University Communications, J.B. Bird, and tell him we were planning to write an editorial about how hard it is to get information through his office. We had an interview set up within minutes. 

Issues with University Communications are broader than  one interview.

In this instance, the communications strategist asked for questions before setting up an interview. Reporters are taught not to provide questions, so this seems strange. When you’re trying to set up an interview on a controversial topic like sexual assault policies, demanding questions in advance makes it look like the University wants to filter its response. It makes it look like the University doesn’t want to answer questions it hasn’t seen  beforehand. 

In a written statement responding to this piece, Bakre addressed the practice of asking reporters for questions before setting up an interview. “We want to make sure all Texan writers know that submitting questions is not required. At the same time, we know from our work with journalists outside the Texan that it’s a common practice to conduct interviews via email with questions provided in advance,” Bakre wrote. 

We asked 22 current and former professional journalists from news outlets across the country, including many who have reported on UT — The Dallas Morning News, The New York Times, the Austin-American Statesman, KVUE, CBS Austin, The Monitor, the Houston Chronicle, The Texas Tribune. 

Seven of them said they would provide sample questions, but never all of their questions. Only one said they would ever give questions in advance. 

We asked Texan reporters — everyone we talked to said University communicators regularly demanded questions before setting anything up. Most of them reported giving up rather than trying to fight back against the professionals. 

Bakre says sending questions isn’t a requirement. But when you’re a student journalist and someone in a position of authority tells you to send questions, it doesn’t sound like a request. When they follow up by telling you most professional journalists do what you’ve been told not to, it doesn’t feel like a request. 

These practices make the University look guarded. Demanding questions and denying interviews creates the appearance of not being transparent about issues such as sexual assault. 

Bakre and Bird both disagree, and state how open they’ve been. “As university communicators, we value the professional relationship we have with The Daily Texan and we facilitate many interviews for the Texan,” Bakre wrote. 

The Daily Texan is made by and for students, and most of our readers are current UT students. When these practices create boundaries between reporters and the information they need, they shut off the flow of information to students. 

Our purpose at the Texan is to provide students with information they need about issues that affect them. When we can’t do that, no one wins.