OPINION- Student media is not your public relations firm

Sometimes an interviewee says something that leaves me speechless.

I was interviewing two members of an organization at Auburn. The organization was putting on an event involving a lot of people, and I was previewing it.

After asking basic questions about the event, Person A mentioned safety concerns. I asked two questions about what they had done to ensure guests’ safety. Person A gave two vague answers. I finished the interview because they wouldn’t say anything.

After I turned off my recording equipment, Person A stopped me.

“Don’t ask those kinds of questions,” they said. “If you do, this interview is over.”

I had no idea what to say. After several awkward seconds of staring at each other, I stammered something resembling an apology. Person B watched us and said nothing.

The next day, Person A emailed my boss and alleged that I hadn’t prepared for the interview and had not gathered enough information – both of which are false. Neither Person A nor B told me they did this. The whole incident baffled me because the questions I asked weren’t even that difficult. Asking, “Why did you add these rules?” and “Were people getting hurt?” is hardly a cutthroat interrogation. This was an event preview story, not Watergate.

I can’t help but think the organization’s real problem with that interview was that I did not ask the questions they wanted. Instead of running a safe, boring story that advertised their event, I wanted to find an actual story about the event’s safety. From a journalistic view, this was the right choice.

Investigating safety issues is journalism. Unquestioning event coverage is advertising.

“Don’t ask those kinds of questions.”

Advertising is public relations, and that is not our job. If you are an Auburn resident who wants to send a public message, student media organizations, such as The Plainsman and Eagle Eye are not your PR firm.

Eagle Eye and The Plainsman staffers work incredibly hard every week to produce good journalism about Auburn. Giving someone – anyone – space to talk without challenging them is not good journalism.

Good journalism checks facts, double-checks assertions and finds the truth, even when it’s not what someone wants to talk about. Student journalists don’t always live up to that standard. As intrigue editor, I’ve seen pieces run that were more advertising than journalism, and I regret that.

However, failing to meet our own standards does not mean we should abandon them and let anyone use student media as their own personal megaphone. It means we in student media need to work harder to live up to those standards.

Those standards mean that when Eagle Eye airs a package or The Plainsman publishes a story, viewers and readers know the content isn’t dictated by outside parties.

Student media organizations are not your PR firms. If you want advertising, buy an ad. We’d be happy to sell you one.

Why it’s a highlight:

This incident was such a trainwreck. Everything listed really happened. I was interviewing the president and chairman of a certain well-known group on campus and they tried to get me fired.

Once I’d sorted out what happened with my boss, I demanded a spot in the paper from the opinions editor. I wish I could have called out the group by name, but that would have been less professional and inviting legal trouble.

As it was, this column became well-known and saluted within the Auburn University journalism community. It’s a favorite of mine because it lays down exactly what journalism should be for an audience that didn’t always get it.

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Original Story

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