The relationship between student media and the University’s Media Relations department is an inherently conflicted one. While student journalists take measures to seek out unique stories, Media Relations sees the effectiveness of its role diminished by potentially negative stories or the releasing of information, be it video of a cockroach in the SAC kitchen that could go viral, or a Resident Assistant disclosing residence hall information not provided by Stony Brook’s website or withholding permission to shoot a hot-dog eating contest.
Lauren Sheprow, the Director of Media Relations, has spearheaded this tug-of-war with an incessant expansion of control, a frighteningly stalwart commitment to bureaucratic paperwork and a stance on public relations that leaves little growing room for educational journalism. Sheprow has become infamous for her ability to circumvent and stonewall student journalists, as well as exercise Media Relations’ grip over an increasing amount of the campus, from RAs to dining hall managers. So much so that School of Journalism Professor Barbara Selvin saw it necessary to post on her public blog a denunciation of Sheprow and how she handles SBU’s Media Relations.
The post, titled “University media relations: help or hindrance for j-schools?” begs the question as to how a thriving journalism school can expand in the shadow of a PR iron fist. “She [Sheprow] claims that university officials are free to speak with student journalists, but in practice, she has created an atmosphere in which nearly every administrator refers all questions to her,” wrote Selvin.
Putting aside the independent motives of Professor Selvin and the attempts already made by the School of Journalism to carve a more productive relationship with Media Relations, the incident is intriguing because Sheprow herself took the time to undermine the post, refute its apparent errors and defend the role of PR at SBU.
Under the name SBU Media Relations, Sheprow, who immediately said that she was the representative in question, meticulously examined Selvin’s position for errors, such as the date at which the previous spokesman left the post (which Selvin did in fact get wrong), and defending her journalism background, saying she had worked for “award-winning publications,” but not offering names nor drawing the clear and obvious distinction between whether she has worked exclusively in PR or actually ventured into the realm of real journalism.
Sheprow’s decision to defend herself is perfectly within her rights, but to do so on a public blog is not only strange, but also seemingly unnecessary. Being well versed in her field, it’s baffling as to why Sheprow would tackle the post so vehemently, while still pulling up walls of ambiguity. She twice refuted Selvin’s points with vague responses; first with her comment on having worked for an award-winning publication, and second on her insistence of a past incident where a journalism school student tarnished the program’s name.
Instead of employing her time and effort to a blog post that was simply publicly stating frustrations that have been discussed for months, Sheprow could be dedicating her time to establishing a better relationship with the School of Journalism. Quite frequently, Sheprow “doesn’t have the time” to return calls or respond to emails, and often responds to such requests after deadlines. This is quite true considering she holds two posts, one as the University’s interim director and as the official Media Relations Director for the Medical Center. But she had time enough to make these remarks, which are only a step backwards and away from what could be a productive and commendable relationship between Media Relations and the School of Journalism.
It is very important for budding journalists to experience a public relations department that may not be that helpful or cooperative, as it encourages them to develop and seek sources in a new light, but the question at hand is why must it be so difficult for a state-funded university to respond to a wide array of inquiries, even if it’s as harmless as a hotdog eating contest. I guess the answer lies in writing a blog and hoping that Sheprow responds. We’ll keep our fingers crossed.