The Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) has released a statement criticizing U of T after the university’s media relations office refused to answer a media request from The Ubyssey — the University of British Columbia’s student paper — on the grounds that its staff were unable to accommodate student media outside of U of T.
“Due to the high volume of requests we receive we are unable to assist with requests with student media other than our own,” read the email from U of T to The Ubyssey’s Coordinating Editor, Samantha McCabe.
After receiving U of T’s response, McCabe tweeted, “Hey, @UofT — just a reminder that all student media is media, and has the capacity to hold you accountable!”
In response, the CAJ, which is an organization representing over 600 journalists across the country, released a statement in support of student journalists.
“The University of Toronto and other post-secondary institutions must recognize that student journalists are journalists,” the statement read. “If the university requires more staff to fulfill the basic mandate of its media relations department, the correct way to address that is to hire additional staff, not ignore questions.”
Evan Balgord, Vice-President of the CAJ, called the move “unacceptable.”
“It’s the role of student newspapers to cover their schools and often it’s student media that break stories holding these institutions accountable,” said Balgord. “It’s concerning that the University of Toronto is ignoring requests coming from journalists enrolled at other schools.”
In an interview with The Varsity, U of T Media Relations Interim Director Elizabeth Church said, “We’ve been listening to the debate and we’re considering how we can revise our practice to address some of the issues that are being raised.”
She added that her office has been trying to expand their services in recent years “to respond to our campus media the same way we do to other members of the media.” This includes arranging interviews with senior staff for The Varsity’s multiple requests per week, as well as for all other U of T campus media.
“I just want to stress that we think it’s important to give priority to our student media and to make sure that they have a chance to talk to senior leaders and staff about issues,” said Church.
When contacted by The Varsity, McCabe said that she was working on a story on what Canadian universities and postsecondary institutions are doing in terms of sexual violence prevention and education.
“I think their response takes a media request regarding a very serious subject matter and oversimplifies it into ’merely’ a student journalist’s request,” wrote McCabe.
“While I recognize that I’m from an entirely different university and that I don’t pay tuition to U of T, as a public-facing institution they need to be accountable to both their own students (which, I would say, would have made up part of the audience of my story) as well as to Canadian students in general, especially on a subject as importance as sexual violence,” she continued.
McCabe sent the initial email on August 16 and received U of T’s response on August 20, denying her request. She replied a day later, stressing “the importance of their comment, given the topic and that I was speaking to other universities,” but U of T has so far upheld its decision.
U of T lists four staffers in their central media relations office, and 22 more communications officials in other academic divisions.
— With files from Josie Kao