Organizations like The Cascade or the Student Union Society (SUS) can be considered microcosms of media and government beyond campus borders. But as students on the cusp of “the real world,” we are also in a unique position to change the way things are done.
Media and government have a difficult balance to strike. The Cascade and SUS, for instance, have similar goals to engage and inform UFV students. SUS aims to offer opportunities and spaces for the student community to thrive. At The Cascade, one part of what we do is report on what SUS does, to hold them accountable to students.
We appreciate opportunities to let students know when our student union is doing well, but SUS often does a fair job at communicating that themselves. More often, we are obliged to report on works in progress — on what’s working, and what’s not.
If revenue from fees (including the society fee and fees for SUS-run services) meets budget projections, SUS will collect $2,296,412* directly from students — so, nearly $2.3 million. To be fair, SUS does a lot of great work with that money. But students have a right to know and comment on how our funds are spent and why. So when The Cascade has persistent difficulty getting answers from an organization with that much money and political power at its disposal, it’s a significant problem.
In March 2014, SUS (then with Shane Potter as president) amended its communications policy so that all interactions with media (with The Cascade) must go through the president. “Only the president is authorized to speak publicly on behalf of the society,” it reads, an edict that greatly limits our ability to provide varied perspectives and comprehensive details in our coverage. Despite attempts then and since to convey the drawbacks of such an arrangement, SUS has stuck to its resolution not to allow anyone beyond the executive to speak.
Often, the results of this muffling are unfavourable to SUS as well as us. Minor errors (which we make every effort to correct and prevent in future) are used as an excuse to continue making communication difficult, creating a cycle that leaves ample room for further mistakes and gaps in the stories we cover.
SUS’s communication policy also inhibits students trying to gain governance experience with SUS from practicing an essential political skill: communicating with the media and the public. At the paper, we try to train reporters to handle interactions with campus politicians positively but persistently, and to be mindful in their reportage of how information is delivered. But the policy means most of SUS’s elected representatives and staff are not similarly equipped.
Outside the policy, there are further obstacles to communication with SUS. It’s not sufficient for us, as we would with almost any other interviewee, to simply schedule an interview about a specific topic; we are often asked to provide either a list of questions or extremely detailed notes on what will be asked, which is against good journalistic practice.
SUS officials have frequently expressed displeasure at aspects of our coverage and the way their quotes are integrated. Politicians disliking reportage on themselves is an old cliché that holds hands with a general public expectation that politicians hide information and act standoffishly with the media. As a new generation navigating a minute political sphere, it would be preferable to see us setting a new, more open standard, rather than falling into such bad habits.
If we play out the cliché, we must get used to the frustrations of political reportage. SUS officials should get used to being covered in the media, and having people draw public conclusions about their actions that, sometimes, aren’t as well-informed as they could be. Or, we could remember that despite our differing methods, we have the same interest in informing and engaging students in campus life, and act accordingly.
We don’t take this kind of statement in the editorial space lightly, and would not do so if there was not a feeling that SUS’s attitude toward communicating with the paper (one mode of communicating with its membership) was inhibiting our ability to provide you with clear, accurate, and comprehensive coverage. But facing these long-term frustrations, it seems the only power of the press is in print, and it is my hope that a more public appeal may plant the seed for change, rather than perpetuating a cycle of communication struggles that, in the end, only keep students from getting the complete picture.