In yet another blow for transparency on campus, a top University administrator is now refusing to deal with Oracle reporters by answering questions face-to-face or on the telephone, claiming such a move “protects both parties,” the reporter and the administrator being interviewed.
Carl Carlucci, the Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer for USF, is that administrator. He’s also the administrator whose office was charged with investigating Vice President of Student Affairs Jennifer Meningall for misallocation of funds earlier this semester.
Now, that’s not to say that Carlucci’s sudden shyness is at all connected with that audit, though he claims “the policy is not new”. Rather, it’s to point out that Carlucci, who oversees the University’s finances, deals with important issues that drastically affect USF’s $1.8 billion budget and 44,000-plus students, so it’s troubling when he refuses to openly communicate with the news organization that conveys said issues to students.
Sure, questions can still be asked and answered through e-mail, but it’s a form of communication which, because it’s written, allows the interviewee to prepare, practice and proofread his answers. This puts the interviewer at a strong disadvantage when it comes to determining the frankness – or evasiveness – of an interviewee.
In the context of the Oracle and USF, then, it could hurt students by preventing student journalists from telling the whole story, because the medium of e-mail simply does not allow it.
And when it comes to a subject as far-reaching as the money spent and circulated at the University, tuition-paying students have every right to know whether administrators who watch spending are being straightforward.
In an e-mail to an Oracle staffer, Carlucci justified his position by saying the e-mail policy prevents factual error, writing: “The reporter has exactly the right information when writing the story and the person being interviewed knows exactly what they said. No ambiguities, no misunderstandings.”
That’s a fine position, but simple technology developed years ago can achieve that same goal while maintaining the efficacy of the interview: a cassette or a digital voice recorder. Said recorders – the same kind often used to record lectures – are tools of the trade for most journalists. If Carlucci-or any administrator-fears being misquoted, he could set terms with the Oracle staffer interviewing him requiring that the conversation be recorded, and that the recording be kept until a certain date. A verbal contract clarifying the conditions for an on-the-record interview, if you will.
But Carlucci does not want to do that. He also implies that the e-mail policy stems from problems with Oracle reporters’ skills, asking, “If a reporter asks you a question and you try to answer it, is the reporter skilled enough to get it right? Do you deal with the same reporter all the time on that topic? Does the reporter know enough about the topic to ask informed questions and correctly represent the facts?”
In his defense, Carlucci raises a few valid points, but, like the recording issue, they can all be addressed. If Carlucci feels a reporter isn’t skilled enough to jot down his response in a notebook, why not require that the
Q-and-A session be recorded? Also, if Carlucci had a particularly negative experience during an interview, he could certainly call an Oracle editor to voice his concerns. Likewise, if Carlucci – or any other individual quoted by the Oracle – was misquoted, the Oracle will run a correction that sets the record straight.
It’s a little silly, moreover, for anyone to expect to deal with the same Oracle staffer on every occasion he’s interviewed. Most Oracle staffers are taking full-time course loads in addition to working at the paper, so it’s unlikely that the same reporter will always be available to talk to a specific administrator. And when it comes to asking informed questions about tricky financial information, most Oracle reporters try to do their best. Carlucci, though, could be patient if staffers – most of whom don’t have backgrounds in finance – need the meaning of “debt-to-equity ratio” explained.
Carl Carlucci is doing a disservice to the University community by refusing to communicate verbally with the Oracle. He does not require written communication of other journalists in the Tampa Bay area, nor should he require it of the Oracle.