The University of Maryland in College Park, in December 2017. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

This post comes to you from a journalism class at the University of Maryland at College Park taught by Dana Priest, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist at The Washington Post.

Priest, who is the John S. and James L. Knight chair in public-affairs journalism at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at U-Md., decided to ditch a planned assignment and use real-time events to give her students a chance to investigate the nature of news and disinformation on their campus and to challenge school officials.

Priest and her students tell the story in three separate pieces below. Priest wrote the first, which she titled “Being Quick and Nimble with Students” and says, “When the university’s Office of Strategic Communication launched a new website, Maryland Today, and called it ‘news,’ I had a perfect vehicle for experiential learning."

That sets the stage for the next piece, written by a group of her students who are identified below. Finally, there is an opinion piece by three students about what they think the University of Maryland officials should do to remedy the situation.

By Dana Priest

Not even midway through this semester, I received an unexpected gift from University of Maryland administrators: a real time campus controversy I could incorporate into my critical thinking course called, “From Censorship to Disinformation: The Global Battle for Political Power.”

For some background, my students at the Merrill College of Journalism have been studying a chronological and geographic sweep of both censorship and disinformation beginning in 2000 with the first election of Vladimir Putin, focusing on the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the Arab Spring in the early 2010s and its backlash, Russian disinformation in Europe and the 2016 U.S. election and its aftermath.

I combine this with an explanation of the new technologies which have empowered the destructive forces of censorship and disinformation with great intensity: mainly the social media ecosystem that includes corporate giants (Facebook, Google, Twitter), algorithms, bots, trolls, cyborgs and data brokers.

When I began teaching the course, Donald Trump was not yet president. Now that he is, I’ve incorporated his rhetoric on the media too. We’ve studied it both as an enabler of authoritarian leaders abroad and as a challenge to the historic role of the media in the United States. Bringing in real world problems in real time energizes students to no end.

When the university’s Office of Strategic Communication launched a new website, Maryland Today, and called it “news,” I had a perfect vehicle for experiential learning. Two weeks ago, when we first discussed the website in the context of our class, I decided to ditch the scheduled weekly writing assignment, which is based on the week’s readings.

The class divided into teams, analyzed different parts of the website, interviewed a couple of our college’s professors, and wrote what they learned. The students came alive and the classroom was filled with loud discoveries and debates that went on after the classes ended.

I’m still getting used to how this generation likes to learn in groups. Each time I see how it’s done, I’m enthused and energized too. The groups recently handed in rough drafts and I’ve been editing with some of them on Google Docs. It feels like a newsroom.

As class was ending on Monday, someone who is not a journalism student yelled out: “Why don’t we just call them and tell them what we are finding and maybe they will agree and make changes?

I blurted out, instinctively: “No, this is what we do, journalism. This is how you change things.” Let’s see.

What follows is a group article and opinion piece.

Here is the news story written by a group of Priest’s students, which they titled “Maryland Today: University-Funded Disinformation?” The authors are Samantha Rosen, Jillian Atelsek, Connor Moldo, Ashley Peccerelli, Ruby Chervin, Denise Marois, Jaime Bonchick, Morgan Caplan, Morgan Politzer, Albane Guichard, Daniel Gomez, Seth Gleaner and Oseh Lie-Saine.

Maryland Today is funded and written by the University of Maryland’s Office of Strategic Communications (OSC), but it calls itself a “news” outlet and hides its true authorship in tiny print at the bottom of its website.

Advertisements on campus buses proclaimed Maryland Today as “your source for the university’s news.” Its mission statement is obscurely located on OSC’s website, under “Work.”

“With a workday population the size of a small city, the University of Maryland needed a daily news source with a consistent message and voice,” it says. “The Office of Strategic Communications created Maryland Today, a website where faculty and staff can find the university’s most important and interesting stories in one place. The site features articles, videos, photo galleries and more every weekday during the academic year.”

The university already has a daily news source called the Diamondback, an independent student-run publication. The Maryland Today masthead appears to use the same font as the Diamondback and originally the same color until the Diamondback changed theirs.

“I don’t want to say it looks suspiciously like The Diamondback, but it looks a little bit too much like The Diamondback, in my view,” said Rafael Lorente, associate dean for academic affairs and the director of the master’s program at the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism.

Lorente said the small disclaimer at the bottom of the site’s home page which informs readers that they’re reading university-produced content is not a strong enough message.

“Intentionally or unintentionally, that’s deceptive,” he said. “It looks too much like a news site.”

Lorente said he met recently with OSC Associate Vice President Joel Seligman to voice his concern that the publication was not clearly labeled as an official public relations product. He also complained about his inability to unsubscribe. Seligman didn’t appear to agree with his concerns.

“I said, ‘Well, what if Barack Obama or Donald Trump had their communications people create a website and send an email that every American received, couldn’t opt out of, and called it news? We would find that pretty appalling, no matter which president did it, and the university shouldn’t do it.’”

University spokeswoman Katie Lawson wrote in a statement that “limitations in the university's bulk mail platform” prevent OSC from being able to remove anyone from the mailing list, but that they “offer instructions for an interim workaround measure for those requesting it.”

Lorente said he now refuses to read the website although he is forced to receive it along with 50,000 other university faculty, staff and students.

OSC officials said they were not available to answer other questions about the site in a timely manner.

In our class “Censorship and Disinformation,” we have concentrated on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s information warfare beginning in 2000 through today as well as on other hidden online actors who seek to manipulate readers’ beliefs.

Ben Nimmo, an expert in disinformation, argues that “the essence of disinformation is the intent to deceive. While such an intent is difficult to prove, it can be inferred by reference to three key criteria,” which he terms the “ABC approach.”

These criteria are: “the accuracy of factual statements, balance in reporting and the credibility of the sources chosen.”

While most of the facts contained in Maryland Today’s posts may be accurate, some articles omit negative facts necessary to understand what actually happened.

For example, in an article title “Hate-Bias Response Log Launched,” the first paragraph states: “The Office of Diversity and Inclusion has created an online hate-bias response log to inform the campus community about reported incidents.”

The article fails to mention the recent cases of hate-speech and actions that forced the university to convene an inquiry into the university environment and which prompted the new approach. One such incident was the murder of an African-American student last year allegedly by a white student who had written racist comments online.

The article frames the story only in a way that commends the university for taking action to protect students.

“This (reporting) log is a step toward increased transparency, and it also allows students, staff, and faculty to see the outreach provided to impacted parties,” said Cynthia Edmunds, interim chief diversity officer.

Another example are the headlines. A Diamondback headline about an outbreak of mold in several student dormitories included: “UMD Resident Life offered students $750 to cancel their housing. It didn’t go well.” A Maryland Today headline reads, “Reslife Gets Creative on Housing Crunch.”

In “University Commits to Follow McNair Report Recommendations,” the author discusses the report’s findings and the conditions leading to Jordan McNair’s death, but the only quotes are from university officials. Students, athletes, and McNair’s family are completely left out. “President Loh and I are wholeheartedly committed to the safety and well-being of our students,” Athletic director Damon Evans said. “We will do everything in our power to prevent a tragedy like this from ever happening again.”

Similar quotes from other university officials are scattered throughout, painting the university in a positive light. In Diamondback articles, by contrast, McNair’s father is quoted, saying “[Coach Durkin] shouldn’t be able to work with anyone else’s kid,” and Student Government Association President Jonathan Allen says, “If, somehow, coach Durkin is reinstated, I think that would be indicative of … instances where athletics department have valued their bottom line more than they valued their student-athletes. If [players] say that they don't feel comfortable under a coach that had a death [on] his watch, then that should be the only thing that matters."

The Society of Professional Journalists, an organization representing journalists, encourages news organizations to adhere to its code of ethics, which are not legally binding. Its four principles are: seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, and to be accountable and transparent.

“It fails all four tenets of the SPJ standards,” Sandy Banisky, senior ethics lecturer at the University of Maryland said of Maryland Today. “It certainly fails journalism ethics.”

On the matter of independence, OSC’s Seligman, who wrote an Aug. 27 piece on the investigation into the football program’s alleged “toxic” culture, is paid nearly $250,000 per year, according to a salary guide posted in The Diamondback.

Office of Strategic Communications staffers are paid much higher for their public relations publication than the independent student-run news publication, the Diamondback. The paper reports on campus news and the surrounding area. (Chart by Morgan Caplan) (Diamondback/The Diamondback)

As for “balance in reporting,” most of Maryland Today’s articles do not provide competing viewpoints or facts from a variety of sources. The majority of sources quoted are officials paid by the university. Often stories use just one quote from one official.

Transparency, according to SPJ’s guidelines, is crucial for today’s journalists to generate readers’ trust. Unlike most newspapers, which now offer readers biographies, emails and the Twitter handle of reporters and editors, Maryland Today has none of those.

There is no “About Us” button or staff biographies. Most articles are attributed to “Maryland Today Staff.” The OSC website lists staff members as “writer/editor” but their experience is not listed.

By contrast, at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., 31 miles from the University of Maryland at College Park, “News at Mason” is run by Melanie Balog, a former journalist, but is also not clearly marked as a product of the university. All articles, which are written for faculty and staff, are bylined. Most News at Mason staff, whose biographies are listed on the site, have journalism backgrounds.

“We try to present a well-rounded story,” said John Hollis, a writer for News at Mason. “We understand we’re here to tell a story about GMU, but as former reporters we try to be balanced.”

The harm Maryland Today poses to the university community is significant. Not being straightforward about its status as an official, university-financed media organ risks blurring the line in students’ mind between real news and state-sponsored marketing or, worse, disinformation.

“We’re a public university, I think it’s beneath our mission,” said Lorente. “It’s just not what we should be doing.”

And here is an opinion piece on the subject by students Sara Karlovitch, Julia Lerner and Jacob Orgel, which they have titled “University of Maryland Officials Need a Course in Media Literacy and Disinformation.”

Joel Seligman needs to take a course in media literacy where he can study the dangers of state-sponsored disinformation. It’s a big problem these days.

The University of Maryland’s Office of Strategic Communications, which Seligman heads, has now become part of the problem — not the solution — by polluting the news ecosystem with its new online public relations website that pretends to be journalism.

Shortly after Maryland Today was launched in August in a font and a color-scheme that looked suspiciously like the Diamondback, the independent student newspaper, students took to social media to air their concerns. They called it “disgusting,” “a farce,” “propaganda.” They saw it as an attempt to distract from ongoing scandals like the death of student athlete Jordan McNair and the outbreak of mold in student dormitories.

As students at the Merrill College of Journalism who happened to be studying censorship and disinformation in Russia and elsewhere this semester, we saw it as something much worse: crass disinformation — an effort to influence readers’ view of the university by deception.

We understand that all universities, like all institutions, want to put a positive spin on what they do. There’s a lot to be proud of at our university. But its leaders should at least understand the difference between honest spin and less-than-honest spin.

Our reporting revealed that even after Rafael Lorente, an associate dean at the Merrill College of Journalism, tried recently to explain the ethics and potential harm involved to Seligman, nothing changed. So we will attempt once more.

Backed by the full access and finances of the institution, MT (rhymes with RT!) is automatically advantaged by all its university’s connections, employees and Maryland’s taxpayers.

The student Diamondback, on the other hand, has relied on advertisement revenue to stay afloat since it became independent from the University in 1972. This means it must pay close attention to keeping its audience, the readers of these advertisements, or it could be overtaken by a more well-funded competitor and go out of business.

Another risk to the Diamondback and other independent student publications is that once university employees become more familiar with MT, Diamondback staff worry, university employees might refuse to speak with the student reporters and instead only talk with MT. Even worse, maybe Seligman finds a way to make this a rule, thus making the Diamondback’s job all the more difficult. Seligman’s office already handles media inquiries from the Diamondback reporters and is sometimes unhelpful.

The difference between state-financed, state-run publications that verge on purposeful disinformation, on the one hand, and real journalism, on the other, matters now more than ever as independent outlets around the world have increasingly come under fire by their governments. By pretending to be a news outlet and not an official public affairs product, the university is infringing on the journalistic development of our students as well as supporting ongoing attacks on the free press.

President Donald Trump’s rhetoric against the media, that we are “the enemy of the people,” has made some Americans’ forget the media’s historic role in safeguarding our imperfect democracy. In a small, local way, by pretending to be journalism and using the university’s millions to compete with the scrappy Diamondback, Maryland Today further weakens the free press.

Maryland Today needs to do these simple things to correct things:

  • State “A Product of the Office of Strategic Communications” prominently, under the Maryland Today banner.
  • Stop calling yourself “news.” 
  • Put bylines on all stories and add a list of the author’s biographies and contacts to the website.
  • Give Maryland Today and Diamondback student journalists equal access to all events and personnel.
  • Activate an “unsubscribe” button.
  • Add a comments section at the bottom of each article.

(Corrections: An earlier version incorrectly identified director of the GMU website News at Mason. It is now correct. It also incorrectly identified Joel Seligman as a vice president; he is associate vice president.)