MU Limits Information About University Village Apartments
COLUMBIA - Efforts to cover the University of Missouri's response to the February collapse at University Village has been an exercise in frustration when trying to get high level officials to sit down and answer questions about the incident.
Those officials have avoided on-camera interviews and erected a media relations wall, keeping reporters as far from campus leaders as possible and keeping important information away from the public.
Each time KOMU 8 News has needed to get information on University Village, our reporters have been directed to MU spokesperson Christian Basi. But when we have talked to Basi, who serves as a middleman between reporters and actual experts on campus, he hasn't known the answers to a lot of our questions. He has also suggested we would need to talk to other people to get the information.
KOMU 8 News has requested interviews with 10 different people associated with residential life and maintenance on the apartment complex to help answer our questions, but each time, their departments refused to answer, saying all interviews had to go through the MU News Bureau, the university's public relations office, sending us back to Basi.
After those multiple interview requests, Basi eventually said by e-mail the only "two individuals speaking about University Village to reporters are me or Chancellor Loftin."
KOMU 8 News preferred to speak to Loftin, but when trying to schedule that interview, Basi said Loftin would only be available on March 28, during spring break when nearly all of KOMU 8's student reporters were gone, or after May graduation, more than two months after interview attempts began.
That once again made Basi the only person at MU who would speak on camera. But an hour before a scheduled interview with Basi, he canceled the interview because KOMU 8 News refused to give him a list of questions in advance, a practice that is both against KOMU 8 News policy and not typically done by journalists.
MU hasn't just limited comment from its own employees. Each time KOMU 8 News has asked Basi to set up a chance to speak to Trabue, Hansen & Hinshaw (TH&H), the contractor hired to investigate the collapse and inspect university buildings, Basi has said that firm is independent from the university and that KOMU 8 News was free to contact it if desired.
But when a reporter reached out to TH&H, a company official said he had just gotten off the phone with Basi and that Basi told TH&H that the university would handle all future statements about University Village and the company's inspections.
We then turned to the state's open records laws to help us get university e-mails to fill in the gaps from the lack of interviews, but the records department at the University System level told us our request was too broad and would cost us more than $5,000 to get. After revising the request, the department still put the cost at $2,743. Finally, the department agreed to give us four hours of time in exchange for $75, yielding e-mails making up 0.34 percent of our second, more specific request.
"The public has a reasonable expectation that people at those institutions will give them information, will speak and talk to the media because that's one of the important ways the information gets out to the public," Mark Horvit, the executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors said. "So when those avenues for information are shut down, the public doesn't get the information it needs, might not get the complete picture, and that is a problem."
The closed nature of the university's handling of this tragedy goes beyond just interview requests. Even when MU recently held an open forum on graduate housing following the collapse, MU officials refused to allow the media access.
In the end, the lack of interviews and access has left both reporters and the public in the dark when it comes to how much MU officials knew about problems at University Village and what they did to solve them.