University of Maryland-sponsored 'news' site compared to propaganda

A website produced by the public relations office at the University of Maryland is being compared to propaganda after journalism faculty and students have questioned whether or not its association with the university has been properly disclosed.

The questions were brought up by students of journalism professor and two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter Dana Priest.

Priest teaches a class on propaganda and disinformation, and her students brought up the website, Maryland Today, in class, asking whether it was an example of misinformation.

"There was just so much excitement around the fact that we had found an example right here in our backyard of disinformation and deception to some degree. Why wouldn't they call it what it is?" said Priest.

The university rolled it out as a campus news source and does not prominently display that it is written by staff members paid by the university to put the institution in its best light.

The students wrote a series of articles about Maryland Today, which were published on an education blog on the Washington Post's website. They reported that the publication covered controversial stories without mentioning key facts or seeking opposing views, giving the university's handling of Jordan McNair's death and the allegations of a toxic culture in the football program as examples.

Maryland Today debuted at the end of August while students were returning to campus during a summer involving negative headlines for the university.

Joel Seligman, associate vice president for strategic communications, said, "Maryland Today allows us to bring together the stories of the university in one place to inform and engage our UMD community. The new initiative expands our overall efforts to tell the university's story in a distinctive, relevant and timely way."

The university also contends if users scroll down on the site, they can see that it is written by the Office of Strategic Communications.

Priest says no one is questioning the university's ability to tell good stories about the institution, but that it should be labeled prominently and not called news.

"Fake news and disinformation are a real problem, and so is media literacy, and particularly among young people," said Priest. "As a university, as professors, as student journalism teachers, we should really make that very clear what is something and what is not something, and label things appropriately."

Students and staff also take issue the fact that Maryland Today comes straight to their email inboxes in a newsletter format without them asking. They also can't easily unsubscribe.

"I don't look at it as much, but if I did, I would want to know if it's simply propaganda or actually news that is actually going on around campus or around the area," said Maryland student Abdi Abdullahi.

A university spokeswoman says users can't unsubscribe from Maryland Today because of limitations in the university's bulk email platform, but they have come up with a workaround if someone requests it. The spokeswoman was not able to tell FOX 5 what that workaround entails.