Monday, March 10, 2008

Practicing What Educators Teach...Even If They Don't

A journalism student at the Medill School (Northwestern University) has made a bit of a splash in the journalism world after challenging dean John Lavine's use of anonymous quotes in the university's alumni publication, Medill magazine. David Spett, a senior journalism major questioned the quotes praising an advertising course which appeared in the publication's 2007 spring issue.

Spett drew from his own education at Medill which has taught him (and has been a golden rule throughout all of journalism) that anonymous quotes should be avoided at all costs. He therefore raised an eyebrow at the dean's use of them for a simple letter from the dean which provided an update on what the university's current students are doing in the world of journalism.

The quotes in question have received attention from Washington Post and Chicago Tribune websites, as well as coverage in Editor&Publisher, Poynter's Romenesko blog. Here's one of them:

I came to Medill because I want to inform people and make things better. Journalism is the best way for me to do that, but I sure felt good about this class. It is one of the best I've taken, and I learned many things in it that apply as much to truth-telling in journalism as to this campaign to save teenage drivers.

Spett interviewed all 29 of the students that were in the class Lavine referred to in the article and every one of them said that the dean hadn't interviewed them. Click here for his column about the scandal in the Daily Northwestern. Click here for Lavine's article.

The dean was later cleared by the provost, Daniel Linzer who agreed with the results of the committee that reviewed the situation, concluding there was not enough evidence to show that the quotes were fabricated.

The Online Journalism Review spoke with Spett about his recent ethical uprising in this article, noting that "this 'readers as fact-checkers' thing is catching on."

Despite a little backlash from against him, Spett's challenge to his dean is a good one. There is little, if any, reason to have used anonymous quotes in the article in question. There is no possibility of harm to the sources or any top-secret information being revealed. If there was a legitimate reason, a proper disclosure as to why would be needed.

While refers to the whole scandal as inane and comments that "these J-school people just CANNOT SHUT UP ABOUT IT," I see the importance of it as a student. If we're taught about the integrity of journalism and the leaders in our education don't practice the very thing they are preaching, it is unsettling, even if it is just an alumni magazine, as Gawker is quick to point out.

Spett did his job as a journalist and as we've discussed in class, others are taking up the task of fact checking as well with sites like the St. Petersburg Times' which investigates the claims made in political stories.

Keeping journalism in check can only be possible if the standards are followed at all times.

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