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College journalists question dean's use of anonymous sources

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Wednesday, Feb 13, 2008
by Jodi S. Cohen and Tara Malone

By Jodi S. Cohen and Tara Malone


Chicago Tribune (MCT)



Journalists love to debate the use of anonymous sources, but the discussion this week at Northwestern University’s journalism school is no hypothetical: the texts are published columns by the controversial dean of the school, John Lavine.


Earlier this week, a columnist for The Daily Northwestern, a student newspaper, questioned the use of anonymous quotes in two introductory letters Lavine wrote last year for the Medill alumni magazine.


“I sure felt good about this class. It is one of the best I’ve taken,” reads part of one quotation, which, Lavine wrote, “a Medill junior told me.”


The unnamed student appears to be talking about a class in which students developed “a fully integrated marketing program,” an emphasis which Lavine has promoted over the protest of some alumni and students.


In the same piece, Lavine quotes “one sophomore” who glowingly praises a new reporting program, concluding, “This is the most exciting my education has been.”


At Medill, one of the country’s premier journalism schools, training in the careful use of unnamed sources is emphasized.


Professors routinely require students to submit names and contact information for every person quoted in their articles, a guard against fabrication.


So Lavine’s use of anonymous quotes raised the suspicions of David Spett, a Medill senior and Daily Northwestern columnist.
  
Spett figured out the marketing class Lavine was discussing, he said Wednesday, and then tracked down all 29 students. He quizzed each one about the “I sure felt good” quotation, but each of them denied saying it, according to his column.


Lavine, 67, told the Chicago Tribune on Wednesday that the quotes “came from real people,” though he couldn’t recall whether they were provided by e-mail or during face-to-face conversations.


He defended his use of anonymous quotes by drawing a distinction between a news story and a “letter” to alumni in a magazine.


“Context is all-important. I wasn’t doing a news story. I wasn’t covering the news,” Lavine said. “When I write news stories, I am as careful and thorough about sources as anyone you will find ... This is not a news story. This is a personal letter.”


Lavine said he takes notes in a reporter’s notebook when he meets with students, and also receives student feedback by e-mail, but he said he couldn’t provide the e-mails because they had been deleted.


“It never dawned on me that I would have reason to keep them,” he said.


“I am not about to defend my veracity,” he later said.


Questions about Lavine’s use of anonymous quotes prompted a lively debate in Professor Jack Doppelt’s media law and ethics class Wednesday, and in other Medill classrooms and hallways as word of the column spread.


Provost Daniel Linzer “has been recently made aware of the issue,” said university spokesman Al Cubbage.


“It is an opinion piece, but it is not just like anyone writing an opinion piece. He is the dean of a journalism school,” Allison Bond, a Medill senior, said after Doppelt’s class. “It is sort of ironic. He is the masthead of Medill and so he should be held to the most stringent standards.”


Whitney Wilkinson, a graduate student in the Integrated Marking Communications program, disagreed. She said writing a column for an alumni magazine is different from writing a straight news story for a mainstream publication.


“I don’t think the issue is that large,” Wilkinson said. “I think people understand the context of the magazine they are reading.”


While there was plenty of buzz about the topic on campus, many faculty members, students and alumni declined Wednesday to talk to the Tribune on the record. Others did not return calls for comment.


This dust-up comes at an already turbulent time for Medill. A sweeping strategic plan unveiled by Lavine last year included a curriculum change that emphasizes advertising and marketing for journalism students, a mingling of disciplines that has troubled many alumni and faculty members.


In June, the university’s faculty senate backed a resolution blasting the changes as “ill considered” and harmful to Medill’s reputation.


Lavine and his supporters have defended the changes as an effort to equip students for a new era of newsgathering, in which understanding consumer needs is paramount in an increasingly competitive media market.


Lavine was appointed dean in 2006 and originally asked to serve until 2009, a term that was extended indefinitely last month. At that time, President Henry Bienan lauded Lavine’s role in revising the curriculum and opening a Medill branch in Doha, Qatar, which will admit its first students this fall.


But The Daily Northwestern column provided fuel for those already angry about the Medill changes.


Dave Murphy, a 2006 Medill graduate, said students would never get away with turning in a story with anonymous sources that couldn’t be backed up.


“The kid would get the paper back and told to do it again or fail,” said Murphy, who now writes for a computer magazine. “That is not what we are trained to do at Medill.”


Professor Craig LaMay, who teaches about ethics and reporting, said he tells his students that transparency is essential.


“It’s been a rule in journalism for as long as anyone can remember that unidentified sources should be used in very particular circumstances - and even then, you try to get people on the record if you possibly can for legal and ethical reasons,” LaMay said.


The Tribune “discourages” the use of unnamed sources, according to the newspaper’s stylebook, with exceptions made to protect the safety of a source.


“The Tribune will not print anonymously sourced material that adds only supplemental or trivial material to stories, such as a zippy but unattributed quote that might enliven a prosaic narrative but that also might lead the reader to wonder about the validity of the material,” reads one part of the stylebook’s discussion of the topic.


Lavine said last spring’s column was intended to highlight the achievements of journalism and marketing communications students, and to share the students’ enthusiasm with alumni.


He said the quotes were “representative” of the comments he heard, and that he didn’t think it was important to name the students. He also directed readers to a video link in which a different student describes the experience of working in one of the school’s storefront newsrooms located in Chicago neighborhoods.


“I have always thought it is better if you have a quote from somebody ... to use their voice rather than my voice,” Lavine said. “The point isn’t who the students are. The point is the point they are making.”


Spett said he thought the quotes in Lavine’s columns “looked odd” when he first read them last year, and decided to “do some investigating and digging” when he became a columnist last month.


“It struck me as something that people my age don’t really say,” Spett said. “He insists he didn’t make it up and there is no way to be certain on this issue.


“What I do think is there is no reason for the quotes to be anonymous. It just doesn’t make sense. I am more than willing to talk about my favorite class and have my name printed alongside that.”

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