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Case studies in new ethical challenges in online journalism

Blurring journalism with marketing

By Joy Bacon, Dotcom Journalists

David Spett is a student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. On Feb. 11, 2008, he published an opinions column in the forum section of the dailynorthwestern.com. In the article, he accused the dean of Medill, John Lavine, of fabricating three anonymous quotes in two different columns in a 2007 issue of the school’s alumni magazine. Spett said he was suspicious of the quotes because they used language he felt was not common for his generation. He also felt the nature of the quotes did not require the use of an anonymous source. The quotes were all attributed to students, and had to do with that student’s liking of particular courses offered in the Medill school.

In an interview with Spett, Lavine claimed the quotes came to him from students through his e-mail. However, he could not remember the names or genders of the students, and could not find the e-mails. Spett also interviewed all 29 students from the advertising course and none of them claimed the statements as their own. David Protess, Spett’s investigating reporting professor, phoned all 29 students and confirmed Spett’s reporting. Also in that interview, Lavine told Spett that even if he had the name of the student, he would not have tried to confirm the statement because he felt the magazine’s form of journalism, which focused more on public relations and marketing that straight reporting, did not require the same level of journalism as other publications, or what the journalism school required of its students.

Spett’s column brought national attention to the issue. Several national news outlets picked up the story, including the Washington Post and Chicago Tribune. In an interview with National Public Radio, Spett was asked if his story led to a spinoff of complaints from students at the school that Lavine was blurring the lines between the journalism and marketing programs through extensive changes to the journalism curriculum at the school. Lavine became the Medill dean in 2005 after founding and directing the school’s Media Management Center. When he took the position, he suspended formal faculty oversight of the school’s curriculum for a 3 1/2-year transition period, which angered many of the faculty, according to an article in the online edition of the Chicago Reader.

On February 20, 2008, a group of Medill students posted a demand on the Poynter Institute’s Romenesko blog asking for a former explanation from Lavine, or at least that he produce his notes or sources for the stories. Sixteen faculty members also signed an official letter asking for a more complete explanation of the dean’s actions, or for him to provide notes from the stories. It was delivered to Lavine with a cover letter signed by professors Craig LaMay, Donna Leff, and David Protess, all of whom taught ethics classes in the journalism school. Lavine also sent a note to the entire faculty of the school insisting that the quotes came from legitimate sources. He pointed to a video made by a group of Medill sophomores using the same sort of enthusiastic language as the quotes in question. Lavine later issued an apology for the incident on a blog set up by Medill students as a community forum for the journalism school. Lavine said he had exercised poor judgment in the situation and that he and other faculty would review the standards and policies for all work published under the Medill banner.

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Related links

Chicago Reader: Did Medill’s Dean Lavine make up a quote?,

NU faculty turn on Dean Lavine,

NU faculty rips Medill

Chicago Tribune: Why Northwestern’s “Quotegate” really is a big deal

OJR: Readers really will check everything

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Works cited

-Barron, Noah. (2008). Readers will check everything. OJR. Retrieved February 16, 2009 from
http://www.ojr.org/ojr/stories/080303barron/

-Miner, Michael. (2008). Did Medill’s dean Lavine make up a quote? News Bites. Retrieved February 16, 2009 from http://blogs.chicagoreader.com/news-bites/2008/02/12/did-medills-dean-lavine-make-quote/

—-. (2007). NU faculty rips Medill. News Bites. Retrieved February 16, 2009 from http://blogs.chicagoreader.com/news-bites/2007/06/22/nu-faculty-rips-medill/

—-. (2008). NU faculty turn on Lavine. News Bites. Retrieved February 16, 2009 from http://blogs.chicagoreader.com/news-bites/2008/02/19/nu-faculty-turn-dean-lavine/

-Zorn, Eric. (2008). Why Northwestern’s “Quotegate” really is a big deal. Change of Subject. Retrieved February 16, 2009 from http://blogs.chicagotribune.com/news_columnists_ezorn/2008/02/why-northwester.html

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