Investigating the Dean  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   April/May 2008

Investigating the Dean   

By Kevin Rector
     


In a February column in Northwestern University's daily newspaper, the Daily Northwestern, Medill School of Journalism senior David Spett, 22, took less than 500 words to outline his suspicions that the school's dean, John Lavine, had used fabricated quotes (attributed to an unnamed student) to promote one of the school's courses in an alumni magazine.

But within two weeks, thousands of words had been devoted to those suspicions by a myriad of media outlets, including National Public Radio, the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, Editor & Publisher, the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Associated Press. More than a dozen faculty members at Medill had signed a statement calling on Lavine to provide "a more complete accounting" for the quotes. Medill students and alumni had issued a similar statement, and four undergrads had launched a blog to spur dialogue on the story's ongoing developments.

The quote controversy comes atop lingering faculty and student indignation over Lavine's announcement last year that the school's entire curriculum would be overhauled without faculty input to include more advertising and marketing coursework. The debate lit up Romenesko, and Spett was suddenly at the epicenter of a national journalism furor. It pitted him and his reporting he had interviewed all 29 students in the class in question, and all denied the quotes were theirs against the dean of his journalism school, who in a statement apologized for "poor judgment" but denied fabrication.

AJR's Kevin Rector talked to Spett about his investigation turned national news. An edited transcript follows:

Q: What spawned your investigation into the dean's quotes?

A: There were a couple things that jumped out at me. One was that I didn't see any reason for the quotes to be anonymous. What I've been taught is that we use anonymous sources when the information they're presenting is in the public interest or at least presenting the information they have is in the public interest and when there's some reason we need to protect that source. Maybe they're not authorized to speak to the press, maybe they could lose their job, maybe they're leaking classified information. Those are the sorts of circumstances that I've learned you need to use anonymous sources, so it didn't seem right to me that we had anonymous sources being used here for the purpose of complimenting the Medill curriculum. Also, the phrasing of the quotes struck me as odd. There are phrases in there like "truth-telling in journalism" and "I sure felt good." It doesn't really sound like someone who's a college student. Also, the quotes seem to fit the dean's purposes perfectly. I thought it seemed a little too perfect, so I thought, "Hmm, this is interesting. I'd like to take a look and see about calling the 29 people who could have possibly said this one quote." I thought, "I need to be really comprehensive and just make sure. I'm gonna call everyone in the class." I called 26 and communicated with three via e-mail, and all 29 denied that the quote was theirs.

Q: Did your skeptical eye have anything to do with the fact that, as the Daily's editorial board put it, Lavine's "unilateral decisions regarding the curriculum have caused endless debate among students"?

A: Well, I think that the dean's obviously controversial. I think that's really a separate issue from the issues here, which are: When is it OK to use anonymous sources? How long do we keep our notes? What are the ethics of this issue at the alumni magazine? Is it a journalism outlet? Is it public relations? Are there different standards for journalism and public relations?

Q: How did you feel taking on the dean of your school?

A: I don't consider myself taking him on. I just see my role as presenting facts. Certainly what was uncomfortable, what was not the easiest interview I've ever done, was having to sit down with him and say that I had contacted these 29 people, what's going on here? It's scary. It made me even more meticulous.

Q: Did you have a certain outcome you were hoping for?

A: Really I had no idea it was even going to blow up this big. I just didn't know what was going to happen. I tried not to guess because I think it's difficult to guess what's going to happen in the future. I have no agenda, no goals other than to present facts [on] an interesting issue. Some people have called for his resignation. I'm not among those people. The provost released the results of [the university's] investigation, which are that there is no evidence the quotes are fabricated. Whether or not there's evidence that the quotes are fabricated, I mean, that's up to people to decide for themselves. I certainly think that there is reason to be suspicious.

Q: Lessons learned from the whole ordeal?

A: Just don't be afraid to ask questions. Always be meticulous with your facts. Don't assume anything.

Q: Career aspirations?

A: Before this I wasn't really positive that I wanted to go into journalism. I've loved journalism, but it seems like it's very difficult to get a job, and you work very hard. Not that I have a problem with working very hard. I've been concerned about whether it's the right career for me. Having seen what's happened with this story, I have more hope that this is maybe something that I really love to do. It was a lot of fun, as strange as that sounds, to work this and to find all these people's phone numbers and e-mail addresses and pester them incessantly. There's something about digging that I really enjoy, so I think at this point it's my first choice journalism. We'll see what happens.

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