Student Sparks Journalism School Kerfuffle

  • Playlist
  • Download
  • Embed
    <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

A senior at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism wrote a column questioning the authenticity of anonymous quotes that Dean John Lavine used in a piece in the alumni magazine. David Spett is the student who broke the story.


Here's what happens when you teach a student well. A senior at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism wrote a column in which he questioned the journalistic ethics of his own J-school dean. The student questioned the authenticity of anonymous quotes the dean, John Lavine, used in a piece in the alumni magazine.

Here's student David Spett's opening paragraph, quote: Nearly every guide to journalism ethics says anonymous quotes should be avoided. So when I saw Medill Dean John Lavine had used three of them in two columns for Med 19267982ill Magazine, I was surprised, end-quote.

Now, David goes on to describe, in the next two paragraphs, the questionable quotes, and they were about how great a certain course was, and then he wrote, quote: I see no reason for the quote to be anonymous. Many newspaper print their rationale for granting anonymity, but there was no such explanation here.

Now, it didn't just end there with his article. The faculty got involved. The dean had to issue a formal statement, an apology, and even the Chicago Tribune weighed in with its own take on the story, including a column called "Why Northwestern's Quote-gate really is a Big Deal."

The fellow who started it all is 22-year-old senior, David Spett. Hi, David.

Mr. DAVID SPETT (Student, Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University): Hi, how are you?

STEWART: I'm doing great. So when you first read the dean's columns that included these anonymous quotes from students who allegedly liked the class Advertising Building Brand Image, what made you go back and examine it more carefully?

Mr. SPETT: I guess there were two factors that really stuck out to me. One was the fact that I didn't see why the quote had to be anonymous - I'm sorry, the quotes. There were actually three in two columns, and there was two in that one column in particular.

You know, what I've been taught is that you only use anonymous sources when you have a reason to protect those sources, and I didn't see why someone complimenting the school needed to be protected. I know I'm more than willing to talk about my favorite classes and have my name printed next to that.

The other was that the phrasing of the quote struck me as a little strange. It really didn't seem like the way people my age talk. There were phrases in there like truth-telling in journalism and sure felt good. It seemed a little bit odd to me.

STEWART: So you did some good, old-fashioned leg work on the story. Tell us how many people you interviewed, trying to find out who were responsible for these quotes?

Mr. SPETT: Well, one of the quotes was attributed to a student in this Advertising Building Brand Image class, so what I did was I contacted all 29 people in that class and asked them if they had said this quote. So I read it back to every single one of the 29 people.

STEWART: What did you find out?

Mr. SPETT: All of them said this was not their quotes.

STEWART: So were you doing this on your own? Was this for a class? Was this for a project?

Mr. SPETT: This was completely on my own. I'm a columnist for the Daily Northwestern, the student paper here, and that was sort of my encouragement to do this. I wanted to write a column about it, assuming of course that I couldn't find the speaker of the quote.

STEWART: Now, you did speak to the dean, correct?

Mr. SPETT: Correct, yeah.

STEWART: And what did he say?

Mr. SPETT: Well, when I spoke to the dean before the column was published, he said basically that he didn't know who had said it. He was sure that it had come in an e-mail, but he didn't remember who had said it, and he didn't really remember, you know, where his e-mail had been or what had happened to the e-mail, but he couldn't identify who sent it.

He also felt like the standards for this sort of writing were lower than for traditional news journalism. What he told me was that basically, this is some other form of journalism. He didn't exactly define it, but he said sort of it's PR, it's opinion writing, and therefore, the ethics or the standards of attributing sources and identifying sources would be slightly lower than what I've been taught.

That's certainly - you know, I haven't been taught that there are different levels of standards in my classes, so that didn't - that seemed a little strange to me, but some people have really said because this might be PR, there might not be such high standards as for journalism.

STEWART: Did he stand that by the quotes were true, they were accurate, that somebody real said them or wrote them?

Mr. SPETT: Absolutely he did, yes.

STEWART: All right. Now, the dean told NPR that he did admire the work that you were doing, but the quotes were true. So my question to you is okay, he's the dean of the journalism school, a journalist for 47 years. You're a student on the paper, working hard, but you haven't even graduated yet and worked in a real-life work situation. Why wasn't his word good enough for you?

Mr. SPETT: Well you know, I don't know that necessarily I have to judge whether the word is good enough for me, but I thought it was an interesting story here. You have a journalism dean basically saying that the same rules that apply to students don't apply to him.

I feel as though, you know, a lot of people have felt that that argument is legitimate. A lot of people have felt that it's not legitimate. I see my role as presenting the facts and letting people come to a conclusion about this on their own.

I've heard all sorts of opinions from people saying the dean is out of line and needs to resign to people saying, you know, we should take the dean at his word. This is PR; therefore, it's okay that the dean didn't attribute the sources - I'm sorry, didn't attribute the quotes to the exact sources that he used.

STEWART: Now some of the faculty at your school seem as concerned as you are. Sixteen signed a letter, but we should point out there are over 100 faculty members at this huge, well-known journalism school.

The dean says he's apologized. He describes it as poor judgment. Aside from your thoughts about whether it's poor judgment or not, because I think we know the answer to that, why do you think this story went this far?

Mr. SPETT: You know what? I mean, I think it's a very interesting ethical issue for journalism, and this is, you know, one of what a lot a people consider to be one of the nation's top journalism schools - at least it likes to think of itself that way. So you have a very interesting ethical issue here.

There's also a lot of changes going on at the school surrounding the integration of marketing and media management into the curriculum, and that is something that the dean has been pushing. So I think a lot of people felt like this is blurring the line between marketing and journalism.

You know, as for my views, I'd like to say that I think people should come to a, you know, conclusion on whether that issue is sort of playing a role here on their own. I don't see my role as saying well, this is marketing and journalism line-blurring. I really feel like I would like to just present the facts, and as for the dean's judgment, I don't want to make a judgment on his judgments.


Mr. SPETT: I'd like people to come to a conclusion about that on their own and whether this is okay or not.

STEWART: Well, there is a sidebar to this story, that this particular dean -and you touched on it a little bit in your last answer - has been somewhat controversial on campus for wanting to integrate new media. Are you - do you think that that has become sort of a spin-off from your story?

Do you have any concerns that maybe some people are using your story to get at this dean for his stance on taking Medill into the future?

Mr. SPETT: Certainly a lot of people are saying this is, you know, indicative of a very much larger issue. Some people are saying this is not indicative of a very much larger issue regarding the dean's agenda of the school. You know, he's certainly been very controversial.

I think there's arguments on both sides of this, on all sides of this. I hope that, you know, people will consider that seriously, and I'm not going to make a judgment. I hope that, really, people give it serious thought and decide for themselves.

STEWART: Have you been following the New York Times story, the New York Times -John McCain story?

Mr. SPETT: I have been following it, yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: It's kind of a - it's sort of an odd coincidence that it should come out about the same time as your story is coming up.

Mr. SPETT: Yeah.

STEWART: Of course, the New York Times taking quite a bit of heat after writing this article about John McCain, and there are a lot of anonymous sources used in that article. What did you think when you read it?

Mr. SPETT: Well, it's a very complicated issue. That issue is almost more complicated than this one, and there's more ethical issues regarding that story than the anonymous sources, but something that I thought was really interesting with that story is that, you know, the New York Times could make arguments why the sources it needed to use were - it needed to use anonymous sources (unintelligible).

These sources wouldn't come out and identify their name. They need to be protected. I really feel like the only argument you could make for using anonymous sources in this context is that this isn't journalism. I don't see any argument why you need to protect the sources who are saying that, you know, they really like these classes at Medill.

STEWART: And before I let you go, there - you know, there's a big part about being a journalist which is about being responsible, and at the end of your column, you wrote: We cannot be certain these quotes were fabricated, but at least I find reason to be suspicious.

Do you think you were responsible in raising this specter, which really might have hurt this man's career?

Mr. SPETT: You know, I don't - I think that you have to be very careful about hurting someone's career. I think a lot of people have jumped to the conclusion that these quotes are definitely fabricated. I would say I hope people come to a conclusion about that on their own.

I don't think that's an issue we can ever resolve for certain, given that the dean hasn't presented his notes or the e-mail that he says he received, and you know, just because all 29 people said that the quote isn't theirs, it's entirely possible someone forgot. So I hope people come to a conclusion about that on their own.

I think, you know, the very large issue that's very serious to journalism here is fabrication. I think that was implicit in the whole column, regardless of whether I had said those sentences at the end, but I really wanted to be cautious, and I think that was a cautious way to end the column.

STEWART: David Spett is a senior at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Hey, thanks for sharing your story.

Mr. SPETT: Thank you.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor

Support comes from