Students Accuse Medill School of Journalism's Dean of Lame Reporting

February 14, 2008

The dean of Northwestern University’s journalism school is being taken to task by some of the school’s students for using anonymous sources in a column he wrote in the Medill alumni magazine, the Chicago Tribune reported today.

In the column, an unnamed student is quoted apparently praising a class that teaches students how to develop “a fully integrated marketing program.” Medill’s dean, John Lavine, led a controversial overhaul of the school’s curriculum to blend marketing and “audience understanding” with traditional reporting skills (The Chronicle, August 10, 2007).

“I sure felt good about this class. It is one of the best I’ve taken,” says part of the quote, which, the dean writes, “a Medill junior told me.”

The dean also quotes “one sophomore” raving about a new reporting program. “This is the most exciting my education has been,” the unnamed student is quoted as saying.

Students at Medill are taught to use unnamed sources sparingly and to give professors the names and contact information for those sources as a way to discourage fabrication.

David Spett, a Medill senior, contacted all of the 29 students in the marketing classes he figured the dean must have been talking about, and none of them owned up to the quote, according to a column Mr. Spett wrote in The Daily Northwestern.

When contacted by the Tribune, Mr. Lavine said the quotes “came from real people,” but he didn’t remember whether they were from e-mail messages or face-to-face conversations.

He also said that using anonymous quotes in a “letter” to alumni is different from using them in a newspaper report.

Some students were unconvinced.

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