Public editor: Controversy can be avoided

Ben Larrison

Let’s talk about The Weekly. When people refer to The Weekly, both at The Daily Northwestern offices and around campus, it is often as though it is an entirely separate entity from The Daily. To a certain extent, this is true: The Weekly has its own set of editors and writers, boasts a magazine-style format that is quite different from The Daily’s and, of course, is published only once a week.

Now I’m not here to criticize The Weekly’s editorial content for not conforming to a more “Daily” style, since part of the magazine’s appeal is its departure from The Daily’s drier, more straightforward reporting. But I believe it is worth determining the extent to which The Weekly should follow some of the same standard practices as those at The Daily.

This topic became more prominent after a few reporting problems from Weekly stories presented themselves over the course of the quarter – more specifically, issues of anonymous sourcing and the line between what is on and off the record.

Two quick examples: In one Weekly story published earlier this spring, a writer inappropriately used an anonymous source – a source that turned out to be one of her friends. Then, in a May 6 story about the radio station WNUR, one source protested that something she had said off-the-record was both used and accredited to her in the story (Full disclosure: the source is also a friend of mine).

The Weekly’s responses in these cases were prompt and measured. The writer of the first story was sent back to The Daily’s development desk, where she must write three new stories as a contributing writer before having the right to rejoin the Daily/Weekly staff. As far as the WNUR story, Editor in Chief Emily Glazer and Weekly Editor Kyle Berlin conducted a thorough investigation and determined – I believe accurately – that the reporter, though maybe not as clear with her sources as she could have been, was ultimately in the right when publishing the quote in question. What’s more, Berlin held a staff meeting last week, and sent out a subsequent e-mail to The Weekly listserv, in which he and Glazer went over The Daily’s rigorous stances regarding anonymous and off-the-record sourcing.

Even though The Weekly has admirably handled what Berlin called some “close calls,” their emergence revealed a few fundamental problems in the magazine’s reporting structure. As I mentioned earlier, The Weekly is run a little differently than The Daily is. While this is both helpful and necessary in many cases, if only due to the fact that it’s a magazine, it also means Weekly staffers don’t always go through the same rigorous development process as Daily writers. In fact, Berlin said he often tries to reach out to non-journalists, who might offer a different perspective when covering an event. However, this means the publication is more likely to have writers lacking a familiarity with sound reporting ethics.

So what is The Weekly to do? Sending all of its writers through Devo wouldn’t work, since much of the unique coverage Berlin is looking for would then be lost. At the same time, The Weekly needs to do a better job of emphasizing the importance of good reporting practices. Holding a meeting and sending out an e-mail are solid first steps, but is it enough? After all, only three writers came to that meeting, and saying something is important is different than getting that point across to your staffers. Hopefully, The Weekly will continue to effectively prioritize sound reporting with its writers. Otherwise, “close calls” could turn into full-fledged controversies.

-Ben LarrisonPublic Editor

Medill senior Ben Larrison can be reached at [email protected]