Update: Medill faculty issue statement

Libby Nelson

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Sixteen faculty members of the Medill School of Journalism, including former dean Loren Ghiglione, released a statement Tuesday afternoon saying they were “deeply troubled” by dean John Lavine’s use of unattributed quotes in columns for the Medill alumni magazine.

A Feb. 11 column by Daily columnist David Spett called into question the authenticity of an anonymous quote in a column by Lavine, supposedly from a student praising a Medill advertising class.

Spett contacted all the members of that class without finding the source of the quote. The controversy attracted national attention, garnering coverage from the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, U.S. News and World Report and National Public Radio.

The statement:

Statement from the Medill FacultyFebruary 19, 2008

We, the undersigned members of the faculty of the Medill School of Journalism, are deeply troubled by Dean John Lavine’s use of unidentified sources in his columns for Medill, the school’s alumni magazine. We also are concerned about the public questions that have arisen regarding the ethics of attribution and sourcing, and commend the Daily Northwestern and columnist David Spett for raising these issues.

Public discussion about this matter has moved beyond the issue of a quote attributed to an unidentified student to a question of the dean’s veracity, specifically whether the quote at issue was fabricated. Regrettably, much of this discussion has itself been anonymous, posted on the Internet by unidentified sources, an act that if predictable is nonetheless unprofessional. We speak publicly, and on the record.

The dean could, if he wished, put an end to what has become an embarrassment to Northwestern and to Medill. We call on him to do so immediately. As the Chicago Sun-Times said in a Feb. 15 editorial, “With his and the school’s integrity on the line, the easiest thing for Lavine to do now is produce his notes or have the IT department retrieve that deleted e-mail to allay concerns over whether the unattributed quote is real.”

This matter has become a crisis for the school. The principles of truthfulness and transparency in reporting are at the core of Medill’s professional and academic mission. The dean’s Feb. 14 memorandum in which he offered his explanation of events to Medill faculty is at best inadequate. It says that the quote at issue is essentially the same as that used by a student in an online video, and that the quote at issue is therefore a “fact.” But of course the language used in the video is not the same as that in the contested quote, nor is the speaker in the video the unidentified source of the contested quote. Finally, the student in the video is talking about a different Medill class than the one that is the subject of the contested quote.

It is wrong to argue that the forum in which the questionable quote was used, the school’s alumni magazine, is not subject to the same standards as other publication venues. Accuracy and truthfulness are non-negotiable requirements for any material prepared for publication in any forum, including in marketing and public relations. Indeed, the defense that Medill magazine is a public relations vehicle and therefore held to a lesser standard than other forms of publication is an insult to Medill’s Integrated Marketing Communications faculty and staff, who are bound by the same Integrity Code, in all its particulars, as are the school’s journalism students and faculty. As important, Medill magazine speaks directly to the many audiences to whom Medill owes its greatest fealty: students and alumni of the school’s journalism and integrated marketing communications programs; our students’ parents; the dozens of media firms around the United States and the world where our students take internships; donors to the school’s academic and professional programs; employers and practitioners in both journalism and marketing communications. All of these audiences deserve a more complete accounting than the dean has thus far provided. We call on him to do so immediately.

Mary Coffman, Associate ProfessorDouglas Foster, Associate ProfessorEric Ferkenhoff, LecturerLoren Ghiglione, ProfessorGeorge HarMonday, Associate ProfessorSharon Kornely, Senior LecturerCraig L. LaMay, Associate ProfessorDonna Leff, ProfessorArsenio Oloroso, LecturerMarcel Pacatte, LecturerDavid Protess, ProfessorLarry Stuelpnagel, Assistant ProfessorMindy Trossman, Assistant ProfessorMary Ann Weston, Associate Professor EmeritaCharles Whitaker, Assistant ProfessorJon Ziomek, Assistant Professor Emeritus