Letter to the Editor: Investigative students find problems with Daily article

We are writing to express our deepest concern over the tenor and substance of Wednesday’s page-one story alleging former Medill Innocence Project students employed “questionably ethical” strategies in their reporting.

The Medill Integrity Code compels us to report its violators. We have significant reason to believe former Daily editor-in-chief Brian Rosenthal made use of unethical tactics in reporting this story, and we are writing to report those tactics as well as his errors.

Re-interviewing many of Rosenthal’s sources, we heard repeatedly that they felt misled by the reporter who told several sources he was working on a history of the Innocence Project, rather than a piece on ethical violations.

The article’s opening sentence states that all students who took Prof. Protess’s class engaged in a pattern and practice of “questionably ethical reporting tactics.” But a blatant contradiction to this lede is buried several paragraphs into the story: “Few, if any, of the incidents identified by critics involve blatant violations of the law or journalism ethics,” it reads. The headline alone did not reflect what was actually in the story.

Rosenthal not only mischaracterized his sources comments, he failed to provide context for undercover reporting tactics. Reporters with the Chicago Tribune have won Pulitzer Prizes for articles which they posed as janitors to expose negligent care in Chicago hospitals, and for another in which they reported undercover as election judges to document voter fraud.

The consensus Wednesday among many current and former students was that The Daily’s story misrepresented our class experience. We take issue with Rosenthal’s allegations that students misrepresented themselves by “playing up” their status as journalism students. This begs a very answerable question: What are we, if not Northwestern journalism students? The article also alleges that students “partied with sources” but does not provide any evidence to back this claim.

We also take issue with Rosenthal’s use of anonymous sources to furnish the article’s most scathing criticisms. Rosenthal also ignores the reasoning behind students posing as ComEd and Census workers to obtain information on a source’s whereabouts. The first thing Protess told us as his students was to prioritize our safety in unfamiliar, high crime neighborhoods.

Never in an interview with the sources themselves have students lied about who they are. To put it simply, how far does Rosenthal imagine we would get with an interview if we introduced ourselves as the cable guy and then started asking about a decades old homicide? Our work is about building trust. We report always with a mind and eye toward safety and a heart toward empathy. If The Daily seeks to accurately inform its readership we invite them to speak to any of us about our experiences in the field. In the meantime we will continue the work we have been privileged to be a part of under Prof. Protess’ tutelage, because real injustice persists.

-Tania Karas

Former Daily In-Focus Editor

Lauren Kelleher

Former Daily Campus Editor

Kira Lerner

Former Daily Assistant Campus Editor

Quinn Thacker

Jaimie Vaillancourt

Former Daily Weekly Managing Editor

Medill seniors and volunteer student journalists with the Chicago Innocence Project