The dean of journalism at Northwestern University seems to have gotten himself in a bit of a sticky wicket, as it were. Apparently, John Lavine, the dean of the Medill School of Journalism, has been indulging in the use of un-attributed and unnamed sources in his columns for the Medill alumni magazine and 16 NU journo instructors aren’t very happy about it. Not only are they not happy about it, but according to the Chicago Tribune they are demanding that the dean prove that he didn’t make his quotes up out of whole cloth.

You know the journalist’s favorite source, don’t you? It’s the “unnamed source,” the “anonymous quote” and the famed “deep throat” sources that journalists make out to be “protecting” from discovery. This sort of source has a long history in the kind of journalism of whistleblowers or muckrakers that have been increasingly popular since Watergate. But, everyone knows that you cannot base a factual story solely on the anonymous source. There must be other things, other sources, other proofs backing up these unnamed sources or the fact in question becomes an allegation instead of a proven truth. Naturally, employing unnamed sources too often damages the veracity of any story — as well it should.

But what do we see so often in the MSM today? “Some say,” “many feel,” “an unnamed source says,” “the word is,” “ we are told by sources close to the…” They call this “journalism” and we are all expected to take their word for it without proof.

The danger here is that a dean of journalism is using the discreditable practice at all. Lavine would appear as not a very good role model for his students who will wander out into a world of journalism increasingly under suspicion as less than truthful already. And that a dean of journalism could possibly have made up fake quotes for his columns is quite a charge, indeed.

The dean is under the microscope for two un-attributed quotes about the school’s courses.

At issue are two columns Lavine wrote in Medill’s alumni magazine. In a column in last spring’s magazine about a class in which students developed “a fully integrated marketing program,” Lavine quoted “a Medill junior” saying: “I sure felt good about this class. It is one of the best I’ve taken.”

In the same piece, Lavine quotes “one sophomore” who glowingly praises a new reporting program, concluding, “This is the most exciting my education has been.”

Apparently, though, the anonymous quotes seemed suspicious to senior David Spett, a columnist for the school’s Daily Northwestern newspaper. He did some digging and could not find a single student in the classes dean Lavine mentioned who would admit to have been the source of the quotes lauding the school’s courses. Needless to say, Spett’s leg work has caused a controversy.

The Trib reports that, “Northwestern’s office of the provost is reviewing Lavine’s use of unnamed sources and ‘the veracity of the quotations,’ according to a statement by spokesman Al Cubbage, who declined to comment further.”

“This matter has become a crisis for the school,” the statement said. “The principles of truthfulness and transparency in reporting are at the core of Medill’s professional and academic mission.”

Of course, Lavine is denying that his anonymous quotes is anything to get all worked up over.

He defended his use of anonymous quotes by drawing a distinction between a news story and a letter to alumni in a magazine.

“Context is all-important. I wasn’t doing a news story. I wasn’t covering the news,” Lavine said. “When I write news stories, I am as careful and thorough about sources as anyone you will find… This is not a news story. This is a personal letter.”

This off handed explanation is not satisfying the 16 instructors, though. The school has yet to announce a decision on where to go from here, but it doesn’t look like this is going away anytime soon.

We will soon find out whether a dean of a journalism school will be held to the sort of exacting standards to which he should be held. Still, is it any surprise that journalism is held in such low esteem these days? Even the deans of journo schools cannot be trusted to live up to high standards.

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