Friday, February 22, 2008

A Dust-Up About Journalism Ethics

A couple of days ago, I touched on the subject of journalism.

While I'm not a journalist, I have a brother who is. We've spent a fair amount of time talking about journalistic ethics. I think those ethics can be instructive in looking at the way the Internet operates.

Tuesday's Chicago Tribune had an interesting article that draws attention to the issue of journalistic ethics. It's about a debate that began in Illinois at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

Dean John Lavine of the Medill School has been promoting "a fully integrated marketing program," in which advertising, marketing and journalism are blended. Purists feel that this is an inappropriate emphasis for a journalism school.

The issue came to a head when columns that Lavine wrote for the Medill magazine, the promotional organ sent to alumni and funding sources, came under scrutiny.

According to the Chicago Tribune, in last spring's issue, Lavine used anonymous quotes to tout the integrated emphasis. Lavine claimed that a Medill junior told him, "I sure felt good about this class. It is one of the best I've taken."

Lavine's use of anonymous quotes seemed suspicious to Medill senior David Spett, a Daily Northwestern columnist. He said he figured out which marketing class Lavine had mentioned and then tracked down all 29 students. Each denied making the comment, he said. (Chicago Tribune 2/19/08)

When confronted by The Chicago Tribune, Lavine insisted his quotes had come from real people, but defended his using anonymous sources "by drawing a distinction between a news story and a letter to alumni in a magazine."

The Tribune quoted him as saying, "Context is all-important. I wasn't doing a news story."

Apparently sixteen faculty members of the Medill School did not agree with their dean. They signed a two-page statement saying they are "deeply troubled" about Lavine's use of anonymous quotes and "called upon him to provide proof that he didn't fabricate the quotes . . . All of the professors who signed the letter teach journalism, including the former dean. None of the integrated [marketing] communications faculty signed it."

The Chicago Tribune says "Since then, Northwestern officials opened an investigation, students started a Facebook site called 'Save Journalism at Medill' and alumni voiced their concerns publicly and to administrators."

In a world in which blogs include ads and in which newspapers online now find their revenue generated by ads, it's important that we begin a discussion on where the lines should be drawn between marketing, advertising, opinion and reporting.

It began with product placement in films and television shows. Where will it go next?

I applaud the Medill School and Northwestern for recognizing that this is an issue which should be addressed openly and honestly.

1 comment:

Erica Orloff said...

As a journalism and English major . . . I had ethics pounded into me by an awesome journalism professor. I can't BELIEVE they would tolerate this at the university. And journalism is a totally seaprate entity from marketing. As a freelancer, I have written PR for big companies--but magazine stories or newspapers required that I not change quotes to suit my needs. Unreal.