Readers really will check everything

Medill senior David Spett, 22, has rocketed to the center of journalism ethics discussions at j-schools nationwide following his column on Medill Dean John Levine’s use of three anonymous student quotes complimenting an advertising course in last Spring’s Northwestern University alumni magazine. Spett, writing that “Nearly every guide to journalism ethics says anonymous quotes should be avoided,” went ahead and did some digging. He called all 29 students in the 2007 course and asked if the quotation Levine attributed to an unnamed classmember was theirs. Despite being promised total privacy by Spett, none claimed the words as their own.

Since Spett’s column, the story has enjoyed retellings by on the Washington Post and Chicago Tribune websites, as well as coverage in Editor&Publisher, Poynter’s Romanesko blog and more. Spett was later interviewed by Michele Norris on NPR. The story and its popularity among media professionals was derided on a post as “inane,” and Spett was called “a cockstrong young j-school student,” though most of the criticism was directed at the journalism community for not letting the issue die.

Since then, 18 Medill faculty have signed a letter asking for Dean Levine to be held accountable and produce his notes. Many did not. A week ago, the Dean issued a mea culpa to faculty and students apologizing for his lack of transparency.

On February 27th, Eric Zorn on the Chicago Tribune’s web edition reported that Spett’s investigative reporting professor David Protess phoned all 29 students and confirmed Spett’s reporting. It took more than two weeks for anyone to do the followup vetting. “It takes initiative,” said Spett on a phone call with OJR. “If you’re on my side and it turns out I made a mistake, you’re in a tough position. If you support the dean and my reporting checks out, what position are you in then?”

As the media response to his story unfolded, Spett has been posting clippings from newspaper websites and blogs on his Facebook page mini feed, to provide his Facebook friends “a place where they can find it all. I don’t mean to be self-aggrandizing. They don’t have to click on it.”

[Disclosure: I worked with David Spett in South Africa when we were both interns at the Cape Times. When the dust settled, I decided to contact Spett and ask him about his experiences as a young reporter experiencing his first media circus.]

“Most people talking about me are journalists talking about me as a journalist,” he said. “A lot of people do think that this is relevant beyond Medill. Medill is where we are training the future people who will be talking about issues of incredible importance.”

Spett is ambivalent about seeing his name in print–as a subject of a story rather than a byline. “It’s exciting, it’s scary, I’m glad people care about the issues. Part of me is shy wants to be an ordinary person that’s not in the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Post.” He said the affair has boosted his interest in doing investigative journalism in the future.

“It feels really strange. I’m not really used to it. My feelings are very complicated. Proud, also shy. I’m a little awkward socially, so it’s kinda scary when people recognize my face and say “You’re the kid that wrote that story’. If I ever break a story this big again–Gawker said I wouldn’t–I have a taste of what the follow-up might be.”

He has not responded to the many blog posts about his story but said that some of the more personal attacks against him were hurtful. “One professor attacked me and said that I have a history of publishing my dislikes of professors. In fact, I criticized a class once as a Freshman. Part of me is a little bit hurt, I am angered by that. These are the things that happen when you break a story like this. I’m not going to start attacking these people.”

Spett, who writes for the Daily Northwestern as an opinion columnist, has been careful to avoid appearing biased about the dean’s use of the unnamed sources and has stated several times in interviews that it is his goal to present the facts and let readers decide for themselves. “I’m a very opinionated guy,” he said. “This has been very good practice in keeping my opinions away from the facts. It’s my first real experience writing a story that has gotten this big.”

Despite getting the kind of attention most journalism students lust after, Spett is unsure whether it has helped his career. While some professors at Medill have urged him to pursue investigative reporting as a career, he stated simply, “I hope I get a job in journalism. I hope this helps.”

About Noah Barron

Hi, I used to be Robert Niles' research assistant, but I actually graduated and actually found a dead tree j-job at the Los Angeles Daily Journal, where I am general assignment/verdicts and settlements reporter.


  1. says:

    It should help young Mr. Spett get a job. There are enough angry Medill alums in big positions out there!