Ethical questions bring blemishes to Medill

By Samuel Charles

Recently, Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism came under fire for allegedly violating Illinois’ law on proper recording techniques. In Illinois, a court order must be obtained to clandestinely record someone, or the interviewer must get the interviewee’s consent before a conversation is recorded.

The allegation stems from students’ work in the Medill Innocence Project. The project, founded and directed by professor David Protess since 1999, aims to give investigative journalism students first-hand experience by looking into unclear court cases that sent people to prison and, in some cases, death row. To date, the project has helped 11 wrongly convicted prisoners go free.

Prosecutors claim Medill students wore hidden recorders while interviewing witnesses as part of their investigation into the 1979 murder of a security guard in Harvey, Ill.  Northwestern has since hired a former U.S. attorney to look into the students’ actions.

Medill has a long-standing reputation as one of the premier journalism schools in the country, with highly successful alumni scattered across dozens of major newspapers, magazines and television outlets.

The mere allegation of illegally recording interviews is a big black eye for Medill.

The school takes good journalism seriously, or so it seemed.  A “Medill F” is an automatic zero given to a student for making a factual error in a story, such as misspelling a name or getting someone’s age wrong.

The “Appendix II: The Code and Outside Conflicts” section of The Medill Integrity Code, which every student in the department must adhere to, indicates if students are concerned with or unsure of an ethically questionable situation, they should defer to the senior director of Undergraduate Studies, senior director of Graduate Studies or the dean.

“It is not a valid excuse to say, ‘I did not know the appropriate standards and definitions,’” the code stresses.

In this case, Protess authorized the recordings, claiming the students in question only wore the hidden devices to alert an on-hand private investigator if a dangerous situation arose.

He knowingly put his students in an ethically questionable situation. At Columbia, our professors make it clear what to do and what not to do in similar situations. You don’t secretly record people—ever.

The code makes no attempt to explain what circumstances could be considered questionable, leaving a massive loophole that could be manipulated on a case-by-case basis: “Because it is impossible to list every possible permutation of situations that might arise … standards and definitions in the Northwestern University and Medill handbooks are not all-inclusive.”

Northwestern’s tuition is more than $50,000-per-year. Professors should never put their students in a legally questionable situation like that, especially when those students are spending more to attend college than the average American earns annually.

It’s not the media’s responsibility to do police work, and professors and students at Medill aren’t above the law.

The Medill Integrity Code also explains what could happen to students who violate it, which seems to fit in, in this case. “Penalties for code violations range from letters of warning to exclusion from Medill and/or Northwestern University.”

The university is holding true to its word by bringing in its own counsel to look into the practices of the journalism school’s project. It must be a difficult thing for Northwestern to side against one of its most prestigious schools, but it is a necessary action. Northwestern as a whole deserves credit for taking this allegation so seriously and not immediately pledging its allegiance to Medill.

It’s nearly impossible for a journalist to repair his or her damaged reputation, let alone an entire school, especially one with a reputation as sterling as Medill’s.

This allegation might blow over in a few months, but the journalism school at Northwestern will always have this smear on its reputation. The university can work to fix it by sending out more great reporters, editors, anchors and producers into the field, but it will always be there.

It’s a long fall from the top.