Unpacking “The List” Controversy

Disputes Around the Reporting
After just 48 hours, the article “Stanford athletes had access to list of ‘easy’ courses,” has generated intense debate across the country and has drawn criticism from many of the sources quoted in the article.

On Wednesday, March 9, The Stanford Daily and other publications released the story, which was reported and written by students in a Stanford class supervised by California Watch, an investigative news organization.

Stanford students Amy Harris and Ryan Mac authored the story, and 16 other students are also credited in the article’s byline. California Watch coordinated the story’s release with The Stanford Daily, ABC7 News, San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, and The Huffington Post, and it was quickly picked up by national media outlets, including ESPN, USA Today, Fox News, and NBC.

The story focuses on a list of classes distributed by the Stanford athletic department. The authors state, “The list…was widely regarded by athletes as an easy class list.” The story quotes four student athletes in a way that seems to support the existence of the list, and quotes members of the administration and faculty who express differing views on the list.

Immediately following the article’s publication, some of the sources quoted in the article went public with claims that the article misquoted them or misrepresented their views.

Professor Donald Barr, MD, PhD, wrote an email to* Stanford Daily *Editor-in-Chief Zach Zimmerman as well as the authors of the story in which he alleged a “a grave journalistic error” in the article. He wrote, “At no point during our brief conversation did I compare the academic accommodations provided for athletes to the accommodations provided for students with disabilities,” as the article quotes him doing.

Professor Barr’s email message quickly spread through campus e-mail lists. Meanwhile, Ryan Sudeck, a Stanford junior and member of the crew team, posted a message in the comments section of various articles from campus, local, and national news organizations, stating, “Not only is the quote misused and taken out of context but it was also obtained by recording a conversation without my consent.”

Sudeck explained his understanding of the interview in which he participated, stating, “I was under the reasonable understanding that our face-to-face conversation was to be confined to the two of us. I had no knowledge of a recording device present, nor was knowledge given to me by the interviewer.”

Sudeck had posted his message in the comments section of The Stanford Daily article on March 9, but as of the writing of this article, that comment no longer appeared in the comments section.

In an interview with The Stanford Review, a university staff member who was contacted by Ryan Mac and was quoted in the article, but who wishes to remain anonymous, voiced similar complaints. The staff member explained: “I was contacted by a student who said that he was a student working on a project for a class. I asked what class. It was a comm class. I was not given any indication that this was for a story or that it was going to be used in any kind of a publication. The Daily or California Watch were never mentioned.”

The staff member continued, “I felt the student misrepresented himself and used my words in such a way that did not represent my information—or the context of my words—in their true context.”

In response to these accusations, one of the article’s authors, Amy Harris, told The Review, “…All of us have conducted ourselves professionally and ethically in the reporting of this and have identified ourselves as journalists working for a class for California Watch that was going to publish this story.”

Harris explained, “We’ve fielded all of the requests from individuals who have said that they were misquoted or weren’t aware that the journalist was going to be taking down their quotes, and we’ve directed all of those complaints to our editor who is looking into it.”

The editor and course instructor, Mark Katches, is the editorial director of California Watch and has been involved in two Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalism projects. He stated, “We’re reviewing the situation. I’m still trying to talk to people…no one has bothered to call me or talk to me directly, although I’ve reached out to everybody who has claimed to be misquoted.”

At the time of the writing of this article, Mr. Katches knew of two athletes who had complained about some aspect of the article. He had plans already to talk to one of them. Katches also responded to Professor Donald Barr, who was very upset at the purported misquoting of him in the article, but Katches said that he has not yet received a response from Barr.

Katches stated, “[In class,] we absolutely had discussions on [interview policies] and numerous conversations about transparency…we talked about the importance of identifying themselves as student journalists working on a class project in association with California Watch, with the intent to publish it.”

“Now here is the one thing where a potential misstep may have occurred,” Katches stated, “I’m still trying to figure this out, whether or not anybody said that the story would run in The Daily.”

Katches explained that California watch offers their stories to various news outlets and they all publish them on the same day.

“[The reporters] could have gone the extra step, however, to say, ‘here is how California Watch operates, here is where it could potentially go.’ But again, that would have been mostly speculative conversation….It would have been nice to have. I don’t think it would have been a mandatory conversation to have.”

“I can’t say this for sure, I’m still trying to sort this all out, but it could possibly be a situation where people are trying to distance themselves from what they’re saying or what they said because it looks very embarrassing and they’re under some pressure,” Katches stated.

Carly Villareal, the captain of the women’s rowing team was aware that the article could potentially be published. “[Ryan Mac] told me it was for a class and that it could potentially be published in The Daily,” she stated.

Dean Julie Lythcott-Haims, also quoted in the article, told* The Review*, “When interviewed, I was told that this was for a journalism class at Stanford, whose instructor is affiliated with an investigative journalism outfit called California Watch, but that it was the student’s hope that the article would be picked up by newspapers.”

**Reviewing “The List”
** While the reporter did tell Lythcott-Haims that the interview was for a newspaper article, Dean Julie alleged that there were still misrepresentations in the article. “It was false to say the list was discontinued ‘last week after student reporters … began asking about it.’” she stated.

She continued, “I told them that we had been considering phasing out the list since the Registrar’s Office enhanced ExploreCourses this school year (at our request) to allow users to sort courses by time and by GER status, thus providing more comprehensively the sort of functionality that the list was intended to provide in paper form.”

Regarding the list itself, Lythcott-Haims said, “the students reporting this story failed to ask about the requirements or grading policies for the courses on the list. Had they done so, they would have had to abandon the unfounded assertion that this is an ‘easy list’ of courses.”

“The list has been mischaracterized….Many of the courses listed are regarded as some of the most rigorous Stanford offers. Our athletes are dedicated students who pursue rigorous majors and have high graduation rates,” Lythcott-Haims stated. The article noted that many Stanford student athletes “have distinguished themselves in the classroom.”

Villareal commented on the list, saying, “I will stand by what I said. The complete version of what I said to Ryan [Mac] is that some of the classes are substantially easier and some of them, most of them are legitimate classes.” Villareal notes that the final half of this statement was not included in the California Watch article.

Katches noted that he wanted to teach his students that Stanford stories were not untouchable. He thought it would almost be an ethics and credibility breach on his part to say no to a Stanford story.

Asked to comment on the implication of the list itself, Villareal said, “Everybody knows about the list.” She continued, “The problem is that when it gets picked up by national news…it makes us all look terrible and like slackers, and that’s not something that you want represented from the national spotlight.”

Miriam Marks ‘11, a *Daily *columnist who was also quoted in the article, said about the list, “The issue has turned to one of ‘are Stanford athletes less intelligent than other students’ or ‘are Stanford athletes taking easier classes’ or ‘is Stanford giving athletes very special preferences’.”

She continued, “The Daily article examines the existence of the list of classes as a school policy, asking whether such a list should be offered as an official publication produced by the university.”

**Journalism in the Classroom
** On Explore Courses, the COMM 177I course description reads, “Under the supervision of editors from the Center for Investigative Reporting, students will work on a group investigative project with the end-goal of publication and distribution through CIR’s California Watch project.”

Harris, the co-author of the article, explained, “We were going to choose subjects that we were going to report on as a class.” She continued, “We all voted on it, we talked about it with our editor, and then we ultimately decided to pursue the student athlete list story….”

Tom Corrigan, one of the student reporters in the class and a former Review editor, further explained how the class operated. “Though different groups worked on different stories, we all contributed to each other’s articles,” he said. For this article, all students were “asked to speak with various professors whose courses were on the list.”

Corrigan, who worked in a different group, stated, “I was never informed that The Daily would publish this article.” According to him, “no one in the class opposed” its publication.

He also stated that “fact checking was a prominent theme of the course….Obviously, Professor Katches didn’t check every fact in every outline or draft we submitted. The students in the class were the journalists. As the journalists, we were responsible for the quality of our reporting, and rightly so.”

According to Harris, The Stanford Daily knew that California Watch would be pursuing the story and that they could potentially run it. “We had been in contact with them that we had a story we would like it to run,” Harris stated, “and California Watch made the official agreement with The Daily the day before it was published, Tuesday.”

Amid numerous allegations of misquotation and misrepresentation, Harris said, “as of now, there is no move to retract the story or take back any of the quotes.” In a letter posted early Thursday morning, Stanford Daily Editor-in-Chief Zimmerman affirmed that he “stand[s] by the story that was published.” Later on Thursday, California Watch posted a statement on its Web site saying it “stands by the reporting of Stanford students who produced” the article and believes “the journalism students acted professionally,” but that it is reviewing the concerns of people who said they were “misquoted or misled by student journalists.”

Note: Autumn Carter and Alex Katz contributed to the production of this article.

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