Graphic by Iliana Garner / North by Northwestern.

Welcome to the first journalism lecture of freshman year. The crowded room is buzzing with talk of Medill students’ worst nightmare: the Medill F. Some relay rumors about certain teachers who are infamous for dealing it out. Others scoff and swear it’s not real.

The Medill F, though it may not match the hype surrounding its existence, is often a very subjective concept. In theory, Medill instructors are able to dock a substantial amount of points for factual errors in assignments. In practice, the Journalism 201-1 syllabus says it is “up to your lab instructor to determine the number of points deducted for factual errors.”

The purpose of the Medill F is to form diligent fact-checking and editing habits in students. Some believe this is necessary for future journalists; Medill Assistant Professor Karen Springen said that one error can often cause increased distrust in journalism. Springen does not give out the Medill F for factual errors, but she understands her colleagues’ reasoning for handing out the grade.

“It hammers home accuracy,”  Springen said. “But it should not make or break a student’s grade.”

Springen thinks the Medill F should be a learning experience. She noted that there’s a fine line between giving students consequences and unduly harming a student’s chance for success in the classroom.

Medill first-year Virginia Hunt said Medill Assistant Professor and Director of Academic Integrity and Appeals Desiree Hanford’s policy is to give a student a failing grade on a story when it includes a factual error. The student then has the opportunity to locate and fix the error before resubmitting the assignment. Their final grade will be the failing score averaged by the new score.

“The grading system is really unfair,” Hunt said. “You can lose a substantial amount of points, and it’s really frustrating.”

Hunt received a Medill F in 201-1 on a story rewrite worth 65 points out of the 850 total class points. After parsing through the story for days, she located her error: Hunt had listed her interviewee as a “store owner,” but her professor said the most accurate title was “store manager.” Hunt said even when the failing grade was averaged with the resubmitted article, she could only receive a maximum of 50 points. She believes the Medill F creates an unsupportive atmosphere in Medill.

“I think the academic environment should be a safe place to learn,” Hunt said.

She added that the days she spent anxiously poring over her article in search of the error were probably not worth the time and energy to learn the Medill F’s perceived lesson.

David Abrahamson, a Medill professor emeritus, also believes the Medill F may not have its intended  effect. Some see the Medill F as a contributing factor to what makes the first-year journalism course sequence a group of weeder classes – that is, courses that are supposedly made rigorous in order to “weed out” students without the skill or commitment to continue.

"The Medill F, while certainly a wake-up call to many Medill students who came to the school with straight As from high school, was part of the once-dominant idea that upon entering Medill the student would have a rough-tough 'boot-camp' experience,” Abrahamson said.

Abrahamson has not given a Medill F in his 25-year career at Medill.

Haben Fessehazion, a second-year in Medill, has never gotten a Medill F. She has had many teachers threaten to give them out if the moment presents itself, which she said makes her fearful.

“Honestly, it just makes me anxious in the time between submitting my articles and getting them back,” Fessehazion said. “I feel like it gives way too much power to the professors because they can really decide what’s a Medill F and what isn’t.”

She noted that there’s no firm set of guidelines as to what constitutes a Medill F. For her, the lack of rules leaves too much room for subjectivity.

While it certainly has critics, the Medill F’s value does not go unnoticed. Medill Professor Joe Mathewson thinks this grading method prepares journalism students for their future career. He added that there’s no margin for error in journalism, and the shock of receiving a Medill F makes that point.

“I think it emphasizes the need to be not almost right or 95 percent right,” Mathewson said. “It’s just so terribly important to be exactly right.”

Medill second-year Jane Bachus said the possibility of a Medill F makes her more likely to review her work, which she feels is in her best interest.

“It creates a greater sense of caution and care in my writing,” Bachus said. “I fact-check and grammar-check all of my papers myself, but then I also force other people to read them as well.”

She said that having an extra set of eyes on her work helps prevent the Medill F.

Bachus’ approach to article writing holds true for Hunt as well. She said receiving the Medill F made her more wary of future assignments.

“I think going forward I’ll verify things more carefully and call people and check and make sure that I’m getting minute facts right,” Hunt said. “It does serve to make you a much more careful writer, and I think that’s a good thing.”

Hunt said she will make fact check sheets in the future with her source contacts and titles. She will also stick to exclusively primary sources.

Is there anything that could improve the Medill F? In Springen’s eyes, it’s all about acknowledging its purpose and meeting students where they are. She said that students make mistakes, and they often learn from them regardless of whether or not they receive a failing grade.

“I don’t know a teacher who enjoys failing students,” Springen said. “We just want them to learn.”

Editor’s note: Haben Fessehazion has contributed to North by Northwestern before. Her author page can be found here.