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By Russell Frank
The case involving a child sex abuse scandal at Penn State University still hasn’t gone to trial, but the school's journalism students have a major story taking place in their own front yard.
For anyone connected with Penn State—The Pennsylvania State University if you’re an outsider who isn’t a football fan—the events of the autumn of 2011 were a nightmare. As if the charges of child molestation against former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky weren’t bad enough, the charges of perjury and failure to report made against two Penn State administrators raised questions about whether upper management at the university could have prevented further molestations if they had been more aggressive in bringing earlier allegations against Sandusky to the attention of the police.
Then came the riotous response to the firing of legendary Coach Joe Paterno and the impression the uproar left that the students, if not perhaps the entire university, cared more about protecting its beloved football program than it did about protecting children.
The scandal was shocking, it was heart-breaking, it was demoralizing, it was exhausting, it followed us home for the holidays and it was waiting for us when we returned for the spring semester. But, as I told my students, if you’re a journalist and an observer of journalism, it’s OK to admit (at least to each other) that it was also exhilarating to cover or monitor the coverage of a major story at close range. And if you teach journalism ethics, as I do, the Sandusky scandal became the mother of all case studies, a way to talk about privacy issues, fairness and balance, sensationalism, conflicts of interest, the breakfast test, and the brave new world of blogs and tweets, all rolled into one story that was unfolding in our own backyard.
Here, then, is a rundown of the ethics issues that I believe were raised by coverage of the Sandusky scandal:
Six months before Sandusky was indicted, the Harrisburg Patriot News reported that he was under investigation. Thinking of Richard Jewell and the Olympics bombing, and Stephen Hatfield and the anthrax investigation, I devoted my weekly column on Statecollege.com to raising concerns about reporting that someone is under investigation before he has been charged with a crime.
Originally, I was going to lay out the reasons to report the investigation and the reasons not to, but without taking a position. Then I decided that such a course was wimpy, and so concluded that—at this stage of the game—the probable damage to Sandusky’s reputation outweighed the public’s right to know. Interestingly, one of my readers called on me to "take off the blue and white glasses." In other words, this person assumed that my position merely reflected my loyalty to Penn State—the school colors are blue and white—and that I had a conflict of interest.
Conflict of Interest
A host of Penn State students and alumni did cover the story—for a variety of news organizations. Most notably, Sara Ganim, the lead reporter on the story for the Patriot News, is a Penn State grad. So is Mark Viera, a sports reporter at the New York Times, who wrote a front-page story for the Times about the scandal. On the one hand, I told my students, there’s the advantage of assigning someone who knows the players and understands the culture; on the other hand, there’s the concern about those blue-and-white glasses. Must we assume that anyone affiliated with the university is forever loyal to it? In a follow-up to my first Sandusky column, I addressed the blue-and-white glasses comment by noting that I didn’t know the person Sandusky, Jerry, from the city of Sandusky, Ohio, and referred skeptics to past columns of mine that had been critical of Penn State administrators.
The Breakfast Test
The Grand Jury presentment was not for the faint of heart. Notoriously, it described the "slap-slap-slapping" sounds assistant coach Mike McQueary said he heard when he walked in on Sandusky anally raping a 10-year-old boy in the showers in Penn State’s football building. Since many readers said they were sickened by the details, it’s fair to ask if they were necessary. I argued that they were because Tim Curley, the athletic director, and Gary Schultz, the university vice president in charge of the campus police, claimed they understood that Sandusky was "horsing around" with the kid in the shower. The graphic details make it hard to understand how whatever McQueary told the higher-ups could have been construed as mere horseplay.
The Patriot News published an interview with the mother of one of Sandusky’s alleged victims—and did not name her, for the usual reasons: Being a victim of a sexual assault is humiliating enough without one’s humiliation being made public in the press. The New York Times did a story about one of the victims that contained so many identifying details, right down to the tie-dyed socks the young man wore to track meets, that it might as well have identified him by name. The New York Times public editor, Arthur Brisbane, decided the paper went too far. Locally, some media outlets were criticized for running a Google map along with a story about the proximity of Sandusky’s house to a local school. It is, of course, a simple matter to find Sandusky’s address. But some readers complained that the map pinpointing the house’s whereabouts made Sandusky too vulnerable to vandalism or attack. In fact, vandals did break windows on two occasions.
The Sandusky scandal put my students in a peculiar position. Regardless of whether they were covering the story for campus media or other news organizations, as aspiring journalists they could identify with the reporters. As Penn State students they were also the "reported about." And they did not like the way they were portrayed. They were particularly incensed by the coverage of the riot that broke out the night Paterno was fired. Viewers nationwide saw students chanting, throwing rocks, stomping cars and tipping a television satellite truck onto its side. To a chorus of commentators, including newspaper columnists, the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart, South Park and Saturday Night Live, the student body’s priorities were seriously out of whack. This, my students found unfair. They had a legitimate beef.
The fact was, no more than 10% of the approximately 45,000 students at Penn State hit the streets that night. As is usually the case with such incidents, a majority of those present were onlookers. And among those who were actively protesting—that is, chanting or carrying signs—a relatively small number threw rocks or stomped around on the roofs of cars. And it only takes a handful of people to flip a van. Yet the overturned van became the dominant and defining image of the event, which raises a painful question for standard journalistic procedure: Is it fair to make the most dramatic image the dominant image when it isn’t the representative image?
Several of my students reported that they saw journalists inciting the crowd. Before things got out of hand that night, one claimed to have heard a reporter express his disappointment at the lack of telegenic action. "This is a riot?" he supposedly said. "Come on!" Another student said he saw a journalist flapping his arms, the way football players do when they want the crowd to make more noise. And another said he saw a journalist encouraging students who were rocking a streetlight. Were these instant urban legends? My students swore they witnessed these events. The State College police investigated and found no evidence of incitement on the part of journalists.
Nevertheless, the idea took hold among some of my students that "the media" caused the riot, just as "the media" were to blame for Paterno’s dismissal. I gently reminded them that no one forced the students to throw stones, stomp cars or flip a TV truck, and no one forced the board of trustees to immediately fire JoePa, whose retirement originally had been scheduled for the end of the 2011 football season.
The national media’s focus on Paterno infuriated many Penn State students and alumni. To look at the coverage, some said, you would think Paterno was the accused molester, not Sandusky. Unlike Curley and Schultz, Paterno was not charged with personally committing any crimes and therefore, said his defenders, he should not have been fired by the board of trustees—and should not have been presented as the "face of the scandal" on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine and elsewhere. The counterargument was that Paterno may have done what he was legally required to do when he alerted Curley, his supervisor, but from a moral standpoint, even he acknowledged that he should have done more. And the possibility that Coach Paterno, Penn State President Graham Spanier and other senior administrators were involved in a cover-up was, rightly, a bigger story than the charges against Sandusky.
When the public complains, as my students did, about "the media," they are lumping together professional journalists who report the news, professional journalists who opine about the news in columns, blogs and tweets, guest opinion columnists, and amateur bloggers/tweeters. A false or exaggerated report from any of these sources undermines the credibility of all of them. The most pernicious rumor that has circulated since November is that Sandusky wasn’t just preying on boys he helped through his foundation, the "Second Mile," but had been “pimping them out” to donors to the foundation. If you Google "Sandusky" and "pimping" you get hundreds, possibly thousands, of hits. To date, however, no one has offered a shred of substantiating evidence.
And then there were the premature reports of Paterno’s death. That story began with a tweet from Onward State, a website run by Penn State students, and spread to CBS News and the Huffington Post before the Paterno family tweeted a denial in turn. (Paterno actually died of natural causes the next morning.)
At this writing, we are in a lull. The satellite trucks that were strung along College Avenue for most of November and that returned for Paterno’s memorial service in January are gone again. When the trials begin and the various committees have completed their investigations, they will return.
For some of my students, seeing Big Media up close confirmed their passion for journalism. Others were so disgusted that they’ve lost all interest. To them I acknowledge the excesses, but ask that they consider the alternative: Not long ago, child molestation was literally unspeakable. That discomfort may partially account for Penn State’s mishandling of the situation. But now that we’re talking about child sexual abuse, more adults who were molested as children are coming forward. Perhaps our vigilance has increased as well. Overdoing this story was far better than not doing it at all.