Saturday, December 3, 2011

How the Media Failed in the Jerry Sandusky Child Abuse Tragedy

When I was in college, studying journalism, the point was made over and over and over again that a good journalist is objective, focuses on the real story, and keeps to the facts. I remember the first time my reporting class went to a school board meeting. Almost all of us came away writing a story that was discussed the longest. If that was thing everyone was focusing on, that was main story, right?

Wrong, said my professor, as he docked our grades for reporting on knee-jerk reaction. Just because a story has an emotional reaction doesn't mean that's the story. He then pointed out the most newsworthy item of the night -- that one student actually wrote about, if I recall -- that would impact the school district deeply for a long time.

I didn't stay a journalism major past that year because the type of writing and reporting I wanted to do was better served through the English writing major. Nor did I envision myself being the type of person who could go up to a woman in tears to get her reaction on the death of her child or butt myself into someone's tragedy. But the lessons I learned in those journalism classes have stayed with me all these years.

I should also add that I'm a news and sports junkie. I will spend hours each night watching news and sports shows. I read newspapers and news/sports magazines. I visit several news/sports sites each day online. You all can have American Idol and Jersey Shore. I prefer my reality TV to be honest-to-goodness reality.

And then the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal. As I watched the news unfold, I could feel the world crumble around me. I was horrified for the young men who allegedly suffered. But I also felt tremendous pain for my university and for my community. Those of you who are not part of the Penn State or State College communities don't know how this story is tearing us apart, so don't pretend that you do or get all moralistic because we are having intense emotional reactions that you don't agree with or understand.

Yet, I also mourn the loss of the media that I once wanted to be a part of and good journalistic ethics. I mourn the loss of journalists and news outlets that is objective, focuses on the real story, and keeps to the facts. It is like that school board story all over again -- the story with the greatest emotional reaction is rarely the primary point.

The news media around the globe have dubbed this the Penn State scandal. Except, it isn't. It is a child abuse tragedy that centers on a former employee of Penn State and some actions that allegedly involved the Penn State campus and perhaps other employees. Many of the stories of the accusers (which is what they are until the case goes to trial) take place in locations beyond Penn State.

But by dubbing this a Penn State scandal, the media can devote much of their time to the real emotional base of the story -- Joe Paterno. He is a world-famous name and face. He is a "legend" and an "icon" -- a fact, which every single story I've read insists on reminding us. Then the media decided to create their own scandal to go along with the crucifixtion of Paterno: he did not live up to his moral authority, according to the Grand Jury report.

Let the sensationalism begin.

As I watched the witch hunt (and yes, that's how we think of it here) began, I began to wonder why the news media wasn't reporting the following:

-- that the Grand Jury report was just that, a report. It is not the full Grand Jury testimony. Nor is the Grand Jury a trial. It is a means of gathering enough information to decide whether or not a case should go to a judge and jury trial. It is one, very incomplete side of the story. Yet, I can point to only one news story or broadcast that emphasized that. Hence,

-- no one knows the true story. Matt Millen said it best: we don't know what we think we know. Here's an example for you: Yesterday, I stopped off for a hoagie, went to a volleyball game, cheered on my team to a win, and then came home. Do you know what kind of hoagie I had? Where I watched the game? What the final score was? Or what I did after I came home? Based on what I just told you, of course not, and you probably wouldn't bother to make any assumptions. The Grand Jury report doesn't give a second by second time line of everything. Nor has anyone in the media bothered to investigate how long police or other officials are required to keep documents on file.

-- Joe Paterno was not the most powerful person at Penn State, nor was Graham Spanier beloved by the Penn State community. Spanier was the king of kings around here since he showed up in the mid-90s, and folks who work at Penn State will tell you that quite bluntly. "I'm not sorry to see Spanier gone," is a common refrain in these parts. Paterno had power, to be sure, and he had it long before 1982, as one ESPN writer claimed. But Spanier usurped him supremely. But Spanier isn't as sexy a story as Joe. It's too bad the media only decided to report the "Joe is mean and powerful" anecdotes, because if you live in State College long enough, you have your own personal dealings with the man and I'd say most of them are positive.

-- the real story of the "riots" downtown on the night Joe was fired. A little investigation would have shown, first and foremost, that a vigil was in the works from the get-go. I had invites in my Facebook mailbox on Sunday night and Monday morning. The word was being passed fast and furious. Secondly, eyewitness accounts talk about police brutality, like innocent people who were walking home from an evening out and followed police directions ending up pepper sprayed. (Yet, at the same time, the same actions by police in the Occupy movement were condemned.) Thirdly, other eyewitness accounts discuss the media inciting the actions of the students. A local news outlet showed a press conference with the State College chief of police who stated some media outlets were reporting riot-like incidents BEFORE they happened and this was being investigated. I've searched and searched for other outlets reporting the same thing, and found nothing.

-- what Penn State students do for kids. In the rush to judge them as selfish, hateful, only caring about the football team, no one bothered to mention the millions of dollars and thousands of hours the students give to helping children. I invite every single critic to return in February to witness THON. If you aren't moved by that, you have a heart of stone. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Has anyone bothered to mention the nearly $500K that students and alumni raised in less than a month in support of victims of sexual abuse?

-- what really happened at Central Mountain. If we are to go by only the Grand Jury report, two coaches at Central Mountain High School witnessed alleged abuse and didn't report it to anyone. School officials allegedly allowed Sandusky to come into the building and take kids out of class, without parental permission. None of this was known until Accuser #1's mother went to the police. Note that the Grand Jury does not mention that any school administrator went to the police. Again, this isn't the sexy emotional stoy, but it is a media double standard when it comes to reporting.

-- everybody who is anybody in Centre County has a connection with Second Mile and after deriding one judge for her volunteer with the charity, didn't bother to report that all of the county judges recused themselves from the case. For the same reason. State College is really a small rural town with one primary employer -- Penn State. Many of the businesses that have been built up here were started by former Penn State employees or alumni. For many years, I've likened this to an old-fashioned company town. Everything is intertwined. You can't separate Penn State from anything. Second Mile is unique because of its strong football ties, but many of us in the community supported helping at-risk kids. Penn State is involved in a lot of other charities, like the United Way. You can't easily disconnect the community at large and the University.

-- the vast majority of the "children" accusers are now adults. Some of them may be Penn State students and alumni. They might watch the news or ESPN regularly. They might be football fans and season ticket holders, and maybe they were protesting on Old Main lawn. For all the protestations of "thinking of the victims," have the media ever once considered what their reporting is doing to the victims' mental well being? (No, ratings are all that count.)

Instead, I've read articles where the media try to create stories and draw an even stronger emotional reaction (hatred) from the public at large. Just look at all the conspiracy theories that have come up about Gricar. I've come to question the validity of many of the articles; in fact, many of them are just littered with inaccuracies. "Experts" are interviewed to give their opinions and condemn the people who were made central the story and condemn the community, but the "experts" don't know any more than the rest of us, and they certainly don't grasp the Penn State community.

If I lived somewhere else and this happened to a different school, I would probably buy into everything being reported and have very negative feelings too. How could I not, based on the information I've been fed? There are some voices stepping forward to say "let me explain the Penn State I know," but they are either trampled down or vilified in the comment section. I know I've tried to explain that the media haven't been reporting fairly or always truthfully, but I got shouted down and have been accused of all kinds of horrific acts.

A few days into the news of the tragedy, a news anchor I once respected discounted a lawyer who was the lone voice I heard who tried to explain the Grand Jury report, and the reporter brushed off her comments, saying that all that counts is public opinion. Rather than thanking the lawyer for providing perspective, the news anchor brushed off her comments as unimportant, that mob rule was supreme.

I can no longer trust the media to report the news. I know a lot of people will point out that this has been the case for many years, and they are probably right. But now I have proof. It makes me sad. I haven't totally weaned myself off the news because it is important to be informed. But now I only read the first paragraph or two to get the basic gist of the story because I can't believe anything that comes after. I stopped watching the news pundit shows. I stopped watching Sports Center and will not be renewing my subscriptions to Sports Illustrated or ESPN the Magazine because I can't read either one anymore without wondering how many lies and half-truths they are spouting.

Many people have asked me why I'm not out there reporting on the story. For one reason: I can't be objective. And I was taught, if you can't be objective, you can't be a good reporter.

1 comment:

Sheila Callahan said...

Well said, Sue. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. It's so easy for those of us far away to just buy into the whole media circus.