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Developments in Penn State scandal coverage have TV journalists playing catch up

In a way, it feels like mirror images of an event; the Yin and Yang of how television has succeeded and failed in covering the growing sexual assault scandal at Penn State University centered on former coach Jerry Sandusky.

On one side is NBC Sports anchor Bob Costas, who learned 15 minutes before a planned interview with Sandusky’s lawyer Monday, that the ex-coach himself was willing to speak by telephone on grand jury charges he sexually assaulted eight boys over a 15-year period.

On the other is CBS News correspondent Armen Keteyian, who on Tuesday tracked down Penn State assistant coach Mike McQueary, known as the man who told the grand jury he saw Sandusky having sex with a 10-year-old in 2002. The interview, which consisted of about 25-seconds in which McQueary admitted his emotions felt “crazy” in the maelstrom of the scandal, was hyped by CBS as an illuminating, exclusive interview.

This is the ugly, sausage-making part of news coverage as organizations struggle, with more transparency than ever before, to track down all the threads unleashed by a three-year investigation into charges a 32-year veteran of Penn State’s legendary, ethical football program had sex with several young men for years. And that top university officials may have known.

Costas’ interview, aired Monday on NBC’s Rock Center, featured direct questions, asked with a minimum of emotion, getting at the heart of the issues most viewers likely cared about. One question – “Are you sexually attracted to young boys?” – was reportedly an in-the-moment idea, which left Sandusky looking awful as he floundered to answer for long seconds.

Keteyian has defended the handling of his interview, in which McQueary said his emotions were swirling “like a snow globe.” But the talk essentially boiled down to little more than an extended refusal to comment with the controversial assistant coach offering no new facts on the situation.

The pressure for new information here is mounting. As reporters dissect an email McQueary sent to a friend contradicting the parts of his grand jury testimony made public – it says he somehow stopped the assault on the boy and talked to police about it; police say they had no record of a discussion with him – there is a growing desire to learn what he knew and what he told Penn State officials back in 2002.

What TV can do best is bring the weight of big media down, shaking loose the key people in big stories, so viewers can see for themselves what may lie at the heart of the matter. But there is great temptation to overhype small gains; a sure recipe for losing credibility and boosting cynicism on the reports to follow.

Which is why it is so important to read the work of Sara Ganim, a police reporter with the Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. who seems to be everywhere on the exploding scandal.

Back in March, Ganim wrote a story for the newspaper detailing how a grand jury spent 18 months hearing testimony Sandusky may have “indecently assaulted” a 15-year-old boy at a high school where he worked as a volunteer in 2009. Because those allegations didn’t directly involve Penn State and the story didn’t explicitly detail the sexual nature of the allegation, the scoop may not have gotten much national attention. But it proved one of the best-known coaches from the school’s storied football program was getting serious attention from law enforcement. And since Sandusky’s arrest Nov. 5, her scoops have come fast and furiously.

The best stuff included an interview with the sister of one of Sandusky’s alleged victims – unidentified in the story – who attends Penn State, seething as fellow students make jokes about being “Sanduskied.”

Another story asked pointedly whether the investigation of Sandusky should have taken three years, noting just one state trooper was assigned to the case for the first 15 months.

And a recent story on McQueary’s email featured a new nugget: the viewing of a copy of the assistant coach’s handwritten statement, in which he didn’t mention contacting police or stopping the rape.

Ganim, a 24-year-old reporter, told the Miami Herald she worked hard to keep the alleged victims’ voices in mind and focused on the notion that “It’s not a football story. It’s a crime story.”

But it’s also obvious she has a strong network of hometown sources and a willingness to follow the facts wherever the story leads.

That’s not bad advice for the big boys in sport media, stuck playing catch-up on the biggest sports-related story of the year.

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the St. Petersburg Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Village Voice, VIBE magazine, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed.

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