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Penn State scandal epitomizes challenges of scandal coverage for sports journalists

The sexual abuse scandal currently enveloping Penn State and its storied coach Joe Paterno epitomizes the best – and most challenging — moment for sports journalists: The instant when a blockbuster story explodes from an item on the sports pages to something much, much more.

In the case of Paterno and Penn State, it’s the allegation that officials at the college turned a blind eye to evidence longtime defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky molested a child in the football team’s shower facility nearly ten years ago.

Sandusky was arrested Saturday and charged with sexually abusing eight boys over 15 years.

The key evidence here is a Grand Jury report alleging a graduate student saw Sandusky having sex with a 10-year-old boy in the showers at the college in 2002 and reported the incident to Paterno, who told his superiors at Penn State.

But no one told the police or tried to find the boy, and Sandusky was allowed to live free and keep an office on the campus – despite a grand jury investigation into his activities while running a charity for troubled boys called Second Mile.

Awful as these details are, they also dovetail with an important moment in American culture, as news media grow more willing to probe allegations of sexual crimes and improprieties than ever before, giving victims new platforms and forcing journalists to face tough questions about coverage habits.

For evidence of this, look no further than the latest sexually-charged scandal to touch the Worldwide Leader; former ESPN senior vice president of content development and enterprise Keith Clinkscales’ odd lawsuit complaining that a colleague was spreading falsehoods about him pleasuring himself on a flight while sitting next to anchor Erin Andrews.

One element cited in Clinkscales’ lawsuit as a possible inspiration? That defendant Joan Lynch had spoken to the editor of sports blog Deadspin; this litigation seems an attempt to get his version of the allegations in the public space first.

Questionable as that tactic may be – experts have already noted that the former executive ensured wider news coverage by documenting the story in an official document – in a media environment where cellphone photos of naked athletes have become widely-circulated news items, the landscape of reporting has suddenly grown much wider.

In the Paterno/Sandusky/Penn State case, one early issue was focus. Initial reporting centered on the fact that Paterno’s bosses, athletics director Tim Curley and senior vice president of business and finance Gary Schultz were leaving their positions, facing charges they lied to the grand jury, with passing references made to Paterno’s actions, which likely followed the law.

This week, however, notions that the 84-year-old coach’s responsibility to do more than just tell his superiors has moved center stage – as the university’s president canceled a Tuesday press conference amid growing calls for Paterno to step down.

In this environment, some argue the press is forgetting the man charged with committing the molestation – a 32-year veteran of Paterno’s staff with access to the campus after his retirement in 1999.

With so many stories on Paterno’s fate, including a New York Times piece definitively stating he will not coach another season for the Nittany Lions, keeping the story in perspective with time spent on the alleged perpetrator and victims may be crucial.

Another issue is identification of the victims. Though journalists avoid naming victims of sexual assault, especially when they are minors, at least some of the victims are adults now, including a ninth person police said came forward with molestation allegations Tuesday.

Given the incendiary charges, journalists will be rushing to identify the victims and try to get interviews detailing their allegations. The tough decisions will come if no victims agree to speak on the record.

Will news outlets reveal their names anyway, as happened with Karen Kraushaar, the woman who received payment from the National Restaurant Association after alleging sexual harassment issues with then-CEO-turned-GOP candidate Herman Cain? And is that such a momentous decision at a time when such information is often widely available through bloggers and Twitter posts, anyway?

But the toughest issue comes when considering Sandusky, who has not yet been convicted of a crime, despite serious allegations contained in the grand jury report.

Despite most sports anchors’ talents for superficial bluster, real sports journalists must keep in mind that even those charged with the most heinous of crimes with the biggest mountains of evidence are not guilty until proven so in a court of law.

Retaining some semblance of objectivity while reporting on a scandal, which feels like the biggest administrative failure in the recent history of college football, may be the biggest challenge of all for a sports media increasingly addicted to the heat of hot topics.

If true, Penn State’s fumbling of Sandusky’s issues feels like a bitter hangover from an antiquated era when big institutions sidestepped issues of harassment and abuse by trusted employees instead of confronting them.

Like a Band-Aid ripped from a still-healing wound, the nation seems caught in a painful transition from those days of avoidance to a media moment where allegations of sexual abuse, assault and misconduct are excavated fully and freely in the public square, fueled by a media hungry for the latest tidbit on attention-getting scandals.

The key for all ethical journalists caught in middle of this is to push hard with tough questions while staying true to concepts of fairness, accuracy and proper perspective.

Pull that off, and consumers get more than the latest gust of sports-flavored hot air. They get a window into a rapidly changing world through the lens of the sporting world.\

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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