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Penn State scandal illustrates demand for comprehensive reporting

The first message came while I was at my son’s soccer game. It was the producer of Robert Wuhl’s Westwood One Radio Network program. Could I come on to talk about Penn State? ESPN was next – Outside the Lines.

And so it went.

The fallout from the column that I wrote Nov. 7 on Philadelphia Magazine’s web site calling for Joe Paterno’s resignation started a whirlwind that had my face on the tube way too many times and my voice on the radio waves enough for it to qualify as noise pollution. But such was the frenzy over the revelations that former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky had been arrested and charged with 40 counts of sexual assault on eight different minor boys. National, regional and local media outlets spent the ensuing week churning content about the story in an attempt to keep viewers/readers/listeners engaged and coming back for more. And more. Perhaps the biggest story in the history of college athletics touched nearly every category. I’m not sure whether HGTV did something on it, but it wouldn’t be surprising if it did.

A lot of the coverage was well done and tasteful. Some of it approached the line of indecency by focusing on the salacious side of it without considering the feelings of the alleged victims. There was up-to-the-minute news available through social media and plenty of interplay between fans and those covering the story. In short, there was enough action to fill a month of news cycles, all packed in to seven days. By the time Penn State had finished its game with Nebraska at about 3:15 p.m. Eastern last Saturday, the nation grabbed a Gatorade, took a break and tried to figure it all out.

In the final analysis, there were some lessons to be learned. Some were basic tenets that could apply to any big story, while others were more specific to the Sandusky case and its effect on Penn State the institution and the Nittany Lion football program. Still others were signs of the times. Here is how a few broke down.

First Impressions Weren’t Lasting: When the story broke, the first instinct of many in the media was to protect Paterno, the somewhat sainted PSU program leader who was always held up – largely because he cultivated the image – as a different kind of coach. His players went to class. They didn’t cause too much trouble. (Although there was a stretch there that featured some pretty nasty behavior.) Paterno raised money for a library and donated millions of his own. How could anybody with that resume and character be guilty of anything? Surely, if he had known this kind of behavior was going on at his school, he would have done something about it. We soon learned that wasn’t true at all.

Local Wins: The story became big news once ESPN devoted round-the-clock attention to it, dispatching reporters, producers and cameras to State College to document the proceedings. But as powerful as the four-letter network might be, the real media hero was Sara Ganim of the Harrisburg Patriot-News, whose careful reporting and cultivation of sources led her to write articles that brought the outrage of two victims’ mothers to light. Patriot-News sports writer David Jones also did fine work on the football angle, bringing his years of experience on the Nittany Lion beat to the fore. As much as the bigger names have the resources, there is no substitute for the daily presence and efforts of the people who live and work where the stories take place. The Penn State scandal proved that.

Don’t Believe Everything You Hear: There were some pretty crazy rumors flying around the situation. Some were relatively benign, such as the fact that the Big Ten would perhaps look to drop Penn State. Others were extremely disturbing and don’t warrant mention here, but suffice it to say if they were true, they would take the story to levels previously unimaginable. Even though relatively reputable sources were passing along some of the rumors, it was instructive that the most respected outlets refused to gossip. At a time when it has never been easier to spread hearsay, it was good that the rumor mongering was kept to a minimum. Still, it was out there.

Patience is a Virtue: When the story broke, Paterno’s defenders (and the tiny minority in Sandusky’s camp) exhorted us to “wait until all the information comes out.” That was especially true in this case, since by week’s end, we had heard from more alleged victims. We had also learned more about Paterno and the breadth of his power and influence at Penn State and in State College. There were reports that Sandusky had been on campus as recently as the week before. And anybody who took the time to read the entire presentment from the Attorney General’s office learned way too much about the alleged atrocities committed by Sandusky. In cases like this, there is always more than what is originally reported. By Saturday, we had found out plenty of it.

Social Media Rules: It was impossible to monitor Twitter last week and not see something posted about the scandal practically every minute. Whether it was one of the army of ESPN tweeters, a student’s weighing in or just a fan expressing outrage/support, there was no shortage of opinion and information on the 21st century version of the Associated Press newswire. Facebook was also on fire, both within the Penn State community and the general public. When the week was over, the Wall Street Journal ran a “computational analysis of the conversation” on social media. Of the 20,000 responses it measured about the Penn State situation, 50% expressed a favorable opinion about the ousting of Paterno, 30% showed disgust at the firing, and a mere 6% believed relieving Paterno of his position was wrong. Once again, we had learned more about a story from all angles through social media activity.

More to Come: Sunday, the inevitable happened. Other stories took over the news cycle. The NFL, the NBA lockout (and commissioner David Stern’s misguided attempt to use Twitter to the league’s advantage) and results of football, basketball and hockey games directed our attention away from Penn State. But that doesn’t mean it’s over – not by a long shot. Monday night, NBC’s Bob Costas interviewed Sandusky, who reiterated his innocence and said that while he “horsed around,” with the boys in question, he did not sexually assault them. Meanwhile, ESPN spoke to “someone close” to PSU assistant coach Mike McQueary, who testified that he witnessed Sandusky assaulting a boy, told ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi that McQueary did indeed stop the alleged assault and was forthright in his testimony to the grand jury. On Dec. 7, Sandusky will appear at his preliminary hearing. There will no doubt be contact with victims of the alleged assaults, and they will tell their stories. There will be civil lawsuits down the road. Penn State, the state of Pennsylvania and the federal government plan to launch investigations. This ain’t over.

But, oh, what a beginning.

Michael Bradley is a writer, broadcaster and teacher headquartered in suburban Philadelphia. His written work has appeared in Sporting News, ESPN the Magazine, Athlon Sports, Hoop and Slam, among others. He is a host on 97.5 the Fanatic in Philadelphia and contributes analysis for Yahoo! Sports Radio and Sirius Mad Dog Radio. He appears on CSNPhilly.com, writes a weekly column on Philadelphia Magazine’s “Philly Post” and has authored 26 books. He teaches sports journalism at Saint Joseph’s, Villanova and Neumann Universities.

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