In Penn State Uproar, Pitfalls for Journalists

From Journal-isms: The Patriot-News featured an editorial calling on Penn State University President Graham Spainer to step down.


A day before the Penn State child sex-abuse scandal forced the retirement of legendary coach Joe Paterno, the Harrisburg (Pa.) Patriot-News devoted its entire front page to an editorial calling on Penn State University President Graham Spanier to step down.

The university’s board of trustees did the paper one better. On Wednesday night, the board fired Paterno immediately and accepted Spanier’s resignation.

It was a bright spot in media coverage that received mixed grades. “With the biggest staff of sports journalists in the world, ESPN should have been leading the charge to ask tough questions and shed light on this scandal,” Jason Fry and Kelly McBride wrote for the Poynter Review Project, a partnership between the sports network and the Poynter Institute offering independent examination and analysis of ESPN’s media outlets.

“Instead, it was the tiny Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., out in front of the journalism pack. Their reporters managed to track down two mothers of boys Sandusky allegedly abused. And the paper had the leadership to write a front-page editorial calling for Penn State trustees to clean house.” (The Patriot-News’ Sara Ganim broke the story of the grand jury investigation in March.)

“Meanwhile, the tone of the early ESPN coverage was spotty — sometimes getting it right, but more often seeming inappropriate. It wasn’t until mid-afternoon Tuesday that ESPN finally seemed consistently to ask the right questions and find the appropriate moral outrage. That’s 72 hours after the story first broke.”

Social media lit up once the trustees acted, and in that venue the Penn State college newspaper, the Daily Collegian, won praise from Twitter followers.

“In wake of the Board of Trustees’ decision to dismiss Penn State President Graham Spanier and head football coach Joe Paterno, thousands of students gathered at Old Main at around 10:30 p.m., shouting chants of ‘F— the Trustees’ and ‘We want Joe,’ ” according to a Daily Collegian story filed at 11:23 p.m.

“. . . During the riot, two light posts were ripped down – one on Beaver and one on College Avenue.

“The crowd also tipped over a WTAJ news van on College Avenue, and continued to walk on top of it. The damage included dented car roofs and shattered back windows.”