Tag Archives: Penn State

Journalists, Twitter, and Breaking News

22 Jan


There should be a quite a lot of soul-searching in the journalistic establishment after an epically disastrous Saturday evening on the Interwebs. Enterprising journalists from around the world rapidly spread two completely false stories by Twitter. The incidents should give everyone pause and offer the opportunity to reconsider social media policies when reporting breaking news.

First, the two stories.

1. Jeb Bush’s Reported Endorsement: Shortly after the South Carolina primary was called for Newt Gingrich, CNN’s John King appeared to land a big scoop. He announced that former Florida Governor (and brother of ex-President George W. Bush)  Jeb Bush would endorse Mitt Romney for the GOP nomination. Problem was Bush didn’t have any intention of endorsing anyone (he later issued a statement to confirm that).  Jim Roberts of the New York Times probably spread the news quickest with this tweet, but other people picked up on it quickly. Pundits jumped on the announcement and began analyzing its impact on the race before Bush denied the rumor in his statement.

2. Joe Paterno Died: Perhaps more disturbingly, Twitter exploded with news that Penn State’s legendary coach Joe Paterno passed away last evening (since then Paterno has of course sadly passed on). Journos around the world tweeted and retweeted the news. Unfortunately, the reports were traced back to one student publication, Onward State, who tweeted that Paterno died around 8:45 p.m. (their leader has since resigned over the flap). CBSSports.com picked up the story and published their own based (apparently) solely on the original report from Onward State. They later issued an apology, “CBSSports.com holds itself to high journalistic standards, and in this circumstance tonight, we fell well short of those expectations,” managing editor Mark Swanson wrote. Other major news organizations like Huffington Post and Buzzfeed also published stories that cited the CBSSports report as the source of their information. It’s worth noting that none of the major news organizations like the New York Times, Reuters, AP, Washington Post or ESPN confirmed the news on their websites.

So how should these incidents be viewed in the journalistic community? More than a condemnation of Twitter, I think instead they remind us of the importance of getting the story right and maintaining solid journalistic fundamentals. Social media sites have transformed how people obtain their news and how they share it (for example, I learned about the deaths of Steve Jobs, Gaddafi, Osama Bin Laden, Kim Jong-Il by Twitter first). Once something breaks, it literally moves around the world in minutes. And that’s a good thing overall.

But, one of the first things journalists are taught is to verify your information and cite your sources. Particularly at the national level, when dealing with important, sensitive stories, those principles become even more important. Everyone is human and mistakes will be made, but there is no excuse for publishing a story about the death of a legendary sports figure with the uncorroborated reports of a student online publication as your sole source. CBS Sports fell down on their responsibility and other journalists must ensure they don’t fall into the same traps.

Breaking news and grabbing the scoop remains an important part of the business. Everyone wants to do it. That does not mean that standards should slip in order to accomplish the feat. Getting information correct has always been a vital part of the news business (it’s essential for maintaining credibility among the public), but it has taken on an even greater importance since the advent of social media.

The best line about grabbing the scoop comes from Walter Cronkite: “Get it first, but get it right.”

Photo credit: NLSven

Penn State’s Joe Paterno Should Resign Immediately

8 Nov

In an unusual and rare move, The Patriot-News newspaper ran an editorial on the front page this morning. In it, they argued that Penn State University President Graham Spanier should resign immediately and head football coach Joe Paterno should leave his post at the end of the year. Unfortunately, in light of the facts of the Jerry Sandusky case, the end of the year is not soon enough. By reneging on his moral obligations to society, Paterno has compromised his position and should resign immediately.

Though we may not always like it, our society functions because a series of largely unwritten, but commonly understood, series of moral compasses exist. One of the most basic is that we try to protect young people who cannot protect themselves. Another is that sports events, no matter how much money is sunk into them, are just games. When the well-being of a defenseless, young child and athletics come into conflict, there is no question how we should act.

Everyone at Penn State appears to have violated that principle. That ranges from Spanier to Paterno to the graduate assistant, Mike McQueary, who witnessed the alleged abuse. Though Paterno and Spanier appear to have been cleared legally of any wrongdoing, they are guilty of dereliction of their moral responsibilities.

Excuses will be made in the coming months for why more was not done. Paterno may claim that he simply didn’t understand the gravity of the situation because he is the product of another era. If that is true, and Paterno didn’t comprehend the magnitude of the situation, he should not have been coaching then and should not be coaching now.

In the indictment, Paterno admits understanding that something inappropriate occurred between Sandusky and a child in a shower. He was more than likely aware of the 1998 incident involving Sandusky. He knew that Sandusky founded a charity (The Second Mile) for at-risk children and had access to hundreds of them. Even if he wasn’t sure how serious the allegations were, Paterno knew that Sandusky had twice acted “inappropriately” with children. Yet, Sandusky continued to host camps and bring children to Penn State practice facilities. How Paterno could not have connected the dots is inconceivable.

McQueary is even more puzzling. He witnessed Sandusky anally raping a young boy who was no older than ten years old. Yet, he did nothing in the moment to stop the attack. McQueary graduated from Penn State as the quarterback just two years prior to the attack. He was young, athletic and saw a young child being traumatized. That he didn’t step in is something he will live with for the rest of his life.

After the attack, McQueary stayed on campus. He rose to the rank of assistant coach. He must have seen Sandusky bringing young boys to the school’s practices in the years after the 2002 shower attack. Having witnessed what Sandusky had done once before, he still did nothing. Even if you accept that Paterno shouldn’t have believed the “rumors,” McQueary actually saw an attack. By not calling the police himself initially and not stepping in again when he saw Sandusky still with children, McQueary also violated his moral duties. Of course notifying Paterno and school officials was something positive, but his lack of further action allowed more young boys to be abused for nine more years.

This case is even sadder because of all the good Paterno has brought Penn State through the years. There is little question that he has profoundly shaped young men on his football team into better people and transformed their lives for the better. You don’t get partial credit for moral virtue though. Allowing a pedophile to continue victimizing young boys because of your inaction is an act that should tarnish the best of careers.

These men neglected their most basic moral duties. They allowed a man who had already committed unspeakable acts against young boys further access to potential victims for the better part of another decade. As he walked amongst them, sometimes bringing new young boys to their facilities, they did nothing. Those boys suffered.

Why didn’t they do anything? There is no good answer.

Former Penn State Coach Jerry Sandusky Charged With Child Rape

7 Nov

For nearly 30 years, Penn State’s Jerry Sandusky was one of the most respected assistant coaches in college football. Now, if the charges against him are true, Sandusky used that position of power to gain access to and sexually abuse at least eight young boys over the last two decades.

Who is Jerry Sandusky? From 1963 to 1965, Sandusky played under legendary coach Joe Paterno as a defensive end. In 1969, he returned to Penn State as an assistant where he worked until his retirement in 1999. Sandusky was considered a fixture in his community. He founded a charity called The Second Mile for at-risk children. It was through his involvement in this charity that he allegedly met his victims.

What are the charges against him? Sandusky faces over forty counts of sex crimes and they are heinous. According to the indictment, which is available in its entirety online, Sandusky abused eight victims over several decades. Among the most sickening charges: Sandusky sexually assaulted a boy in a Penn State shower in 2002 and performed oral sex on another boy. He allegedly showered with other victims and touched them inappropriately. The assault in the shower was witnessed by a graduate assistant, later identified as Mike McQueary.

Why was nothing done? An excellent question and likely the reason two college officials are facing charges. The graduate assistant told head coach Joe Paterno the following day about what he witnessed in the shower. In this meeting, the assistant told Paterno the incident involved “fondling or doing something of a sexual nature to a young boy.” Paterno told athletic director Tim Curley the following day, but took no further actions. Curley and Penn State vice president for finance and business Gary Schultz met with Paterno a week and a half later, but did not think the charges were “serious” and claimed that they didn’t appear to be sexual in nature.  Both Curley and Schultz have been charged with “perjury and failure to report in an investigation into allegations” for not informing authorities about the charges against Sandusky.

Was anything done by Penn State? Apparently, they told Sandusky and his charity that he was no longer permitted to bring children onto campus. Under questioning, Curley admitted this ban was “unenforceable.” According to Deadspin, as late as 2009, “Sandusky was still hosting overnight camps for children as young as 9 at other Penn State schools.”

What does Paterno have to say? Not enough. The coach issued a statement late Sunday night that read, in part, “[my wife] Sue and I have devoted our lives to helping young people reach their potential. The fact that someone we thought we knew might have harmed young people to this extent is deeply troubling. If this is true we were all fooled, along with scores of professionals trained in such things, and we grieve for the victims and their families. They are in our prayers.” Still, scores of people from across the country, have said the scandal will tarnish Paterno’s legacy.

What is Sandusky doing right now? He’s free until his trial. ABC News tried to speak with him, but he declined to comment. Perhaps, most sickening in light of these charges is the fact that Sandusky’s autobiography is entitled “Touched.”