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Adam Smeltz: Too Much Penn State Scandal Coverage? Why We're Obsessing

on December 24, 2011 8:55 AM

The occasional e-mails, tweets and passing comments in person have made it abundantly clear:

Some of you think we're overdoing it with the Sandusky coverage.

And the Schultz coverage.

And the Curley coverage.

Enough already, we're told from time to time.

There are other local stories, some say. Why aren't we covering the hell out of them right now, too? Why the apparent obsession with scandal?

Plus, critics go on, why do we continue to use the "#PSUCharges" hashtag on Twitter? This whole ordeal involves criminal charges against only a few people, they argue -- so why do we continue to implicate an entire university with "#PSUCharges"?

I get it. At least, I understand the arguments. We always appreciate knowing what our readers are thinking, what's shaping their thought processes, what they'd like to see less (and more) of.

But on this -- on these ongoing criminal cases -- we have no plans to diminish our emphasis.

Let's be clear: None of us enjoys writing about this. We know you don't enjoy reading about it, either. No one relishes tragedy.

This -- covering this -- is not about making anyone comfortable, however.

Nor is it about giving bad -- or positive -- publicity to Penn State or State College. It's not about ruining Penn State football or Joe Paterno, spoiling a legacy or destroying a university.

For bona fide journalists covering the matter professionally, this is about a single goal: pursuit of truth.

Call it cheesy; call it cliched or naive. But our objective in following this ordeal is rooted in the same fundamental ethic that drives us in anything else: that unearthing truth -- no matter where it leads -- bears a public service, disinfects filth, discourages corruption and strengthens society.

Given limited time and resources, every news organization makes subjective decisions about how to allocate its coverage priorities. Determining what's covered -- and, by default, what isn't -- remains perhaps the most difficult and debated task in the profession.

So why put so much time into the scandal and its fallout?

Our subjective assessment: No other single local-news item in the State College area, at this moment, carries greater weight for the overall public interest.

Implications of the allegations -- even if the allegations never become undisputed truths -- cut to the core of this community's humanity and identity, its self-professed character, its ethical moorings and responsibilities. The believed impacts on the many lives directly affected -- on the lives upended -- demand our intensive care not because we're Penn Staters or Centre Countians, but because we're humans.

Even the implications of those relatively few things known to be true right now -- those hold profound consequences already.

No, we don't enjoy covering this, but we believe the truths yet to be uncovered, if heard loudly, will strengthen society.

We believe we must confront what's there, no matter if it makes us squirm, damages Penn State or pains State College. Truth should stand taller than institutions, bigger than individuals.

Silence and secrets, after all, played a central role in building tragedy in central Pennsylvania, investigative authorities tell us. Silence, they say, let devastation fester. Secrets, they tell us, let the unspeakable go unanswered.

And about that "#PSUCharges" hashtag -- well, here's the thing: I started it back in early November. I take full credit, accept complete responsibility and offer no apologies.

OK, so it may make Penn State look bad. Understood. But really, that's not the hashtag's fault; the hashtag didn't start the public-relations bloodbath for the university. The hashtag reflects what reality offers.

If the Office of Attorney General's claims hold water, even if only marginally, what happened at Penn State is not an error of one. Rather, if the claims are accurate, the unimaginable mess marks the failure of an institutional leadership culture that stretches far beyond a marginalized handful.

Certainly, too, the fallout from the AG's claims has spanned virtually the entire institution. "#PSUCharges," then, to me, remains wholly appropriate.

Having said all that, we must add this: Please don't stop criticizing. Don't stop complaining. Don't stop calling us out.

Public input is a key element in influencing and shaping responsible and responsive news coverage. That doesn't mean we can follow everyone's advice, but it does mean we should -- and do -- listen to all of it. It's critical in informing what we do. Without it, we'd be in a dark vacuum.

So keep talking. Keep talking to us, digitally or otherwise.

And know that we're grateful.

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