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The Sandusky Dust-up: Response to Readers

by on April 15, 2011 6:00 AM

Reaction to last week’s column about the Jerry Sandusky story was split, predictably. The good news: No one accused me of being in favor of child molestation.

To review: After reading that a grand jury was investigating allegations that Penn State’s former defensive coordinator had “inappropriate contact” with teenage boys, I got out my trusty journalism ethics scale. I put the public benefit of knowing about the investigation on one side. I put the damage to Sandusky’s reputation on the other side. It looked to me like the damage to reputation weighed slightly more. I concluded that the Harrisburg Patriot-News should have delayed publication until the grand jury finishes its work.

It was close, though – so close that I considered presenting the pros and cons of publishing without offering my own opinion, but decided that would look too wimpy. So I took a position. If I thought the proper course of action was clear, I wouldn’t even have written the column. It’s the conflict of ethical values that interests me in these situations. And whenever you have conflicting ethical values you’re going to have to make a tough call.

I was tickled to see that a couple of readers assumed that I must be wearing “blue and white glasses.”  In other words, Sandusky was a Penn State coach, I’m a Penn State professor; therefore, I must be defending him out of loyalty to dear, old State.

This was a perfect illustration of a topic we cover in ethics class: appearance of conflict of interest: If you, the reporter, have any connection to what you’re reporting on, some readers will see a bias, even if there isn’t one.

I tried to anticipate conflict-of-interest charges last week when I noted that I don’t know Sandusky, Jerry, from Sandusky, Ohio – to no avail. About all I can do to counter the claim that I was protecting “one of my own” is direct skeptics to past columns, like the one where I cast some of the blame for Penn State’s drinking problem on the administration’s shift away from early-morning classes.

Some readers detected a double standard: No one comes to the defense of Joe Six-pack when he’s suspected of molesting a child. Others drew the opposite conclusion: No one reports it when Joe Six-pack is suspected of molesting a child. Which is it: Is Sandusky a target because he’s a public figure or is he treated with kid gloves because he’s a public figure? I’d love to put those two camps in a room to hash that one out.

Another reaction that interested me came from defenders of the journalistic faith. Consider this comment:

“…An 18-month grand jury investigation of a prominent, public figure in central Pennsylvania is indeed news. I would hope you could recognize that literally every other newspaper editor in the United States would publish just the story the Patriot-News published, if given the opportunity.”

You know what your mom would say to the everyone-else-would-do-it part of the argument: “If all your friends were jumping off a cliff, would you follow them?”

Yes, the pressure to publish mounts with every whisper, but that does not absolve each news organization of the responsibility to make its own ethical decisions.

As for the argument that the investigation is news: This is exactly the kind of thinking I teach my students to challenge in the ethics class. It’s not good enough to defend a story on the ground that it’s news. You have to ask why is it news?

To the proud defenders of “the public’s right to know, ” newsworthiness becomes such a self-evident quality that they splutter when challenged to explain it to the uninitiated. But explain they must.

And no, invoking the First Amendment is not an explanation. Yes, newspapers have the right to publish what they learn about a grand jury investigation (even though it’s supposed to be secret). That’s a legal matter. Whether they should publish what they learn is the ethics question.

Ethics entails weighing the public benefit of knowing against any harms that may result. Since there’s no way to measure benefit or harm (the scales are a metaphor, after all), reasonable people are often going to disagree about which weighs more in any situation. Hence this discussion.

Interestingly, though, the gung-ho journos who wrote to me didn’t express the slightest concern about the harm to Sandusky’s reputation.

I worked at newspapers for 13 years. I like a big, fat, juicy story as much as anybody, especially one that exposes pious hypocrites. If the investigation leads to criminal charges and if it turns out, as some eager readers predict, that Coach Paterno and the higher-ups in Old Main pushed Sandusky out the door back in 1999 and tried to make the scandal go away, everyone involved will deserve all the public scrutiny that comes their way.

But none of this has been established yet. In the meantime, all this journalism ethics professor asks is that everyone – reporters, editors, conspiracy theorists – think very hard about fairness.

A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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