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The Sandusky Story: Too Much, Too Soon?

by on April 08, 2011 5:45 AM

The Harrisburg Patriot-News had learned of a grand jury investigation into allegations that Jerry Sandusky fooled around with adolescent boys. Should the paper publish what it knew?

The case against publishing is pretty straightforward: The grand jury may decide that there is insufficient evidence that the allegations are true and therefore recommend against charging Penn State’s former defensive coordinator with any crimes. If that’s what happens, Sandusky’s reputation will have been needlessly damaged.

The case for publishing goes something like this: For decades, Sandusky held a high-profile position with a high-profile football program. He was also the founder and public face of the Second Mile, a charity that does nice things for disadvantaged kids. Those two involvements made Sandusky a respected public figure. And when a respected public figure is suspected of having committed serious crimes, that’s news.

Journalists often employ this kind of tautologous argument. It boils down to saying, “We published it because it’s news.” Which is pretty much the same as saying, “It’s news because we published it.” Which ultimately is the same as saying, “It’s news because it’s news.”

A better question than “Why is this news?” then, is “Why is it in the public’s interest to know this news?”

Keep in mind that we are not grappling with the question of whether to report that Sandusky has been convicted of a crime. That would be a no-brainer: A convicted criminal has broken our laws; his arrest, his prosecution and his sentencing were carried out by our public servants. That makes it our business.

Furthermore, if Sandusky is found guilty of a crime, he will have betrayed the trust of everyone who ever donated time or money to, or benefited from, the Second Mile. The press will not have destroyed his reputation. He will have done it all by himself.

Now let’s jump to a different stage of the process: the one where the grand jury concludes that there is enough evidence to charge Sandusky with a crime. His guilt or innocence has not yet been determined; he merely stands accused. Isn’t he innocent until proven guilty?

Well, yes, but here the public interest in knowing must take precedence over the potential damage to the reputation of an innocent person, regrettable as that damage is. Imagine a society where people are thrown in jail, charged with crimes and prosecuted without anyone ever hearing about it. Imagine, in other words, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya. Reporting on crime, paradoxically, protects people accused of crimes by subjecting the cops and the courts to public scrutiny.

At this point, though, Jerry Sandusky has not even been indicted yet. The grand jury is still gathering and weighing evidence. The question the Harrisburg Patriot-News had to answer was, “Why is it in the public’s interest to know about this case now?”

Instead of addressing this question, however, the editor of the Patriot-News defended the story’s accuracy. Here is the first sentence of David Newhouse’s note about the Sandusky story:

“From the beginning, all of us at the Patriot-News were determined that this story deal in one thing and one thing only: facts.”

Funny, one would have thought that this was the standard to which all news stories in the Patriot-News had to conform. Yes, the Sandusky story was factual – Sandusky has since acknowledged that he is under investigation.

But why not let the process play out, then report? Here are three arguments to consider:

1. Would you buy a used car from this man? Those embarking on relationships of trust with the suspect may want to hold off until he’s out of legal limbo. To put it bluntly: Some folks might not want to leave their teenage sons alone with Jerry Sandusky until they know the outcome of the investigation.

2. It’s already out there. Sports blogs and such have been a-buzz with rumors about the grand jury investigation for months. At a certain point, a news organizations that ignores the chatter risks being accused of succumbing to pressure from powerful people to suppress the news. Why, the bloggers and chat room visitors ask, are the news media protecting Jerry Sandusky? (For the record, I’ve never met the man. I hope the allegations he is facing are false only insofar as I hope anyone accused of being a creep, isn’t one.)

3. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. That sounds like guilty until proven innocent, but a grand jury investigation is a lot of smoke.

Do these three reasons to publish override the concern about damage to Sandusky’s reputation? My colleagues in the journalism department at Penn State, newsroom veterans all, are split. A couple say Sandusky’s prominence and the seriousness of the allegations make it impossible to keep the story under wraps. Another says the Patriot-News should have waited to see if the grand jury indicted Sandusky.

I’m with him. When I put the damage to Sandusky’s reputation on one side of the scale and the public’s interest in knowing about the case on the other, the damage to reputation weighs more.

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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