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With Paterno Allegations, Reporting Has Merit

by on May 11, 2016 6:00 AM

Penn State President Eric Barron and members of Joe Paterno’s family have challenged news reports that Paterno and his assistants might have known that Jerry Sandusky was sexually assaulting children as far back as the 1970s and ‘80s.

Do the reports have any merit? Do the challenges to those reports have any merit?

This latest eruption of Sandusky-related allegations and denials began last Thursday with a story about the university’s attempts to recoup money from its insurer for settlements with Sandusky’s victims.

According to court documents, sealed depositions obtained by the Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association Insurance Company allege that one victim told Paterno in 1976 that he had been molested by Sandusky. PMA also claims that two members of Paterno’s staff witnessed “inappropriate conduct” by Sandusky in the 1980s.

The judge in the case writes: “There is no evidence that reports of these incidents ever went further up the chain of command at PSU.”

The next day, Sara Ganim, the former Centre Daily Times and Harrisburg Patriot-News reporter who broke the Sandusky story in 2011 and now works for CNN, reported that another victim told her of being rebuffed by Paterno in 1971 after telling the coach of an assault by Sandusky.

Over the weekend, NBC News reported that four more former assistant coaches at Penn State saw Sandusky “behaving inappropriately” with children.

President Barron and the Paternos counter that there is no evidence that Paterno heard about any molestations in the ‘70s or that any of his assistants saw any. Pennsylavnia’s Solicitor General concurs about the assistant coaches.

It is worth thinking about the slipperiness of statements about a lack of evidence, though. They do not mean that something did not occur. They only mean that there is no proof – no paper trail – no smoking gun. Strictly speaking, we don’t know if any conversations between Paterno and victims took place 40 years ago, or if the incidents supposedly witnessed by his assistants occurred.

It sounds reasonable to say that journalists should only report what they know, for certain, to be true. No evidence means no proof means no truth means no story.

But that is not the standard that journalism uses, nor could it be. Slam-dunk proof is hard to come by. Witnesses? The eye plays tricks. People misremember. People lie. People develop false memories, which isn’t the same as lying.

For all these reasons, journalists seek corroboration. If one person tells you an elephant is walking down College Avenue, you might think he’s joking or hallucinating. If a second person tells you the same thing, you might go see for yourself. Of course, the two could be confederates.

Ganim has two corroborating sources for her story about the 1971 victim. She describes one as a friend of the victim, the other as a Pennsylvania state trooper. Her story is less than ideal for a couple of reasons:

First, neither the victim nor the state trooper is named. Knowing that unnamed sources can undermine a story’s credibility, most news outlets only grant anonymity if being named could put the source at risk, the information is deemed important to the public, the information could not be obtained from named sources and editors have a high degree of confidence that the information is reliable.

Because of the shame associated with sexual assaults, and the risk of retribution, the names of victims and often, the associates of victims, are routinely withheld. Ganim’s story conforms to that practice and meets the prevailing standard of public interest.

The NBC News report is flimsier. It vaguely cites “multiple sources with direct knowledge of legal proceedings,” which falls short of the other journalistic convention when it comes to anonymous sources: Provide enough information about the source for the public to gauge whether this person knows what he’s talking about.

The other hole in Ganim’s story, at least if you’re a Paterno loyalist, is that we cannot be sure that the person the victim spoke to about what Sandusky did to him was indeed Paterno. The man on the phone said only that his name was Joe, though the victim said he recognized Paterno’s voice, having heard it “a million times.”

Even if all three sources were named and the victim told us he talked to Paterno in person, corroboration is not confirmation: All of these people could be unreliable for any number of reasons.

But in conjunction with what we know from the 2011 grand jury report and Sandusky’s trial, there seem to be sufficient grounds for reporting, ever so carefully, that these new allegations exist.

I must, therefore, part company with President Barron and the Paterno faithful. Exposing the shame, the cowardice and the misguided loyalty that led and still leads people to look away from the sexual abuse of children is more important than safeguarding the reputation of an institution or an icon.

 



Russell Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. His columns for Statecollege.com won first place in the Commentary-Non Daily category of the Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter 2017 Spotlight contest. A collection of his columns from the past 20 years, titled ÔÇťAmong the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," will be published this fall by the Penn State Press. Before launching his academic career at Penn State in 1998, Frank worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania for 13 years. 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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