In just a month's time, the Jerry Sandusky Penn State scandal has had 3 culminating spikes of interest. The trial verdict, Freeh Report release, and formal NCAA response swiftly closed out a historic second act in what will surely go down as one of sport's largest sagas to ever crossover to mainstream public interest. The fallout will reverberate for quite some time, but for now there is a sense of turning the page.
SI shared the cover of their next edition (above) and I'm sure you'll find a very comprehensive read on the subject there. ESPN aired an OTL special in light of recent developments, and the programming people at the Big Ten Network are now covering the scandal in earnest. Across the media landscape, CBS, Yahoo, The New York Times, Huffington Post, etc, are all trying to come up with the most comprehensive or authoritative take on what's transpired in the last 30 days.
While I'm sure we're in store for some thoughtful journalism over the next week or so, looking back, the media certainly faced struggles in covering the Penn State scandal. This isn't meant to be an article lambasting the media both new and old over where mistakes have been made, but rather a look at some of the issues and factors that made this story potentially one of the most challenging for the sports media world to cover.
1) No Human Connection With Victims
I'm not comparing Penn State to the recent shootings in Aurora, but I do want to use it to make a point. When the story first broke, I was awake doing my night owl thing and my initial reaction was shock and horror. Not one to throw myself into the media's coverage of a tragedy, I awoke the next day hoping to distract myself from the news by focusing on work.
But it was inescapable. When I realized Jessica Redfield, someone I had exchanged some e-mails with a couple of times, was one of the victims, it sunk in further. Reading about the victims and hearing directly from those who survived or family members of the victims added a whole new layer of context and empathy to that story.
While we hear the term "victims" constantly in regards to the Penn State scandal, the general public hasn't fully grasped that terrible narrative. The system and the media has done a great job providing anonymity to those involved in the trial and rightfully so.
Unfortunately though, the anonymity comes with a cost. Most Americans are unable to grasp the actual amount of pain and suffering that is linked to this scandal and child abuse. The victims lack faces, voices, back story, and connections to the general public. They're just victims.
With the public and media unable to make a human connection with the victims, the coverage at times of the trial itself waned. All too often, the talking heads and screaming voices on the radio dug themselves into very outspoken positions that seemed to marginalize the scandal and the victims. Now that the NCAA has handed down punishment, the focus is almost exclusively football.
2) The Moving Target Of Outrage
"Fire Paterno!" vs. "Let him finish the year!"
"Tear the statue down!" vs. "Keep the statue up!"
"Give them the death penalty!" vs. "Don't punish people who weren't involved!"
You can just imagine the rants from both sides either on the radio, competitive banter shows, message boards, Twitter and the blogosphere. These positions of outrage in addition to a lengthy list of individuals to point the finger at Penn State has presented the media with a minefield where the slightest misstep could have damning consequences to a career.
Because there are so many viewpoints and compelling checkpoints throughout this saga, media members have been moving the target of their outrage along the way. Jerry Sandusky,Mike McQueary, the athletic department, the administration, Joe Paterno, Paterno's family, Paterno's statue, and the NCAA have all drawn ire at one moment in time. It's this narrow focus that has served to cloud the bigger picture. Media members are looking to gain credibility, authority, or attention by swinging for the fences with one aspect of the story when the reality is that this is one of the most complex stories to come from the world of sports and the isolated debates often overshadows the larger story.
3) Everyone Has To Have An Opinion
Wherever you may live, it's a certainty that all the main local sports personalities in your area have had to offer something on this story. From your nightly sports anchor, to the leading columnists at your local daily, to the screaming voices on the radio, they've all been tapped to add some commentary on the subject.
The reality is that if you do a column a week and lead coverage of the local AAA baseball team, the Penn State scandal might not really be in your wheelhouse. You can't just write 2,000 words acknowledging the work of those closer to this story, as you need to have a fresh and original take per your editor.
Then there is the sea of filth that is sports talk radio with guys who earn their paycheck by stretching the smallest of news into hours of discourse between them and their callers. They are given the green light to tear into this story with enthusiasm and vigor in any direction. Again, the recently retired baseball player who never went to college probably isn't in the best position to bring a new, illuminating point of view to the table. In fact, he's more likely to dig himself into a hole.
At the end of the day, local media adds quite a lot of value, but for a story this complex and with such national interest, it was unfortunate to see so many local media personalities far removed from this story asked to step up to the plate and hit a homerun when most of them are pitchers who should have stayed in the bullpen.
4) State College Was A Challenge For Coverage
I've been to Penn State three times. Once I came from the East, once the West, and once from the South. Each time, it wasn't easy to get to.
Many have criticized the likes of BTN, CNN, and ESPN for a lack of coverage of breaking developments such as the Paterno firing and student reaction. Although some of that criticism is certainly valid, there is truth to the easy excuse that State College presents a bit of a logistical challenge to provide live coverage from.
Honestly, State College is in the middle of nowhere. There also isn't a city you can just maintain some minimal presence in. It's not Atlanta, Chicago, or Los Angeles where you can send people and know they have a satellite office, a hotel, a car, etc. At the end of the day, it's not a place where it's as easy to "set up shop" for breaking news without infrastructure and logistics for the national media to plug into.
Still these are professionals from multi-million dollar news organizations. While there is some validity to this reason, it shouldn't have been as large of an issue as it end up being.
5) A Story Too Big To Tackle
At many times this story really didn't muster much coverage at all. In particular, coverage of the actual Sandusky trial and lead-up was very thin on major networks. In between the end of the trial and the Freeh Report findings, the story also seemed to simmer with very little coverage.
Throughout this ongoing saga, the media has seemed to wait for a specific news item or pinnacle event to enter the fray with an overkill of coverage. But without these pinnacle events, plenty of people chose to not tackle the story regardless of what was on the horizon. It was just too much to wrap your head around and the crime itself was so negative that many sunk their teeth into something a bit more easier to consume.
That's not necessarily a wrong or bad choice, but it adds to the peaks and valleys the the story has gone through rather than a more linear and well-informed covering of the scandal.
6) College Football Fans Are Bloodthirsty
There is no other sport that solicits so much passion, hatred, and rivalry as college football. As Ryan pointed out yesterday, unfortunately it's only gotten worse over the past couple of years. Most college football fans have more than a handful of teams on their personal enemies list and a swath of college football hate just about everyone who isn't their school. The rise of the SEC, conference realignment, the politics of the BCS, television contracts, and deep-seeded rivalries have created quite a toxic lay of the land. It's only been made worse by recent controversies and scandals.
We live in a world of Schadenfreude. As an Ohio State alumni, I'll share a common point of view I see from our fan base (not mine).
When USC got hammered it was a long time coming. When we got hammered it was the media overblowing something minor because they hate Ohio State. They had it out for us. And the NCAA is just asinine, anyways. All these kids got was a few tattoos! Miami, Oregon, and Penn State deserve to go through the ringer too. And what's the deal with Auburn and Alabama and the SEC? They're the biggest cheaters. Hyopcrisy everywhere!
Almost regardless of what school your support, your fan base has a large faction of fans who will delight in the implosion of any other major program. The feeding frenzy on Penn State's roster and speculating about which PSU player can help your team to a BCS game is another example (see the Twitter recruitment of PSU's Silas Redd).
While the Penn State scandal should have been free of scorn from other fan bases, a lot of people seized this story as an opportunity to endear themselves to local fans looking for blood.
7) What's The Appetite Of Consumers?
On a recent visit to various recruiting message boards (don't judge me), I noticed a couple of fiery debates. There was a very vocal contingency of posters who were requesting no more site coverage and forum posting about Penn State. On the flip side, I've also seen many people complaining about the lack of conversation at times.
I get both points of view. For instance, although I think ESPN's My Wish is a very honorable segment, I'm not always in a serious mood to watch a story that is certain to disrupt whatever casual state of mind I'm in. That said, I can change the channel and online readers can click away.
The underlying issue in this story is one that is so painful to actually dwell on, the media generally accepted the fact that this story had to be put on the back burner at times or else people would tune it out completely. Deadspin shrewdly observed that at one point, SportsCenter only had 45 seconds of coverage of the Sandusky trial in a full week. During that same timeframe, LeBron James had 266… minutes that is.
This helps to explain why the public and the media's interest in this story ebbed and flowed as nobody had a good feel on whether or not the story was getting bigger or smaller on a weekly basis. At times it seemed too be too much (especially regarding Paterno Statue Watch) and it times it wasn't enough. With so many moving parts, there was never a perfect feel for how to best allocate coverage across a lengthy and still ongoing story.
8) Proper Perspective
"He made a mistake. Does that discount all the positives he did over 50 years?"
Matt Millen became the posterchild for perpetuating Joe Paterno's reverence in light of the Freeh Report. Thankfully, ESPN learned their lesson in bringing on Chris Fowler to analyze Mark Emmert's punishments instead of someone so close to Paterno, still blinded by his legacy. But, ESPN still brought on a former Penn State player, Brandon Noble, to forward the "we need to wait until all the facts are out" defense of Paterno. It was unnecessary, and it seemed to be there only for the sake of having someone with a warped sense of reality to point anger and disbelief towards.
But this point is true for the other side as well. In the wake of the scandal at Penn State, the contest to see who can be the biggest Twitter tough guy or find the most extreme fate for the Paterno statue was nothing but grabbing the lowest hanging fruit. Trust me, you aren't the first person to consider the ironic brilliance of blindfolding the Paterno statue. Again, neither extreme took the situation at Penn State for how serious and complex it truly was.
9) The Need For Speed
The rapidness in which this unfolded still shocks me. 9 months ago, most people couldn't tell you who Jerry Sandusky was and Joe Paterno was still coaching, let alone alive. The developments were fast and furious. From Paterno's ouster, to the statue removal, the trial, the regime change at Penn State, the NCAA's reaction, and so on, it's all unfolded rather quickly.
The fact that things unfolded at such an accelerated pace often had the media on their heels and unfortunately, creating controversy of their own. The false and premature reports of Joe Paterno's death are a lasting lesson to media everywhere on the dangers of rushing a headline to publish. The way CBS Sports yanked Onward State's false report and then passed the buck when it was discovered as false was nothing but shameful and the worst of sports media in 2011.
10) Trying To Rise Above The Noise
Anyone in media can look at this story and know this is one of the rare stories that can get you noticed in both a good and bad way. The right reporting, the right analysis, the right commentary, and the right voice of reason may be a ticket to a more prominent role on a larger platform. It may make you a household name nationwide. Look no further than the local reporting of Pulitzer winner Sara Ganim that ran laps around national outlets. Nine months ago, even folks in State College would have had trouble recognizing her.
At the same time, going out on a limb and having it snap can have detrimental career implications.
In many ways, the story has been like a Pinata to take free whacks at. Bust it up good, and people will remember. Swing, whiff, and knock over a table, and people will also remember. Matt Millen falls in the latter category. Although not a media member, Franco Harris is now more prominent in your mind than he was not too long ago.
The sheer magnitude of this story to a certain degree has both national, local, old, and new media all stretching a bit to put an exclamation point on a unique perspective of the scandal. It's good to be ambitious and there are a lot of pieces on the scandal I can point to with high acclaim, but there was also high risk with high reward.
At The End Of The Day……
This story has been quite a challenge for everyone to cover. On a daily basis there are dozens of stories or rants that warrant applause and another dozen or more that warrant jeers. For the litany of reasons listed above, the ongoing Penn State scandal has uniquely challenged the sports media in a way I can never recall. With coverage sure to continue, you can only hope that across the spectrum of media, those covering this story have taken notice what they did well and where they could have improved.