Local and national media gathered on Thursday to discuss the rigors and risks of covering sports scandals as part of “When Games Turn Grim,” a daylong sports scandal symposium hosted by the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.
Moderated by Dean Joel Kaplan, panelists discussed, analyzed and dissected media coverage of the Jerry Sandusky and Bernie Fine scandals which broke last fall.
Mike Feeley, assistant managing editor for The Patriot-News, the Harrisburg based newspaper that broke the Sandusky scandal, said he was truly surprised that the scandal resulted in the firing of Penn State’s president Graham Spanier and legendary football coach Joe Paterno.
Feeley credited reporter Sarah Ganim for her due diligence in tracking down sources and sticking to the story. Feeley said that Ganim’s reporting was so in-depth and well-sourced that he would’ve felt comfortable running the story even in absence of a grand jury investigation.
Vince Doria, senior vice president and director of news for ESPN, defended the network’s coverage which came under heavy scrutiny during the scandal.
Doria said that the night Paterno was fired, ESPN’s trucks were out of place and failed to capture the students rioting as a result.
Critics also claimed that ESPN dropped the ball on its initial coverage of the Sandusky scandal.
“I don’t agree we were late to the game from a national perspective,” Doria said.
Pete Thamel, national college sports reporter for The New York Times and ’99 Newhouse graduate, told the audience that he was preparing to attend the Alabama vs. LSU football game when the Sandusky scandal broke this past November.
Thamel said he regrets his decision to attend the game rather than catch a flight to State College, PA.
“I knew it was big,” Thamel said. “I didn’t know it would be quite that apocalyptic.”
Doria said that he believed the Sandusky scandal prompted Bobby Davis and Mike Lang to go on camera to tell their story accusing Bernie Fine of sexual misconduct.
Michael Connor, executive editor of The Post-Standard said that the paper didn’t find grounds to publish the story after its 2003 investigation into Davis’ allegations.
However, once ESPN broke the story last fall, Connor said The Post-Standard had a duty to its readers to report what they knew of the allegations made against Fine.
Discussion then turned towards the infamous audio tape of a recorded conversation between Bobby Davis and Fine’s wife, Laurie.
Doria said that he was comfortable running the tape on ESPN despite the lack of a “smoking gun” because if the allegations were patently false than Laurie Fine wouldn’t have indulged the conversation.
In contrast, The Post-Standard sat on the tape for eight years following its initial investigation.
In a USA Today article following Bernie Fine’s dismissal from the team, Syracuse University Chancellor Nancy Cantor criticized The Post-Standard for withholding the tape from the university in 2003. Cantor said Fine would’ve been fired had the tape surfaced in 2003.
“The idea of turning over a tape that is potentially defamatory to a private employer is absurd,” Connor said of Cantor’s criticism.
Doria echoed Connor’s sentiment.
“There are a set of standards and principles as a journalist that aren’t necessarily accepted by the public at large,” Doria said.
Jeff D’Alessio, special assistant to the CEO at Sporting News didn’t report on either scandal but provided outside perspective from his own experience which included coverage of the Michael Vick dogfighting scandal.
D’Alessio said that reporting on scandals in today’s 24-hour news cycle is a difficult task wrought with errors in judgment.
“I don’t think people fully appreciate how hard it is to do this right now,” D’Alessio said. “Resources are one-third of what they were, the public is more distrustful of the media than ever before and you’re going up against ESPN.”
D’Alessio’s solution to the growing problem of misinformation is that reporters should seek accuracy over speed.
“I don’t remember who’s first but I’ll always remember who’s wrong,” D’Alessio said.