The story the media got right

Posted: June 24, 2012

The Sandusky case was more than a media circus; it may have been a story that the media (at least in the public eye) got right. Television, radio and newspapers told the story fairly, the verdict seems to be - and, for many thousands, social media provided a forum for venting, an encyclopedia, and a community.

On Saturday, many were citing the comprehensiveness and fairness of coverage, far different from public opinion in the fall, when the first blitz of stories struck some as a rush to judgment, and a factor in the firing and death of Penn State football coach Joe Paterno.

Psychic bruises remain. Louisa Smith of State College writes via e-mail that "media coverage hasn't been kind to the town." She says the articles focused too much on Sandusky supporters: "This made for a better story - 'football-crazy town supports monster' - but it [that angle] wasn't at all reflective" of the general attitude. That true feeling, she says, emerged Friday night, with the cheers and fireworks in the streets after the verdicts.

Vicki Fong of State College says via Facebook that, unlike what she calls the "self-righteousness and misinformation" in November, this time "most of the national and local media have conducted thorough trial coverage that balanced rights of accused and accusers."

Richard Goedkoop, who now lives in Lancaster, is a retired professor of communication at La Salle University. "I'm impressed with the intensity and fairness of the coverage, locally and nationally - everyone from my local station, WGAL, to the national networks, all the resources the media threw at the story," he says.

Perfect? No. Kathy Ramsland is an associate professor of forensic psychology at De Sales University and an expert on sexual abusers. She says via Facebook that some media accounts assumed guilt: "That's become part of our 'crime as sport' culture - certain people want to be 'the one' to make it over the finish line (announcing guilt) first."

Social media, all warts on display, were afire with the Sandusky case from the start. As Ramsland says, "Bloggers believe they can state their opinion without any evidence. In fact, there's no accountability for skewering someone online."

Mockery of Sandusky, who on Twitter was generally prejudged as guilty, was caustic and often profane. On Friday, Twitter was all but aching with mass impatience. Both @garretmueller and @TheMattBarrett groaned, "How long does it take 12 people to say 'guilty'?" And there was acid glee at the verdict and Sandusky's prospects, as with @AntBoytheGreat: "Sandusky guilty a real monster finallly in jail he won't see the light ever again."

But the other side of the Web - thousands of individuals reaching out and getting information, support and comfort - was also evident.

Witness Mari Fagel, also known as Your Legal Lady. She writes for Huffington Post and Yahoo, is a radio host on WWRL in New York, runs a Web cast on @Spreecast, plus her own blog,, plus a Twitter account that was, as of Friday, near meltdown, with more than 50 queries an hour from tweeters on tenterhooks. "As the trial went on," she says, "more and more people were tweeting me to ask specific legal questions. I had to answer each one instantly. That's what they expect, and there are so many others out there who will answer if I don't."

The legal questions were "smart," Fagel says, "asking the right things. That reflects the media coverage, which went into great depth with the law. It also reflects how people, using social media, can become their own reporters. Was 20 hours a long time to deliberate? Would the jury deliberate over the weekend? Would the verdicts be subject to appeal?"

She found herself a creature of this media moment, bouncing from radio to Web cast to blog to Twitter to Huffington Post. "I have to cover it through all these outlets now," she says. "This is a much more personally emotional case than any I've ever covered. And social media, this time around, have played a key role in bringing the anti-abuse and victim communities together."

Those communities went to Twitter accounts, blogs, and hotlines. Scott Berkowitz, founder and president of the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, says that use of the group's National Sexual Assault Hotline spiked 50 percent when charges against Sandusky were announced in November, and rose an additional 30 percent during the trial, particularly, he says, among self-identified male victims.

"This story never would have come to national prominence without aggressive reporting," Berkowitz says. "Most of the coverage was incredibly sensitive to victims in the case."

Media coverage of the Sandusky case, by itself, won't abolish pressures on victims not to report abuses, Berkowitz says, "but it's a big moment for our culture, telling victims that their parents, teachers, and communities will listen to them, take them seriously, and support them."

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Contact John Timpane at 215-854-4406 or or on Twitter @jtimpane.

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