Media, regular and social, got it right

News trucks and vans surrounded Centre County Courthouse during the trial. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
News trucks and vans surrounded Centre County Courthouse during the trial. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Coverage lauded as fair, thorough.

Posted: June 25, 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, people seem to think, 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 former Pennsylvania State University football coach Joe Paterno.

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

Vicki Fong of State College said via Facebook that, unlike what she called 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, a retired professor of communication at La Salle University who now lives in Lancaster, said, "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."

Perfect? No. Kathy Ramsland, an associate professor of forensic psychology at DeSales University and an expert on sexual abusers, said 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 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 people reaching out and getting information, support, and comfort - was also evident.

Witness Mari Fagel, also known as Your Legal Lady. She writes for the Huffington Post and Yahoo, is a radio host on WWRL in New York, and runs a Webcast on @Spreecast, plus her own blog, LegalLady.com, 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 said, "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," she said, "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 Webcast to blog to Twitter to the Huffington Post. "I have to cover it through all these outlets now," she said. "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, said 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 said, among self-identified male victims.

"This story never would have come to national prominence without aggressive reporting," Berkowitz said. "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 said, "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."


Contact John Timpane at 215-854-4406, jt@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @jtimpane.

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