Aspiring writers for The Daily Collegian, the 125-year-old student-run newspaper at Penn State University, have gotten real-life lessons in journalism that professors could have never come up with. And they wouldn’t want to.
The sex abuse convictions of former defensive football coach Jerry Sandusky have turned the school upside down, on so many different levels.
To learn what student journalists have been dealing with these last eight months, I interviewed Casey McDermott, editor-in-chief of The Daily Collegian. McDermott and her team provided a combination of online and print coverage from Day 1.
“It’s definitely been a challenge. We were asked to mature a lot this year. I was astonished at how professionally our staff of 18-to-22-year-olds handled this. Everyone just rose to the occasion and did what we had to do. All hands on deck in November; no questions asked.”
There were the alleged cover-ups and firings of esteemed football Coach Joe Paterno and University President Graham Spanier. There were the abrupt resignations and criminal charges filed against Athletic Director Tim Curley and Senior Vice President for Finance and Business Gary Schultz. There were violent student and community protests. There were police investigations, FBI search warrants, and the trial.
But above all, there were the victims. The boys and young men, who, for years, endured — and kept secret — the horrific and repugnant actions of a pathetic and sick man who stole their innocence.
Toss out the textbooks. This is not a syllabus for Journalism 303.
Many seasoned reporters who have covered breaking news and criminal court cases have never had the experience of seeing such a high profile, shocking, and emotionally-charged case firsthand. McDermott says the staff has always covered local criminal cases, but nothing of this magnitude. Fair to say, the student journalists have done more than cut their teeth.
Consider these five lessons the students at The Daily Collegian have learned:
- Breaking news and wordsmithing. In early November, 2011, student journalists watch wide-eyed as local and national media converge on their beloved ‘Happy Valley’ campus. Reporters, along with bloggers and the public, want details on Sandusky’s arrest. At a tumultuous press conference, there is shock that Paterno and Spanier had been fired. The Board of Trustees is bombarded with questions of ‘who knew what and when they knew it?’ The verbal dance is underway. Student journalists quickly discover the frustration in trying to get information during an active criminal investigation. They see that when attorneys and law enforcement are involved, the wordsmithing can be painfully frustrating. Wanna-be journalists come to understand the magnitude of the word ‘alleged.’ The old adage, ‘Read between the lines’ is a lesson unto itself.
- Writing a balanced and fair news story ain’t so easy. Especially when YOU are the news. The emotions and news judgment of student journalists are put to the test. They discover the importance of keeping opinions on the editorial page and out of a news story. This is significant for these student journalists, as they have only lived with sensationalized and biased news and talk show anchors; blowhards masquerading as reporters.
- Thinking about power. Collegiate reporters quickly learn how ugly power and ego can be, especially when it’s tied to the country’s top university football program and coach. Hearing firsthand how respected leaders have turned their collective backs (for years) as young boys were being violated is a lesson that goes beyond scholarships and trophies. The definition of integrity is examined.
- Watching the interviews. As vile details of the case are revealed, student reporters get a glimpse of crisis communications and media coaching. Remember the interview Jerry Sandusky did with NBC’s Bob Costas just days after his arrest? Sandusky said, “I have horsed around with kids. I have showered after workouts. I have hugged them and I have touched their legs without intent of sexual contact.” That’s a really bad sound bite, Jerry.
- Acting like a professional. Defense attorney Joe Amendola’s strategy and comments to the media have been described by one analyst as “unorthodox.” When telling a reporter about the “soap opera drama” in court, Amendola quipped, “This could be ‘All My Children.’” Pennsylvania’s Attorney General Linda Kelly spoke to the press (with prepared remarks) immediately after the verdict was delivered. Kelly talked about the courageous testimony from victims and the need for the public to protect children. Both Amendola and Kelly graduated from law school. The aspiring journalists learn that tact and class aren’t part of the bar exam.
Will professors in the communications department rewrite course outlines using their own story as a case study? Will administrators in ‘Happy Valley’ allow it?
And will any of the student journalists at The Daily Collegian who followed and covered this story pursue professional journalism careers? Or will they leave the Valley and head for the hills?