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3Qs: Investigating a scandal

Explosive sexual assault allegations against a former Penn State University football coach came to a head last week, when the university fired its president as well as legendary head football coach Joe Paterno. Walter Robinson, Distinguished Professor of Journalism, was part of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team that unearthed the clergy sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church — work that won several investigative reporting prizes, as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2003. We asked Robinson to compare these scandals, and examine how the national media has covered this latest scandal.

What comparisons can you draw between the scandal involving Penn State’s alleged cover-up to the Catholic Church’s cover-up of clergy sex abuse?

Of course, Penn State is a tiny institution compared to the Catholic Church. But there is an eerie similarity between the two. Like the Church, Penn State is an iconic institution that has notably been defined for the high standards of scholarship and integrity it expects of its students, student-athletes and administrators. Yet, like the Church, it decided to cover up evidence of heinous sexual abuse of children to protect the institution against adverse publicity, and in so doing Penn State administrators all but guaranteed that more children would be sexually abused. Like the bishops and cardinals, the university’s leaders ignored their legal and moral obligation to swiftly report an eyewitness account of abuse to law enforcement authorities.

What are the challenges journalists face when investigating large institutions, and how have those challenges evolved in the age of social media and the 24-hour news cycle?

Thanks to the economic calamity that has befallen newspapers, there are many fewer reporters to do the kind of investigative reporting that might uncover this sort of criminal activity. That said, it’s always difficult for reporters to imagine the possibility that institutions that are recognized for the good they do could go so far astray. In the 24/7 news cycle, unfortunately, there is seldom time for even the best reporters to dig deeply into any subject.

After Joe Paterno’s firing, some students rioted, flipping a news van and blaming the media for exaggerating the coach’s role in the scandal. What is your take on how the national media has covered this scandal?

Often, we cringe and/or divert our eyes at the tabloid-like coverage of many scandals. In this case, however, the news media got it right. They directed their spotlights into some very dark corners at Penn State and asked all the right questions, to include why the university should give a pass to Joe Paterno himself. In the end, the national media attention probably helped the trustees decide that a swift and cleansing step had to be taken.

As for the students, I hope that sober reflection the morning after has led them to conclude that protecting children from sexual abuse makes the school’s football success trivial in comparison.

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