Friday, June 6

Patriot News Sandusky Coverage and the Abandonment of Journalistic Ethics

My ongoing review of the Patriot News coverage of the Sandusky scandal reveals an ethicist's nightmare

Ray Blehar

In my recent research I came across a number of Patriot News (P-N) articles that made me raise the question of journalistic ethics. The first was P-N's, November 8, 2011, front page Op-Ed by its Editorial Board that called for the resignation of Spanier and the retirement of Paterno. The other was its coverage of Joe Paterno's grand jury testimony, which was read into the record on December 16th, 2011.

To determine how ethical their work had been, I referred to a Poynter Institute seminar on Online Journalism Ethics and have provided excerpts (my emphasis added).

Principles & Values 
  • Journalists should honor the principle of independence. They should avoid conflicts of interest or the appearance of conflicts that could imperil their ability to report or the credibility of their reporting or commentary. They should not accept gifts or favors from people or entities they cover or over whom they might influence coverage.
  • In addressing an issue or question of independence, the resolution might come through a strategy of transparency or disclosure.
  • Journalists and news organizations should understand the necessity of defining, and clearly labeling, news and opinion. In an open environment like the Web, consistency in presentation can help the reader see clearly where the lines are drawn between news and opinion.
  • Whenever journalists or organizations blur or blend those roles, they need to recognize the peril and weigh the consequences.
  • Variations of tone and presentation in storytelling are appropriate for reaching new audiences, but those variations should be consistent with the bedrock editorial principles of the brand. Be clear on what you stand for, and honor it.
  • These principles apply across all content and all platforms.


We will never knowingly publish or air falsehoods.

The quality of publishing decisions — from how to report a story, to what elements to include, to issues of linking — can be significantly improved by responding to a set of questions. These questions include:

·         What purpose will be served?

·         What harm might be caused?

·         How much of this content is verified?

·         How reliable and comprehensive are the sources?

·         Are we giving proper context?

When we discover that we’ve distributed an error, we will consider the following:

·         What has been the likely impact of the error and how can we most effectively address that?

·         How appropriate is it to retain a record of the error for readers who return to the story or bloggers who have linked to it in its original form?

·         What publishing conventions might work best (for example: strikethroughs, appended corrections, corrective posts by readers, an editor’s note)?

The P-N Op-Ed of November 8th blurred the lines between opinion and fact when it was placed on the front page and presented unproven allegations and other information from the Sandusky grand jury presentment as facts.  

History has now proven many of the assertions in the presentment to be false, however, that does not excuse the P-N for presenting information out of context or publishing falsehoods.   There was also the appearance of a conflict of interest in their reporting in this piece (and throughout the scandal), as it was their practice to avoid publishing anything negative about The Second Mile.  

As you will see in the editorial below, the charity was mentioned only one time and its leaders were not criticized for their failure to report the same incident or even for the fact that Sandusky was able to abuse children under their noses for over a decade.  Instead the editorial board blamed Paterno and Spanier for the abuse of ALL of Sandusky's victims.  It is a falsehood that they've never corrected.

As you can see, the Editorial Board took a number of quotes out of context and falsely reported that a report by Spanier and Paterno would have been able to save all eight victims from Sandusky's abuse.  This Op-Ed should have been considered a journalism ethicist's nightmare.

However, it was just the opposite. 

Alleged media ethicists Kelly McBride and Jason Fry of the Poynter Institute praised The Patriot News for condemning two individuals based on unproven and false statements

"With the biggest staff of sports journalists in the world, ESPN should have been leading the charge to ask tough questions and shed light on this scandal," they wrote. "Instead, it was the tiny Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. out in front of the journalism pack. Their reporters managed to track down two mothers of boys Sandusky allegedly abused. And the paper had the leadership to write a front-page editorial calling for Penn State trustees to clean house."

The "ethicists" also failed to ask a few critical tough questions themselves.  

Specifically, how did The Patriot News track down the mothers and why was there not more focus on the charity that was used as a victim factory?

Tracking Down The Mothers

The P-N answered the first question when it revealed that it had possessed the 1998 police report in early 2011.  That report was over 95 pages in length and contained the names of at least two potential Sandusky victims (Victim 6 and BK).  The mother of Victim 6 confirmed that Sara Ganim read verbatim from the report during their conversation, thus it was the report that led Ganim (and police) to the mother.  Even though Ganim had the report since January 2011, she denied knowledge of it in a December 3, 2011 column.

In Aaron Fisher's book, Silent No More, Mike Gillum, Fisher's (Victim 1) psychologist, believed that Ganim used the police report of Fisher's case to track him down. Trial transcripts would later reveal that "a reporter" had visited the previous residence of Fisher, but was redirected to the family’s new home by former neighbor Josh Fravel.   In a snarky column about Fisher's book, Sara Ganim denied using the police report, bragged that her March 31st story was 100 percent accurate, and then criticized Gillum for getting the name of the school district wrong.  For the record, there were three errors about the date, among other blunders, in Ganim's "100 percent accurate" story. (I will detail the "other blunders" in an upcoming report).

However, the million dollar question is: Would Poynter have been praising the P-N if they had known it was leading the "journalism pack" by using leaked information -- and then lying about that by claiming they were protecting their (anonymous) sources?

The Second Mile

The Patriot News coverage of The Second Mile reveals that it purposely avoided reporting anything negative about the charity.  While Ganim was praised as a crime reporter and being familiar with the "local beat" in Centre County, it was other national media who dug up the most revealing stories about charity's board members and donors.  

On November 16th, reported that past and present members of the charity’s board gave $641,481.21 to Corbett's 2010 gubernatorial campaign.  The P-N had run an earlier column, stating that the Board had given over $25,000 to the campaign.  On November 17th, the P-N ran a sensational story about  Penn State using TSM to build its brand.  It cited paltry donations from well-meaning alumni, alumni and student participation in TSM activities,  and former football stars volunteering as the key factors in tying the fates of the two organizations together.  Meanwhile, the more serious business relationships between the TSM Board (i.e., Corbett donors) and Penn State went unreported.  

On December 19, 2011, the Associated Press ran a story that captured complaints of "being kept in the dark" by five TSM board members and two local businessmen who were donors to The Second Mile. FoxNews ran a similar story from complaining donors -- a month earlier.  The Patriot News did no exclusive reporting on the criticism from within the charity until August 2012 and never did any special reports or exclusives about the complaints from its donors.

On the whole, the bias in the P-N's reporting on the Sandusky scandal provides the appearance of a conflict of interest between the paper and the state government (e.g., Governor Corbett and his donors, AG, and others).


Just like its November 8th Op-Ed, the P-N's November 11, 2011 Pulitzer prize winning story was also ethically challenged.  It used a series of misquotes to fabricate a story about McQueary's report being watered down at every stage.   The falsehoods in this story were purposeful to support a narrative that solely blamed Penn State for enabling Sandusky’s crimes.

Its report was a highly inaccurate account of what had transpired, considering that McQueary spoke directly to at least three people in the reporting chain, none of whom backed his story. And as many of us know, a jury didn't fully believe McQueary either and acquitted Sandusky on the charge which was the driver of the Editorial Board's moralizing over the incident.  For the record, the P-N didn't give that rather important acquittal nearly the coverage it gave when it was merely an unproven allegation.

"According to the grand jury, then, here is how McQueary’s eyewitness account became watered down at each stage:

McQueary: anal rape.
Paterno: something of a sexual nature.
Schultz: inappropriately grabbing of the young boy’s genitals.
Curley: inappropriate conduct or horsing around.
Spanier: conduct that made someone uncomfortable.
Raykovitz: a ban on bringing kids to the locker room."
("Curley testified that he informed...The Second Mile of the conduct reported to him" -- page 8)

The passage above is definitely a case of abandonment of journalistic ethics. The Patriot News knowingly published a falsehood, especially in misquoting McQueary, omitting the fact that he had told his father about the incident, and by watering down what was reported to Dr. Jack Raykovitz.

The Ethics Questions
From an ethical standpoint, what purpose was served by the front page Op-Ed written by The Patriot News?

It didn't make the community safer. It did not describe how to recognize or report child abuse or that the appropriate action was for Mike McQueary to make a report to ChildLine.

The Op-Ed pontificated that “we needed to do what was right,” but the only "solution" it provided was to punish Spanier and Paterno.   The only purpose served by the editorial appeared to be to inflame the public's  opinion against two individuals who were yet to be found guilty of anything.

What harm was caused?

The reputations of two men and, by extension, an entire University was ruined before the criminal justice process had run its course.  What the P-N did was on par with the actions of the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s portrayal of Richard Jewell as the Olympic Park bomber and how the national media reacted to the charges in the Duke lacrosse case.  Both times, innocent individuals were assumed guilty up until the point that a government official cleared them. 

How much of this content is verified?

The answer was none. The lawyers for the P-N  should have made it clear that a presentment is a very one sided prosecutorial document that is provided to a grand jury to vote on and accept.  Nothing in a presentment is “verified” until a jury returns verdicts and in this case, the most inflammatory charge that caused the “moral outrage” resulted in an acquittal.  Simply put, the lawyers fell down on the job.

How reliable and comprehensive are the sources?

The answer is it was a singularly sourced document, reliant on the writing skills and imagination of the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General.  As history proved, much of the content of the grand jury report was not accurate.

Are we giving proper context?

The P-N Op-Ed was mostly out of context.  Statements were incorrectly attributed as quotes to Paterno and Schultz -- and they were taken of context.  

One could say that the entire Op-Ed was out of context because it was treating the presentment as if it was the exact testimony and full circumstances of the alleged incidents.  However, it is clear that the editorial board made choices to leave out  important details that would have shown a failure of organizations aside from Penn State.  For example, Central Mountain High School was giving Sandusky unauthorized access to Aaron Fisher.  The Second Mile gave him similar access to children.  But for a reason never explained, the P-N decided that Sandusky's access to the campus was more of an enabler than his access to children. 

P-N Blew Chance To Correct The Record, Continued Ethical Nightmare

On December 16, 2011, the grand jury testimony of Paterno, Curley, and Schultz was read  into the record at a preliminary hearing.    However, before the transcripts were posted, Sara Ganim ran a column that did not provide the full context of Paterno's testimony under the title,  "Former Penn State coach Joe Paterno's full grand jury testimony on Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse case read into the record at the hearing."

By the fourth paragraph the P-N had again misquoted Paterno and presented the information out of context:

"McQueary told him he'd seen Sandusky who was "fondling a young boy" in the showers of the Lasch Building."

Paterno's testimony about what McQueary told him was much less certain that Ganim reported.  Here is the full statement:

"Well, he had seen a person, an older -- not an older, but a mature person who was fondling -- whatever you might call it, I don't know what the term would be -- a young boy."

In reading Paterno's full grand jury testimony, a reasonable person would have concluded that his memory of the incident was very unreliable.  For example, Paterno didn't remember what he said to McQueary, therefore, why would one assume that he remembered what McQueary said to him?  Also, Paterno did not recall when he spoke to Curley about the incident, had no recollection of the actual meeting he had at his home with Curley and Schultz, and had no recollection that Curley had circled back to talk with him after their Sunday meeting.

Paterno doesn't remember any of those things.

Can the editorial board of the P-N explain why they accepted his testimony of "fondling" and "sexual nature" as accurate, when they knew much of his other testimony was inaccurate?

Again, it was a question of ethics.  "How reliable and comprehensive are the sources?"

Rather than doing the right and ethical thing, and determining Paterno's testimony was unreliable (particularly to make a moral judgment), the editorial board "cherry-picked" statements that supported the narrative that was set a day earlier by Pennsylvania State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan.

Noonan, who was under fire for not providing adequate resources for the Sandusky investigation, took the opportunity that was presented at the November 7th press conference to deflect attention away from the botched investigation.  The P-N was a useful tool in the ruse, absolving everyone but Penn State for their failures to stop Sandusky.

It was a pattern that would become routine for the P-N.

Every time new information surfaced that could have put the spotlight on another organization's failures, the paper (to include its lawyers) would craft lead stories that omitted or presented falsehoods about some of the most important information.   This happened when the psychology reports were released in March 2012, in its Sandusky trial coverage in June 2012, and during the preliminary hearings in July 2013.


The P-N's reporting on the Sandusky scandal has misled the public ever since they broke their first story in March 2011.   What was considered "adept" coverage by the Pulitzer committee and other notables simply exposed that the journalism community had little understanding at all of the dynamics of child sexual abuse.

While the paper could have legitimately investigated the conduct of The Second Mile charity and likely won a Pulitzer for investigative journalism -- it went solely for headlines by sensationalizing the alleged role of Penn State football facilities as the enabler of Sandusky's abuse.

Their reporting did not serve the public's interest, given that the public has yet to truly learn how Sandusky was able to access children repeatedly to abuse them -- on and off Penn State's campus.  Its reporting protected some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in Pennsylvania, while ensuring the weakest -- Pennsylvania's children -- would remain in harm's way

Their coverage was the antithesis of ethical journalism.


  1. Ray: I have to agree wholeheartedly with you here:

    "While the paper could have legitimately investigated the conduct of The Second Mile charity and likely won a Pulitzer for investigative journalism -- it went for headlines by sensationalizing the alleged role of Penn State football facilities as the enabler of Sandusky's abuse."

    And they continue to do so. It's very frustrating as a mom and a PA taxpayer to have ZERO investigation into The Second Mile by these "journalists". This tragedy happened in P-N's own backyard yet they refuse to cover it. Who told Lynne Abraham to take a hike and why?

    If this were truly "about the children", heads would have rolled already at Second Mile & CYS. Licensed Officials that we as the public entrust to serve & protect kids would have come forward and publicly explained how they allowed a PCSO to operate The System as he did.

    I still can't get any details on whether Sandusky (other than being a COLLEGE coach) was licensed, certified or formally trained to work with/mentor at-risk/dysfunctional youth. We know he flouted established standards & did end-runs around the rules of working with minors.

    Talk about a Conspiracy of Silence.

    1. The Lynne Abraham story is quite a tale. When the charity was getting heat from the media (not the P-N, however) about what they knew and when they knew it, the charity's new President, David Woodle's pat answer was that Abraham's investigation would provide the answers. Then when Abraham's investigation was scuttled, Senator Corman stated it really wasn't needed because TSM was being dissolved.

      From the article....
      State Sen. Jake Corman, who was a visible member of the board, has been quoted many times in the last eight months as saying that he hoped for answers from the internal report.

      Last month, he said he must have misunderstood its purpose.

      “Maybe that’s just my misunderstanding,” he said. “Maybe because the organization is clearly not going to continue, maybe that sort of review isn’t necessary. I’m not on the board anymore, so I guess I don’t have a lot of standing.”

      Others are less forgiving.

      “It stinks,” Marshall said. “We all thought an investigation was going to take place on who knew what and when.”

    2. Wendy - You are so right, but the media and the Attorney General want all blame to go to Penn State administrators, not the professionals who were supposed to keep the boys safe and were supposed to monitor Sandusky - CYS, DPW and Second Mile.

      I'm sure Sandusky had training to be a foster parent and adoptive parent but examining that would be embarrassing for CYS and the PA Statewide Adoption and Permanency Network, the latter with Governor Corbett's name featured prominently on their website. To admit that the training and screening was inadequate would mean they might have to revise their programs.

    3. Looks like Tim is on point. Philly Inquirer wrote a article on the leaked Moulton reports today that allegedly concluded that Corbett did not delay the case and the prosecutors tactics could be improved but nothing nefarious in the conduct of the investigation. Nothing about the failure to investigate CYS/Second Mile, etc, or the grand jury sharing with the Freeh administrative investigation.

      The White wash report shows Kane held up her campaign promise but no one is held accountable. In the end it is just too inflammatory for any politician to take on. They all want to kick the can and let someone else take the heat or let the injustice continue.

      Everything from the grand jury judge on the Spanier representation issue, in which he said in essence that issue of who Baldwin represented was too confusing for the three attorneys (Baldwin, FINA, and Feudale) to understand but educated men like Spanier should have known, to the decision to let a serial predator roam the streets for over two years stinks. Could you imagine letting a serial murderer on the street unmonitored for 3 years?

      It seems like CORBETTs strategy to deflect the criticisim from him and onto JoePa and PSU continues to work assuming that the leaked Inquirer story is true..

  2. The Sandusky debacle predates Corbett. The creation of The Second Mile (TSM) was brilliant. It was probably created in the image of the Muscular Dystrophy Association. "Jerry's Kids" became an annual telethon organized by Jerry Lewis. TSM had "Jere's Kids." It was a natural,
    the goodwill was epidemic.

    Corbett and Fina fulfilled their responsibility to convict the pedophile and in the process ignored all the children of the Commonwealth. The excess flow of money from those associated with TSM to politicians indicates the importance of the political protection for the organization. Why was political protection necessary for this worthy cause? How many kids could have benefited from the political donations made by those associated with TSM? Follow the money.

    1. Interesting that the Patriot News lied about Jake Corman's association with TSM, stating he became a Board member in 2010. Corman was on the State Board in 2009, when Sandusky was forced to resign.

  3. Well our beloved P-N is blowing up with stories on the Kane/Moulton report and it's complete exoneration of CORBETT.

    That prompted me to look back at your articles on the conduct of the investigation and the guidelines of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). It provides the consensus recommendations of 24 of the Nation's and the World's top Law Enforcement professionals on the best practices in the investigation of sexual exploitation of children.

    Your articles noted that every one of the applicable Best Investigative Practices was Ignored by the CORBETT/KELLY/NOONAN led investigative team.

    It will be interesting to see if the KANE/MOULTON team dismissed the recommendations as well and if they enlisted the consult of any of the 24 experts. If that is there conclusion as well then it begs the question of why the NCMEC needs to even exist at the cost of 10's of millions in taxpayer dollars, if they contribute nothing unique that a group of Narcs could not do as well or better with absolutely no specialized training or experience.

    I still can not understand how letting Sandusky on the street unmonitored for 2 years is not unconscionable. CORBETT asserted that no new child victims were abused during that time. I wonder how he knows since his crack team with "every resource made available" never could find the janitor or McQueary victims, the most outrageously violated victims.

    If the actual report falls in line with the P-N stories it is a sad day for the children of PA.

  4. Has anyone looked at the Sandusky home and boys' club that Jerry S grew up in? I've always suspected/ assumed that Jerry and local boys who participated in this program experienced boundary-pushing showers and other behavior "of a sexual nature" while under the responsibility of Jerry's father.

    This cohort of Jerry's may include 60- and 70-something-year-old men involved with protection of TSM now. Recall Raykovitz discussed the concerns about Jerry with Bruce Heim and others of TSM. They apparently saw no cause for alarm in Jerry's behavior. Perhaps what used to be seen as some right of passage for adolescent boys is now recognized as abusive.

    1. A few of Jerry's contemporaries from that time were interviewed and said that they recalled the showering in groups and horsing around, but didn't mention anything of boundary pushing or sexual escapades in the showers.

      TSM was motivated by money to do nothing about Jerry. Jerry was the top fundraiser and they milked him for all he was worth up until the end.