Making a Statement  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   December 2011/January 2012

Making a Statement   

Props to Harrisburg's Patriot-News for its powerful page-one editorial on the Penn State scandal. Mon., December 5, 2011

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


There haven't been many heroes in the sordid Penn State child abuse scandal.

A former, longtime defensive coordinator for the Nittany Lions' powerhouse football team, once considered the heir to legendary coach Joe Paterno, is charged with abusing eight boys over a 15-year period.

And it's clear a number of top Penn State officials, from the (until recently) president on down, did far too little to resolve the long-simmering situation, despite obvious signs of trouble.

But one Central Pennsylvania institution has performed admirably: the 71,000-daily-circulation Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania's capital, 87 miles away from the Penn State campus in State College.

For one thing, Sara Ganim, a 24-year-old police reporter at the Patriot-News, has led the way in coverage of the saga (see "Slow to React," Winter). As long ago as March 31, she reported that a grand jury was investigating former Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky for allegedly committing indecent assault on a teenage boy.

But what really makes the Patriot-News stand out was its decision to run a front page editorial one that took up the entire front page calling for Penn State President Graham Spanier to resign and Paterno to step aside at the end of the season. (Penn State's Board of Trustees fired the two men the following day.) This was the first time the paper had put an editorial out front.

This is a very big deal. Newspapers in the United States rarely run editorials on the front page. Most newspapers are adamant about the strict separation of news and opinion. Page one is for news, period. Opinion belongs on the editorial page.

So when a paper deviates from that practice, when it puts its opinion out front, it's saying that this is a matter of utmost importance to the community. "This is sure to be one of the worst scandals ever in a university sports program, let alone in a top institution of learning in the country," the paper said. "The allegations involve vulnerable children and powerful men who did not do what was morally just. For these reasons, we believe this editorial belongs in a heightened place."

It's also unusual for a newspaper to devote its whole front page to anything. Doing so underscored just how critical it felt the situation was. The Patriot-News doubled down dramatically.

And for that it deserves major props. Sure, the main responsibility of a news organization is news. But a strong community news outlet also has a civic duty as well. Playing a leadership role makes it even more essential to its readers.

The move was not without risks. Penn State football is close to a religion in Central Pennsylvania, and Joe Paterno for years was regarded there as a deity. And as awful as the allegations swirling around Happy Valley are, not everyone is equally appalled, as the rioting by Penn State students after Spanier and Paterno were sacked makes clear.

But the Patriot-News swung hard: "It has become increasingly clear that while Penn State University President Graham Spanier has not been charged with breaking any laws, he did not do what is right for his school or, more importantly, for the alleged victims of coaching legend Jerry Sandusky. Spanier needs to step aside. If he doesn't, the university board of trustees needs to take that step when it meets this week.

"As for Joe Paterno, the face of Penn State and the man who has pushed for excellence on the football field and for the entire university, this must be his last season."

Editorial Page Editor Jeanette Krebs says that when the editorial board assembled on the morning of Monday, November 7, two days after Sandusky had been arrested, all it talked about was the Penn State situation. Some members had already read the grand jury presentment, so they knew the allegations were serious. And there was the fact that "Penn State is such a powerful entity in our community."

The board quickly agreed that it was time for Spanier and Paterno to go. As they talked, one board member Krebs won't say which one suggested that the editorial should run on the front page. The board quickly agreed, although at that point it figured there also would be other news out front. But as the day wore on the idea of a single-topic front page emerged.

Ultimately, Krebs and Publisher John Kirkpatrick made the decision to go with a page one featuring only the editorial. "We wanted to make a statement," Krebs says.

While the board was unanimous, there was some dissent at the paper. When Kirkpatrick e-mailed the staff about the decision, there was some pushback not only from reporters, Krebs says, but from the business side.

As for community response, it was "overwhelmingly positive," Krebs says.

"I was out a lot on Tuesday, and everywhere I went people wanted to talk about the editorial." With few exceptions, she says, "they thought it was a great idea."

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