Lessons from Penn State: Journalists should stop idolizing athletes and coaches

I took my 9-year-old daughter to her first Mets game last week. They lost. The Mets lose a lot these days. She asked me at the end of the game if I was mad that the Mets had lost. I explained to her that it would have been nice if the Mets had won, but I really wasn’t mad that they had lost.

Loss is one of those subjects that can be tough to wrestle to the ground with kids. I don’t care about the Mets losing. I care about the loss of innocence. All parents face this as their kids grow older. As parents we try to shield children from the realities of life for as long as we can. It can be difficult.

Parents split up.

People die – often senseless deaths.

But sport has always provided a combination of beauty and innocence. Most of us are attracted to sports and athletics at a young age and find joy in the sheer excitement of competition. I’ve watched a lot of sports over the years and have always marveled at what athletes – both men and women – can do in times of tremendous stress.

For my daughter, the innocence extended to the simple things – she counted the number of planes that crossed over Citi Field during the game. She barked back at the hot dog guy patrolling the stands while he woofed it up. She took countless pictures of the ball field on a beautiful New York summer night.

I’ve always loved sports…and I’ve tried hard to pass that love onto my kids. I’ve been able to sit close and have access to athletes while working as a sports journalist, and I now teach a Sports Journalism course in the UMass Journalism Program. I’ve watched and covered everything from women’s softball to the NBA…and everything in between, even soccer.

But at some point the love of sports and what athletes do on the field crosses over into blind idolatry. It’s inevitable. We place athletes on pedestals, holding them up to standards impossible to maintain. Most sports fans go through a loss of innocence at some point – when the athletes we love begin tumbling off their pedestals. For me, it was when the news about drug use by Daryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden began to emerge in the late 1980s.

But I had fallen into the idolatry trap. And it’s tough to shake — I still haven’t seen a swing sweeter than Strawberry’s.

One of the first things I tell UMass Sports Journalism students is to stop idolizing athletes and coaches. I actually tell them that in order to be good sports reporters, they need to stop being fans. Some might consider such guidance overkill – sports journalists get into a business that fills their nights, weekends and holidays because of their love of sports, right?

Perhaps, but maybe if those covering Penn State had been a little less involved in preserving the legend of Joe Paterno, the vile crimes occurring there would have been exposed earlier.

One of the top reasons why sports journalists at UMass decline to challenge comments made by coaches is their fear of losing access. It’s the fear of every journalist, really. Why did the members of the White House press corps not challenge assumptions about the presence of WMD’s in Iraq? Was Joe Paterno idolized and protected by members of the media as well as the university and government?

Which brings me to the real question: Where is the journalistic outrage over the decision to allow football to continue at Penn State?

I asked friends on Facebook whether the so-called sanctions on Penn State were enough. I received some of the same weak-kneed responses that we’ve seen in many places: The players should not be held responsible for actions above them and the program should not pay for the actions of one person.

Well, the players can transfer. And what we saw at Penn State was a wholesale failure of leadership on many levels as well as a wholesale failure of journalism. In the end, politicians, university officials, law enforcement and journalists refused to challenge the legacy of Joe Paterno.


Idolatry and the almighty dollar.

Consider that the $60 million fine equals ONE YEAR of football revenue at Penn State. The television money – which is substantial – remains untouched. Some have written that it may take a decade for football to recover at Penn State.

A decade? Why allow football to continue at all?

Isn’t there a line where we say, “Enough is enough?”

Katy Culver, who teaches Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told me recently, “sports haven’t lost their innocence, but when they’re used to cover up the rape of children, they’ve lost their soul.”

As another college football season starts gearing up over the next month, sports journalists need to understand they are doing no one any favors by going about business as usual and buying into the company line to protect their press box seats.

Some thoughts on how to go about changing sports journalism:

  • Begin by challenging the status quo.
  • Take a hard look at the money being spent on football and other programs.
  • Don’t worry about access and your position in the pecking order.
  • Start worrying about what you don’t know.

'Think before you act' and more rules for journalists on Twitter

A couple of weeks ago I was at a hockey game with my son. During the game, as I absentmindedly checked emails on my phone, I saw a Twitter note from an alumni of the UMass program saying “Look at what this person is saying about you!” Without thinking, I clicked on the link….and instantly kicked myself for doing so, as the link spawned a Twitter spam, sending the virus to hundreds of my Twitter followers. It was the first time for me, but definitely reminded me about the power of social media. I heard from friends, colleagues and students about the spam, and ended up apologizing more than once for not following my own advice to students: Think Before You Click!

The social media dustup surrounding the early and inaccurate reports of Joe Paterno’s death once again brought to the forefront how the rapid nature of social media can lead to bad journalism. It was deja vu all over again: A year ago NPR mistakenly reported that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had died after being shot in the head.

Why do journalists keep botching the facts on Twitter?

I posed a question along these lines on the Social Journalism Educators group on Facebook and received some of the requisite “it’s not Twitter’s fault;” and Twitter is “only” an amplification device. As much as I love most of what Matthew Ingram writes, his post on the Paterno screw-up being another example of “news as a process” worries me. Defenders of the social media realm rarely seem to want to get at why these massive ethical lapses continue to occur on Twitter. And I just won’t buy the idea that “this is the way it is” or “letting everyone know you made a mistake is great for transparent journalism.”

Don’t get me wrong, I love the many benefits of social media and I teach about its journalistic value. But I also feel that we all need to begin practicing “safe social media” practices to protect us all.

After the Giffords debacle, Alicia Shepard, the former ombudsman for NPR, wrote a column about the need for journalists to re-learn the lesson of checking sources. And she counters the shrugs inherent in many comments from social media defenders by reminding us all why it’s important to get it right, even if it’s not first: “…To report a death, incorrectly, is a serious, serious error and may have caused untold grief and pain for many who know Giffords.” Journalism is about process but the process is to get the correct information out, not to throw spaghetti against the wall, see what sticks and sort it all out later.

So, what to do?

The main issue indeed seems to rest with amplification. The nature of the Twitter beast is to retweet something you see IMMEDIATELY to your followers. I first found out about the Paterno report from a Facebook friend who teaches social media and whose insight and opinions I respect. She attributed the news to CBS — which was part of a long laundry list of news organizations that retweeted what proved to be a shaky report from Onward State, a student-run website at Penn State.

I’ve been a part of too many “not dead yet” stories so I hesitated on retweeting and re-Facebooking and went to ESPN’s site. ESPN had a story about Paterno being in grave condition, but had not jumped on the Onward State bandwagon and declared him dead. It was responsible journalism as well as an affirmation of ESPN’s social media policy prohibiting reporters and editors from breaking news on Twitter — which drew a substantial amount of criticism from the defenders of the social media realm last year. (Full Disclosure: I work as a part-time editor for ESPN.com.)

ESPN’s policy is a step in the right direction. The policy makes ESPN journalists stop and think before hitting the retweet. But there is something else at work here. The natural inclination when journalists and journalism educators see tweets from news organizations like CBS and NPR is, well, to believe what is being tweeted.

That just needs to stop.

A new Twitter ethos is needed. Here are a few ideas:

* Retweeting. Don’t retweet immediately. Especially if it’s breaking news. A colleague and I were talking about the Days Before The Web and how the wire services used to send off bells on major breaking news events. (Ronald Reagan getting shot was 10 bells.) So, think about waiting for those 10 bells to go off.

* Trust. Stop trusting mainstream news organizations. Just because a major name is attached to the tweet doesn’t mean it’s true. Live by the old adage: “If your mother tells you it’s true, check it out.”

* Pick Up The Freaking Phone. In both the Giffords and the Paterno cases, journalistic disaster could have been easily averted by news organizations picking up a phone and doing some original reporting. Again, don’t trust, verify.

* Verify, Verify, Verify. Stop the lazy journalism folks. Hitting the retweet is easy. Do some work instead.

Think before you act!