The Jerry Sandusky Case: Crime Story or Sports Story?

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On Oct. 9, 2012, former Penn State defensive assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was sentenced to serve 30 to 60 years in jail for sexually abusing 10 boys, all of whom came from disadvantaged homes.

The story on Sandusky’s sentencing started on the front page of the New York Times print edition—and then continued in the sports section.

Similarly, the Los Angeles Times‘ website posted its coverage of Sandusky’s sentencing on its sports news section.

The placement of these articles got me thinking, “Is this a sports story or a crime story? And does it really matter?”

Of course, Sandusky’s fall from revered founder of The Second Mile, a charity for underprivileged youth, to convicted pedophile clearly has elements of both.

Sandusky’s downfall was predicated by criminal accusations from young men who claimed he’d sexually assaulted them when they were just boys. He was ultimately arrested for and convicted of those crimes.

In many ways, sports provides the critical background for Sandusky’s crimes. For instance, he used his position in Penn State’s vaunted football program and the charity he started, which has a strong sports component, to lure and groom his victims. And he initiated some of the sexual abuse in locker room showers.

The fact that this sordid tale has elements of both crime and athletics explains why general news media outlets as well as sports-specific outlets, such as Sports Illustrated and ESPN, spent a considerable amount of time covering it.

I wondered not only about the placement of stories on Sandusky but also about who was assigned to cover it: crime reporters or sports writers?

For example, the author of the New York Times article on Sandusky’s sentencing, as well as several other articles on the case, was Tim Rohan, a sports reporter whose current beat appropriately appears to be college football.

And the LA Times‘ piece was written by Chuck Schilken, also a sports writer.

These reporters’ sports perspective may have colored their reporting on the case.

For example, Rohan compared Sandusky’s comments at his sentencing to a “pregame motivational speech.

I’m not sure a crime reporter covering the same story would have described Sandusky’s statements the same way.

I certainly don’t mean to suggest that sports reporters did a poor or insensitive job of covering the Sandusky saga—they didn’t.

But I do think that sports writers placed a different emphasis in their coverage, stressing the football-related aspects of the story. And a study on its initial coverage supports my observations.

Breaking news on child sexual abuse: Early coverage of Penn State, a study by the Berkeley Media Studies Group, analyzed the first nine days of coverage of the Sandusky story.

The study noted that 48% of the reporting on Sandusky in U.S. newspapers appeared in sports sections. The good news: Such coverage pushed child abuse into a part of the paper that rarely sees such stories and in front of readers who may not otherwise have read it.

And the sports pages should cover child abuse accusations when they have a sports angle, says the researchers.

The bad news: The sports section stories on Sandusky, when compared to general news coverage, primarily discussed sports-related topics, such as late Coach Joe Paterno, the Penn State football program and the impact that the Sandusky case had on the team and its coaches.

Maybe it doesn’t matter where in a newspaper or on a website stories on the Sandusky charges appeared. Perhaps all that matters is that this important story was covered and covered thoroughly

However, my gut says that treating it as mainly a sports story seems to diminish Sandusky’s actions and their impact on his multiple victims.

Robin L. Barton, a legal journalist based in Brooklyn, NY, is a former assistant district attorney in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and a regular blogger for The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.

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