Right on, David Newhouse. Or, “How to report on Penn State”

It would usually be a bit uncouth for editors to question each other in public, but David Newhouse did the right thing in talking back to the New York Times.

The editor of the local newspaper the Patriot-News, which broke the story about Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky’s alleged sexual assaults, over more than a decade, of young boys, criticizes the Times not for naming the boy — which the paper, in a recent profile of him, did not do — but for including so many details that a quick Google search makes his identity clear.

“The story quotes his next-door neighbor and names his neighborhood. It describes the detailed circumstances of a car accident which was reported in local papers at the time. It says he liked to wear tie-dyed socks,” Newhouse writes.

What’s that got to do with the crime this young man suffered? Absolutely nothing. Newhouse continues:

“None of these details have the slightest to do with why or how the boy was allegedly befriended and then assaulted over several years by Sandusky. They do not serve the story of Jerry Sandusky. They only serve to make an alleged victim of sexual assault easily identifiable.”

There’s something else worth noting here, and that’s about sources. From the Times story in question:

“The New York Times has interviewed dozens of friends, coaches and others involved in the case to fill out a portrait of the boy, his experiences, his life before he became part of Pennsylvania’s most high-profile investigation, and his life since.”

No mention is made here, or anywhere else in the story, that the Times attempted to contact the boy or his family. I’m left to wonder if this boy even knew he was going to be the subject of a profile of “a portrait” in the Times, let alone one that exposed the name of a local charity he was involved in, the name of his track coach, or that there would be this level of third- and fourth-hand information in the piece.

I shouldn’t have to wonder. Even if the boy or his family wouldn’t speak, the reader needs to know the paper made the effort. Unless, of course, for whatever reason, it didn’t.

From the Times story:

“The friend’s mother told her son “stuff was going on that was inappropriate” between the boy and Sandusky. The boy’s mother had said she was in the process of reporting it to the authorities.”
The attribution isn’t clear — which is hugely problematic — but the inference is that the friend talked to one or both of the reporters bylined on this story. The verb tenses imply that the friend recalled to the reporter what his/her mother said, and that the victim’s mother said to his/her mother that she was reporting it.

You know what could have cleared up all that grammatical confusion, to say nothing of questions of attribution and consent? A call to the boy’s mother. If she won’t talk to you, don’t print what another mother’s kid told you she maybe might have said.

The Times may be the paper of record, but it’s increasingly clear their record of reporting on rape is abysmal. Last year, columnist Nick Kristof named a nine-year-old Congolese girl who’d survived rape in her village; he also put her face and voice in an online video. Critics at the time argued that no news outlet would dare treat an American child who’d survived rape that way.

Then, a few months ago, the Times got itself into trouble for its reporting on the rape of a young girl in Cleveland, Texas. That article included very little about the victim, a young Hispanic girl. But it included a lot of victim-blaming blather from neighbors and community members — it quoted people saying that she “dressed older than her age” and she’d “hang out with teenage boys at a playground,” for instance. (Here‘s a great piece by Onnesha Roychoudhuri, who contrasts the Times piece with a much more thorough, ethically integral story in GQ.)

Oh, New York Times, what, in the name of all that’s still left of journalism, are you doing?

I close on one more quote from Newhouse’s statement, because it’s really worth it:

“The pledge of most news organizations to withhold the names of sexual assault victims – men and women, children and adults – is not some journalistic game of who can say the most while following some arbitrary rule. Most media have adopted it because, tragically, reporting sexual assaults still carries a stigma. It is no accident that Victim One was only the second boy to come forward to authorities in what is alleged to have been more than 15 years of assaults by Sandusky. Stories like these, if anything, could discourage future victims from speaking up.”

Well said, David Newhouse. It’s too bad Pulitzers aren’t given for impeccable judgment.

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