Jan 232012
Authors: Allison Sylte

This is hypocritical, but I hope to God that the news media never writes about me.

Take, for instance, the lede of famed Penn State football coach Joe Paterno’s obituary in the New York Times: “… (Paterno) became the face of Pennsylvania State University and a symbol of integrity in college athletics only to be fired during the 2011 season amid a child sexual abuse scandal that reverberated throughout the nation…”

Pretty harsh, right? And this was the trend throughout coverage of Paterno’s death. While the guy was definitely far from perfect, the fact that he was one of the few officials at Penn State who at least did his duty to report the abuse is hardly mentioned, ignored in favor of saying something a bit more sensational, and a bit more timely, than making a fair statement about Paterno’s life as a whole, which was pretty extraordinary.

In my mind, this is a huge failure on the media’s part.

At least according to my more idealistic journalism professors, more than anything we journalists are in the business of telling the truth. And according to the Society of Professional Journalists, one of our biggest duties is to minimize harm. To me, this says that we’ve got to have a little bit of humanity.

After all, people aren’t perfect. But for a lot of journalists out there, the people in the news are either sinners or saints, figureheads who lack a moral middle ground. I’m all about holding people accountable, but please, let’s not tilt to a predominantly negative or positive angle when attempting to evaluate something.

Take the coverage of Tim Tebow and his role in this year’s absolutely insane Broncos season.

Woody Paige, a columnist for the Denver Post, wrote a column shortly before the Broncos were slaughtered by the Patriots calling Tebow the Broncos’ new “It” quarterback, the man who would inevitably be John Elway’s successor to the throne of great Denver quarterbacks.

Literally a few days later, Paige ripped into Tebow, calling him “more lost than found,” adding that the Broncos should be ashamed for their performance against the Patriots.

Yes, that game against the Patriots was downright painful. But the sinner-and-saint interplay that pervaded coverage of Tebow’s season was ridiculous. When things went well, Tebow was literally the greatest thing in the world, and when things were bad, journalists were saying that Tebow should just quit football.
And if you paid attention to the Broncos at all this season, probably the most fair evaluation of Tebow is that he’s right in the middle. Not like you ever heard that.

Woody Paige knows a hell of a lot more about football than I do. Why, then, are his evaluations so back-and-forth? Why did the New York Times, which usually holds itself to the highest journalistic standard, choose to sensationalize Paterno’s life in the lede, while writing an otherwise fair profile of him throughout the rest of the obituary?

It’s a Catch-22, because journalists are all about telling the truth, but you’re not really going to make a difference unless people actually read your stuff. And something sensationalized, something that’s meant to provoke discussion and lead people to talk, to read, to care, is going to be a hell of a lot more successful, and reach a hell of a lot more people, in the grand scheme of things.

Making a judgement makes people pay attention. But that middle ground — that notion of giving an at least semi-sane assessment of what’s going on? Not so much. That’s probably why Fox News is so successful.

And if there’s one thing I’ve learned over my short student journalism career, it’s that it’s tough to toe that line between getting people to pay attention and being fair. Even for the New York Times and Woody Paige (who’s one of my favorite columnists out there), it’s a line that’s very, very easy to cross.

I don’t ask that we stop holding people accountable. I don’t ask that we stop factoring recent headlines and mishaps into all of our stories — that would be just as irresponsible as the sinner-versus-saint mentality.

After all, yes, it recently came to light that Joe Paterno isn’t the saint we once thought, but that doesn’t negate all the good he did over his career. And yes, Tim Tebow is erratic, but that doesn’t negate the fact that the Broncos made the playoffs largely because of him.

All it comes down to is that we ought to try our best to convey the whole story, in all of its complexities, as a service to both the people we write about, and more importantly, to our readers.

Content Managing Editor Allison Sylte is a junior journalism major. Her column appears Tuesdays in the Collegian_. She can be reached at letters@collegian.com or on Twitter @AllisonSylte. _

 Posted by at 1:45 pm

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