When a scandal of epic proportions erupted at Penn State University early last November, Penn State’s student newspaper was quick to pounce. In an editorial printed the Monday after the story broke, The Daily Collegian opined: “The moral failure of every single person involved is appalling … The university has brought shame upon itself.”
It was a bold stance only comparatively — criticizing those who cover up a sex scandal is usually very easy. But in the campus environment that enveloped Penn State in the immediate aftermath of that scandal — where students seemed more concerned with defending head football coach Joe Paterno than condemning assistant football coach and accused child abuser Jerry Sandusky — the Collegian showed great courage in mincing no words and directing blame squarely on Penn State University officials for the scope of the problem and cover-up. The Collegian’s subsequent coverage of the scandal, all the way up to this weekend, has also been thorough, inquisitive and excellent.
Nevertheless, a question remains: Where was the Collegian for all those years while Sandusky was committing crimes, and Penn State was covering them up?
Of course, I’m not suggesting that Penn State’s student newspaper is at fault, legally or otherwise, for anything that occurred. I’m merely stating that, if such a scandal played out on campus for more than a decade, and no reporter from the Collegian ever found enough to break the story, the newspaper failed the Penn State community on some level. And there are important lessons there for The Michigan Daily.
That investigative reporting is dead is a common complaint — one that finds its way into my public editor inbox from time to time. However, there are special challenges that college newspapers face on this front. Among them, college reporters are hamstrung by their brief tenures: They don’t get to build the kind of contacts and connections that can yield leads for investigative stories. Institutional knowledge and understanding is lost as quickly as it’s built, as class after class of the best and most experienced reporters graduate.
But these cannot be excuses. The Daily’s bylaws stress the ideal of investigative journalism with implorations such as: “Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.” And indeed, on many occasions the Daily has proudly lived up to those ideals.
Five years ago, when the University was “repairing” Michigan Stadium — and bizarrely insisting that it had no obligation under the Americans with Disabilities Act to add accessible facilities and seating — the Daily was one among many strong critics of the administration’s stance. Without taking too much credit, it’s still fair to say that the Daily’s determined effort over several months, spanning many incisive news stories and unrelenting editorials, played an important role in ensuring that the University eventually did comply with the ADA.
Sadly, there is no one on staff today who was at the Daily when that ADA debate played out. There is no one left who can apply those lessons and build on them for issues that emerge today. This is a problem, but one that the Daily must overcome.
The broad entreaties I’ve made here have very practical consequences. For example, while the Daily reported on the allegations involving former University medical resident Stephen Jenson after he was arrested and the story broke publicly, the newspaper failed this campus by not being able to break the story for the more than six months during which various officials within the University kept it silent.
This is a tough, perhaps even unfair, criticism. Nevertheless, given the standard by which the Daily judges itself, it is a criticism that this paper must admit and work to overcome. There’s certainly no fault of any one person individually, or even any one class of editors. Rather, the Daily as an institution has lost something structural in its very purpose if a thing like the Jenson investigation (or lack thereof) can go undiscovered for more than six months. This paper must evaluate what it can do to ensure that it is able to discover such stories and break them.
Reporting practices and investigative techniques (things I won’t pretend to be an expert on) will be an important part of this discussion. However, there is also a simpler question the editors should mull — one whose answer is broad, but may well be a remedy: What more can this paper do to assure that any member of the campus community who, upon finding no recourse for his grievances within official University channels, immediately picks up the phone and calls the Daily?