Behind the Scenes and Below the Surface
When the Sandusky scandal broke, my husband and I were heading out of town for a long weekend away. I’m not a good passenger, so I was distracting myself by scrolling through Twitter on my phone as he drove, and that’s how we got the news on Friday afternoon. Awful, we both agreed.
Our lazy Saturday morning was interrupted when both of our phones started buzzing like crazy; friends and colleagues were alerting us to perjury charges and a shockingly graphic grand jury presentment. We were floored. And we knew that although we weren’t in State College, we weren’t really on vacation anymore.
The thing about being a journalist is this: You can’t really turn it on and off. News doesn’t keep hours, and often my best laid-plans go awry. (Just ask the guy I was dating the semester I was a candidate at The Daily Collegian: “You used to be normal,” he said, not unkindly, “and then you joined the Collegian.”) I wouldn’t have it any other way. (It’s also not a coincidence that I married another journalist; who better to understand how you think and work?)
By Sunday, everyone at the B&B’s communal breakfast table was waiting for the “two writers from Penn State” to explain everything to them. (As if that were possible.) They’d seen the story on the front page of the New York Times. We got pelted with more questions Monday morning. When we checked out, the owner gave us hugs and a gift certificate for a future stay. “I think,” she said, “you’re going to need a weekend to relax for real.”
It’s been a strange couple of months. I’ve covered my share of controversies, but never one that hit so close to home. Malcolm Moran, director of the Penn State’s John Curley Center for Sports Journalism (full disclosure: I’m a board member), captured the feeling in this piece:
I had raced to college campuses in my previous life at The New York Times to cover scandal and tragedy. … I had been part of the pack in scramble mode, working desperately to separate fact from fiction on the fly with a clock ticking in my head all the while. I had looked into the eyes of people I had just met, trying to determine if what they were saying was the truth. I had wondered, more times than I could count, what happens after the crisis subsides, the pack heads for the airport, the satellite trucks turn toward the interstate and the altered lives go on. Now I live in one of those places and I cannot begin to understand.
Me neither. But I knew from the beginning that my best way to cope would be to report. For me, that’s been the silver lining in this dark, dark cloud. I attended classes. Took my own students to cover the students’ rally at Joe Paterno’s house. Showed up at the riot. (So I saw, firsthand, that most of the students weren’t doing anything but standing around.) Attended the candlelight vigil. Covered the Nebraska game. Tracked down experts in sociology, ethics, and other fields to explain the big-picture issues. I didn’t write about all of it, but I learned a ton.
I also read and watched as much about the scandal as I could. Too much, some might say. I don’t think so.
Once when I was struggling to organize about 15 months of reporting into a couple of stories, a colleague gave me a piece by writing coach Chip Scanlan in which he ruminates on why icebergs are so powerful. (This one, written later, is similar.) Only about one-eighth of an iceberg is above the surface of the water; likewise, Scanlan writes, “What makes a story powerful is all the work—the process of reporting and writing—that lies beneath.”
I know we’ll be covering this crisis for years to come. To get a feel for what we’ve done, you can click on the image at the top to read the introduction to our special coverage in the new issue. I hope the start we’ve made—both what you see in our January/February issue and the seven-eighths of our work that’s below the surface—will be a good foundation.
I hope, too, that I’ll be able to use that B&B gift certificate before it expires.
Lori Shontz, senior editor