A Timely Class in Journalism Ethics
From our intern, Emily Kaplan:
Over the weekend, a friend of mine tweeted: Boy, what I would do to sit in on a journalism ethics class at Penn State this week.
I am fortunate to be enrolled in that course this semester—COMM 409: News Media Ethics, a section taught by Malcolm Moran, a veteran journalist and head of Penn State’s John Curley Center for Sports Journalism.
My friend was right—Tuesday’s lesson was never more relevant. When I walked in, I had pretty good feeling we wouldn’t be discussing the assigned reading on the syllabus. Not after a weekend where dubious reporting and social media gone wild resulted in an announcement that the most recognizable face of this university had died—when in fact, he was still alive.
“There’s nothing more important to be right about than if an important figure is alive or not,” Moran said. “Nothing.”
So who better to be a guest lecturer than Mark Viera ’09? He’s the New York Times reporter who dispelled reports that Joe Paterno had passed away Saturday night by simply asking a family spokesman whether the rumors were true.
The class had a meta feel. Moran asked Viera what lessons from the course he has applied to his reporting—and what lessons couldn’t be taught in the classroom. Moran also pointed out the seat that Viera occupied just a few semesters ago. The girl sitting there now has some big shoes to fill. Viera, 24, has been one of the Times’ lead journalists in Penn State coverage over the past two months because of his familiarity with the school and dogged reporting.
But Tuesday, he stood in front of about 50 of us. Everyone seemed attentive as he spoke. I don’t know whether it was respect for Moran, respect for Viera or simply respect for the subject matter, but I didn’t see one person texting under their desk or day dreaming blankly at the wall.
Viera gave us a play-by-play of his Saturday, beginning with a 9:30 a.m. call from an unreliable source declaring Paterno had died. At the time, Viera was still sleeping.
The developments unfolded from there, and Viera went about his day while still tracking the story. He was at Madison Square Garden for spot coverage of a New York Knicks game when he received a firmer—yet still unreliable—report that Paterno had died.
Viera never wrote his story about Carmelo Anthony. His editors told him to forget about the game and focus on finding out what’s going on at Penn State. So Viera went downstairs to the media room at MSG to make some calls.
“Here’s the whole thing,” Moran interjected. “If something is out there, what do you do?”
By the Viera got downstairs, CBSSports.com had reported that Paterno had died, via a repackaged story by Onward State. Viera didn’t tweet it. That was the last thing on his mind. He was working on confirming the report with his own sources. That’s when he would know it was official.
“It was really shoddy what CBS did,” Viera said bluntly. “In my opinion, that’s not enough for any story—especially a story with such consequence.”
Some students chimed in. One student said he was talking with a source on the football team throughout the night. Another student said she was with an Onward State writer. The students discussed the rumors they had heard throughout the evening. Said Viera, “It becomes an echo chamber.”
Said Moran: “The scariest part is that when you’re tweeting, there’s no discussion, there’s no time for thought. It’s just point and click.”
Last Thursday, discussion in class centered around usage of anonymous sources. We talked about the importance of being right instead of being first. Moran gave an example: When he was a reporter covering Notre Dame, his editor got mad at him when another reporter broke a story that the Fighting Irish were abandoning their independent status.
“Malcolm couldn’t run the story,” I wrote in my notebook. “It was a source he neither knew nor trusted.”
It’s weird as I look back at notes from that class. Moran is either psychic or the luckiest professor of all time. I’ve never had subject matter from class coincide so directly with what’s going on in the outside world.
Toward the end of today’s class, one student—who had her laptop open—told Viera she was currently talking to the Onward State writer who ran with the false report. Did Viera have any comment on how the writer handled himself after everything unfolded?
“He’s still a student, right?” Viera asked the class. A couple kids nodded. “I’ll give him credit; he owned up to his mistake.”
Emily Kaplan, intern
Entry filed under: Campus issues, Communications, Joe Paterno, Penn State in the news, Undergraduate education. Tags: Center for Sports Journalism, Malcolm Moran, Mark Viera, New York Times, Onward State.