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Breaking Down the Penn State Coverage

Those of us glued to our TV’s Wednesday night as a group of students took to the streets and further sullied what’s left of the Penn State University name saw some great work from TV outlets and some lessons learned.

As things picked up, it became a two-horse race, with both CNN and ESPN following the story closely.  Noteworthy was that the Big Ten Network, by ignoring the story outside of a crawl at the bottom of the screen during a football game replay, defined itself last night as basically state-run television, but I’m not sure they ever claimed to be anything different.

CNN covered the rioting with a good amount of footage, focusing on the news story of the firings and fallout, with good footage from the scene as things unfolded.  They stayed with the story and acted like a 24-hour news network should: there would be plenty of time later to talk about Governor Rick Perry’s sudden memory loss.  A good night for them.

But ESPN was ground zero for coverage Wednesday night, and rightfully so.  I have seen ESPN’s coverage of the story up until Wednesday debated elsewhere, but Wednesday night it stayed with the SportsCenter set-up of Steve Levy and Stuart Scott, and did some great work, while at the same time leaving a few major factors to be desired that simply can’t happen again.

The Good

First of all, staying with the story live all night on ESPN deserves kudos.  I know people like to argue ESPN makes some stories bigger than they are (an argument I’m not sure I entirely understand), but this obviously is not the case, staying live with this story as long as they did was absolutely the right call.

A sports network covering this story is a nightmare - well for several reasons of course - but also in that it not a football story whatsoever.  This is about a group of predators who either took part in unthinkable acts or failed to act when they found about them, an unthinkable act as well.  This is infinitely bigger than some stupid football program.

That said, ESPN’s fan base tunes in for the sports, so they absolutely had to make that part of the story. And for the most part, they did a great job of balancing that very thin high wire.  Of course, over the course of all that live television there are going to be regrettable words here and there (like Scott still using the cozy nickname “JoePa” for the disgraced, fired coach or the always-solid Chris Fowler calling the Paterno situation “sad”). But when you are on air for that long, you’re not going to get every word right, so it’s easy to pick on a mistake here or there from the outside.  Overall, ESPN’s tone was spot-on.

And they even got out at the right time. Into the wee hours, their reporter had said it was just a few hundred students left, so ESPN re-aired the PSU press conference, as there are only so many times you can show a tipped-over news truck (with apologies to our friends down at WTAJ, which you can read more about here).

Then suddenly, without any warning, David Stern was on the screen live, with an NBA lockout press conference.  Some would wince at that hard-out with no intro, but that was absolutely the right move, just get us there as quick as possible and deal with the set-up later (albeit it turned out for a press conference that basically gave no real update, but still, good stuff from Bristol).

The Not So Good

As the riots broke out, if you were listening to ESPN over the radio, you had to be impressed.  Unfortunately, this is television, and CNN kicked ESPN’s ass for a good stretch with footage from the campus.  ESPN had reporters on the phone, but for way too long had either no footage, or very average footage from Comcast SportsNet of all people.  My twitter feed was alive with people asking me where were ESPN cameras, or the local ABC affiliate cameras, or ABC News cameras.  Hell, some kid with an iPhone. I had no answers.

That was a massive fail for ESPN.  To their credit, they issued a big mea culpa Thursday morning, via a podcast produced by their PR staff.  In it, ESPN exec Norby Williamson fully admitted the network was “late and a little remiss” in getting live shots from the streets of the Penn State campus.  “We were late… and we learned from that,” also acknowledging that CNN ate its lunch for a stretch that night.  If I am ESPN, I am thinking about news-share deals with CNN or someone, though you’d think ABC’s news division would have ESPN covered. We learned Wednesday night they don’t.

I was also very troubled by what happened once ESPN finally got footage up from the campus: they failed to identify if it was live or taped.  As Levy or Scott would describe what the viewer was seeing, we had no idea if it was happening now or an hour ago.  That is journalism 101, and it’s inexcusable. A news organization showing video of a highly-intense breaking news event absolutely must tell the viewers if this is happening now or earlier, or we have no way of knowing at what point in the developing story we are watching.  I am still flabbergasted no one at ESPN thought about this.  I sincerely hope they do next time.

If you combined CNN’s coverage with that of ESPN, you’d probably get the perfect combination for a story that was a huge test for a news organization. On one hand racing to cover a potential moving riot while keeping an eye on Casa Paterno in case he and his wife wandered out to embarrass themselves some more, while at the same time making sure your anchors and reporters got the tone of an absolutely tragic story right.

But the good news is, if you did screw up, no matter how bad you did, you weren’t going to be as idiotic as those morons asking the questions at the Penn State press conference.