ESPN reports Mike McQueary was sexually assaulted, but says little else
Editor's note: This column was revised and updated to include ESPN The Magazine Editor Chad Millman's response to our emailed questions about the process behind the story.
ESPN The Magazine just published a long read about Mike McQueary, the man who witnessed Jerry Sandusky sexually assaulting a child in the Penn State locker room. The man who cost Joe Paterno his job and his legacy.
The story appears under the headline "The Whistleblower's Last Stand" and describes widespread distrust of the former assistant coach and a life diminished since Sandusky's indictment in the fall of 2011. But all anyone is talking about is this line near the top of the story:
“Finally, McQueary confided in his players something he hoped would make them understand how he'd reacted at the time. He told them he could relate to the fear and helplessness felt by the boy in the shower because he too was sexually abused as a boy.”
The story tops 5,000 words and never returns to that assertion, which is attributed to anonymous sources who were present for the conversation and anonymous sources who heard about the conversation from people who were there. The writer doesn't say if McQueary reported his own abuse to authorities, if anyone was prosecuted, how old McQueary was, if anyone from his inner circle knew about the abuse before then, if McQueary has sought counseling, or what McQueary's relationship to that abuser was.
Yet it's clear from the video that accompanies the story that writer Don Van Natta Jr. and others at the Worldwide Leader in Sports understand the most compelling item in the story is the revelation of childhood sexual abuse. What's not clear is what reporting attempts were made to bring more context to that information.
ESPN The Magazine Editor Chad Millman wrote this in response to our questions about how decisions were made:
"We recognize the extremely sensitive nature of this topic and had extensive discussions about our approach in advance of publishing. Ultimately, Mike McQueary’s revelation to a number of people is a relevant piece of information in a thoroughly-reported story. Mike McQueary was aware that we had been told the details of his revelation. Given that he is a central figure in the upcoming trial of Penn State officials and his own whistleblower lawsuit, a big focus is on what he saw, what he said and who he said it to. As a result, we carefully considered that if he was a victim of sexual abuse, that may have affected how he processed what he saw and what his reaction and statements were in the aftermath."
Most newsrooms have a policy of protecting the identity of sexual assault victims. They do this because sexual assault is the single most under-reported felony and those who have been sexually assaulted generally incur a lasting stigma from the crime.
Millman wrote in his email that ESPN's policy is to protect victims in a criminal case, but when reporting on a sexual assault that is not the subject of a criminal investigation or trial, to make decisions on a case-by-case basis. Here's his full response:
"We weigh each circumstance on a case-by-case basis, and if after careful review a story meets our standards for reporting, there are civil or criminal implications and/or the story has a higher editorial imperative, we may disclose names in those circumstances. When there are situations of criminal sexual assault/rape cases, per our Editorial Standards & Practices, we generally don't report the names of accusers, unless the accuser personally decides to make his/her name public."
When a newsroom does identify a survivor, editors usually explain why they are making an exception to their policy.
This magazine story carries no such explanation. Nor does the story explain why this fact is revealed, how it is relevant to McQueary’s story, or if the writer made any attempts to determine further context about the assault. In a related story, ESPN said it asked McQueary for comment on the magazine story, but he declined, other than to say he loved his mentor, Joe Paterno.
Millman's email explains why ESPN felt McQueary's revelation to his players was fodder for the article. But he doesn't go into the reporting process around McQueary's revelation.
Here's a set of questions that might surface a few alternatives:
- When you told McQueary that you are going to publish that he was sexually assaulted, would he talk about it, even off-the-record?
- Did anyone else in McQueary’s inner circle have further information that would shed light on how the assault influenced him through the Sandusky investigation?
- Have you talked to a counselor who works with male survivors? What light can that expert shed on the potential harm that outing him as a survivor might cause?
- A large part of the story deals with allegations that McQueary had a gambling problem. Several sources said he wasn’t trustworthy. How do you intend for readers to digest this? Might they conclude that the claim of sexual abuse is fake?
- The theme for this issue is "The Conspiracy Issue." Does running this story under that theme suggest a bias toward believing or not believing McQueary?
- What is the journalistic purpose of this story and how does revealing McQueary's past sexual assault support that purpose?
- Are you treating him different because he is a man? Would you treat a female survivor in a similar situation the same way?
I ask this last question because I’ve counseled newsrooms covering male survivors and it doesn’t always occur to decision-makers that the reasons we grant women survivors anonymity are valid for men, too.
These questions encourage a process. There is a well-established standard that guides how sexual assault victims are identified. While some newsrooms have an exception to granting anonymity when an accuser sues an assailant in civil court, I've never encountered a newsroom that specifically restricts the policy of anonymity to victims in a criminal investigation. The threshold for identifying someone as a sexual assault survivor against his or her wishes should be exceedingly high.
To clear that threshold, the story itself should have great journalistic significance to the audience. And the fact of the assault should be clearly relevant to the story.
Millman argues this story clears that threshold. I'm still not convinced. In the story that's been published, there's not enough reporting about that abuse to give the audience an adequate context. Is there reason to doubt McQueary's truthfulness about the abuse? There's no reporting that supports or undermines his claim. The writer could have at the very least revealed McQueary's reaction and McQueary's father's reaction, when they learned that ESPN was going to publish the story of the abuse.
Finally, an editor could have explained ESPN's practice on identifying sexual assault victims and how this story fits into that policy.
For more resources about covering sexual assault, see our NewsU course, Covering Sexual Assault.
Kelly McBride served as the lead writer for the Poynter Review Project in 2011-2012, in which the Institute provided ombudsman services to ESPN. She and her partner Jason Fry were critical of ESPN's initial coverage of the Jerry Sandusky indictment.