Explo­sive sexual assault alle­ga­tions against a former Penn State Uni­ver­sity foot­ball coach came to a head last week, when the uni­ver­sity fired its pres­i­dent as well as leg­endary head foot­ball coach Joe Paterno. Walter Robinson, Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Jour­nalism, was part of the Boston Globe’s Spot­light team that unearthed the clergy sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church — work that won sev­eral inves­tiga­tive reporting prizes, as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Public Ser­vice in 2003. We asked Robinson to com­pare these scan­dals, and examine how the national media has cov­ered this latest scandal.

What com­par­isons can you draw between the scandal involving Penn State’s alleged cover-​​up to the Catholic Church’s cover-​​up of clergy sex abuse?

Of course, Penn State is a tiny insti­tu­tion com­pared to the Catholic Church. But there is an eerie sim­i­larity between the two. Like the Church, Penn State is an iconic insti­tu­tion that has notably been defined for the high stan­dards of schol­ar­ship and integrity it expects of its stu­dents, student-​​athletes and admin­is­tra­tors. Yet, like the Church, it decided to cover up evi­dence of heinous sexual abuse of chil­dren to pro­tect the insti­tu­tion against adverse pub­licity, and in so doing Penn State admin­is­tra­tors all but guar­an­teed that more chil­dren would be sex­u­ally abused. Like the bishops and car­di­nals, the university’s leaders ignored their legal and moral oblig­a­tion to swiftly report an eye­wit­ness account of abuse to law enforce­ment authorities.

What are the chal­lenges jour­nal­ists face when inves­ti­gating large insti­tu­tions, and how have those chal­lenges evolved in the age of social media and the 24-​​hour news cycle?

Thanks to the eco­nomic calamity that has befallen news­pa­pers, there are many fewer reporters to do the kind of inves­tiga­tive reporting that might uncover this sort of crim­inal activity. That said, it’s always dif­fi­cult for reporters to imagine the pos­si­bility that insti­tu­tions that are rec­og­nized for the good they do could go so far astray. In the 24/​7 news cycle, unfor­tu­nately, there is seldom time for even the best reporters to dig deeply into any subject.

After Joe Paterno’s firing, some stu­dents rioted, flip­ping a news van and blaming the media for exag­ger­ating the coach’s role in the scandal. What is your take on how the national media has cov­ered this scandal?

Often, we cringe and/​or divert our eyes at the tabloid-​​like cov­erage of many scan­dals. In this case, how­ever, the news media got it right. They directed their spot­lights into some very dark cor­ners at Penn State and asked all the right ques­tions, to include why the uni­ver­sity should give a pass to Joe Paterno him­self. In the end, the national media atten­tion prob­ably helped the trustees decide that a swift and cleansing step had to be taken.

As for the stu­dents, I hope that sober reflec­tion the morning after has led them to con­clude that pro­tecting chil­dren from sexual abuse makes the school’s foot­ball suc­cess trivial in comparison.