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Reacting to the Media Reacting to Penn State Reacting to the NCAA Reacting to Penn State's Institutional Failure

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For myself, as a media consumer and as a Penn State student, these past months have been interesting times. Unfortunately, this has served to prove that a lot of people, from Stephen Colbert to my economics professor last semester, were dead on when they said that the Chinese say "May you live in interesting times" to people as a curse.

Because there is no shortage of reacting going on, I don't really want to react to the sanctions the NCAA has meted out to Penn State. However, I do want to point out something more telling that I have noticed, and to do so, I guess I have to disclose a little something of how I feel about the sanctions and other recent decisions made by university officials.

Without lingering too much on the specifics of my opinion, I will just say how I feel about a couple of the things I can give a simple enough agree/disagree about. I agree that the statue of Joe Paterno had to come down. I never quite got my head around the idea that one might have a bronze statue of themselves while they were still living, anyway, and I think President Erickson's statement regarding the decision to take it down was spot on. I agree with Mr. Emmert that a shift in priorities is necessary, and to me, though I admittedly don't fully understand what a bowl game is or what the significance of bowl games is for players or for the university's bottom line, a four-year ban seems reasonable. Even so, I think the NCAA sanctions will have the opposite of their desired effect. And on a separate note, I'm inclined to agree with Dave Zirin.

This isn't the full, nuanced version of my opinion on even these two matters, and there are many more I am omitting fully. But that's because my point is not to share my opinion. I'm sure for what little I have shared, I'll get a fair bit of backlash, and there's no shortage of opinions out there for you to sift through. My point is to share enough to demonstrate that I have an opinion, as a student, that has gone unrepresented in the media coverage of students' reactions to the sanctions.

Here's the thing. If you go to the HUB to watch students react to news that is unanimously declared to be unprecedented, you have selected for a certain set of results. You are speaking to a group that is invested enough in the decision to gather and watch it as it airs. It's a group that wanted to share in the reaction with others. It is a group that was willing to have their reaction publicized and attach their name to a bunch of stuttering, stunned statements.

If you talk to those people, you are inevitably going to get an emotionally charged, hasty response. I was not in the HUB during the announcement. I was somewhere in between my early morning job at a horse barn and my first class of the day. But I did sit there for a while in the following hours, watching ESPN gloat (and many other media outlets bask in schadenfreude) at the sanctions, using words like slammed, crushed, hit, and stunned in case any of us had managed to reinflate our lungs and formulate a complete thought. I watched reporters thrust cameras and microphones into the faces of startled students, some of them seventeen-year-olds who have been on campus for about three weeks and put digital recorders practically into students' mouths. Doing this guarantees a visceral reaction.

Compelled by watching the media collect a preponderance of what I felt were poorly articulated, poorly conceived gut reactions, I even agreed to speak to a CBS reporter myself. But they were apparently not interested in my measured, nuanced response, as it never made it to broadcast. While I was answering the producer's questions, she kept trying to get me to say either the phrase "I agree with the sanctions," its opposite, or proclaim them "too harsh." I wouldn't give her that soundbite.

In the many compilations of student reactions that have been circulating, of either pictures, videos, or social media updates, there is a notable lack of anyone holding an opinion like my own. The reactions that got the most attention were the shortest, least articulate, most appalling ones. While there are compilations of the very worst of the tweets posted by students after the press conference, no compilations of the best ones exist. No photos of students' faces bearing grim acceptance have graced the cover of every newspaper in the state of Pennsylvania and most of the nation, as one of a sophomore with her jaw on the ground has.

Since November, University Park has redefined what it means to be a media circus. In most cases, the media have added fuel to the fire, most notably in the instance after Joe Paterno was fired, when 2,000 or so students (out of 95,000) rioted. It is interesting to note that the object of their aggression was a news van. While I unreservedly condemn those who reacted in such a way, I wonder how anyone could doubt that the media had an effect on the situation. Footage of the riots played nonstop for a week, while the candlelit vigil held shortly afterward, with many, thousands more students in attendance, got only perfunctorily mentioned.

To me, all this isn't really a commentary about the undeniable failures of the leadership of the football program, reverence for the sport above all else, and the cult of personality around Joe Paterno that certainly played a major part in the long cover up that took place. What this story is more about is the chaotic effects of the 24-hour news cycle and the increasing pressure to report first rather than accurately (exemplified by premature reports of Joe Paterno's death, and the use of convicting language by the media before anyone was declared guilty).

Readers, what I want you to take away from this post is not so much what my opinion of the NCAA sanctions is -- after all, the last thing we need is another opinion, and I am not so uniquely qualified as to presume mine matters in the least. Rather, I want you to consider, more generally, the impact the media can have, and whether you think they have wielded their power responsibly. This should be a dialogue, not a monologue. So, against my better judgment, I'll accept comments on this article. If you can meet me halfway and pretend you're talking to me in person when you do comment, I'll have a discussion with you. I'm 5'3" and the opposite of menacing. There is no need to be all up in arms. I invite you to discuss not the sanctions or my opinions about them, but the role of the media in this case and in general, and where you see changes, failures, and achievements.

My parting thought is that I think it would be beneficial if we toned down the emotional reactivity. Or, to quote Jon Stewart: take it down a notch.

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