ESPN the Magazine’s Don Van Natta produced a longform piece of journalism this week: The Whistleblower’s Last Stand, an in-depth profile of former Penn State quarterback Mike McQueary, who was a central figure in the Penn State child sex abuse scandal.
In 2001, McQueary, then a graduate assistant at Penn State, told Joe Paterno he saw “something extremely sexual” in the shower in the coaches locker room. In the shower he found a young boy and former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky. In 2011, Sandusky was convicted of serial child molestation and sentenced to 30-60 years in jail.
Through exhaustive reporting, Van Natta, a Pulitzer Prize winner, unearthed a surprising revelation:
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.
But the story never returned to this new, somewhat shocking piece of information. It was unclear if ESPN asked for McQueary’s permission to reveal he had been sexually abused as a boy. In the story, McQueary only commented on Paterno:
“I love that man more than you can ever possibly say. He’s an unbelievable man. He did unbelievable things. He handled this thing in the best way he could. Was it foolproof or perfect? No. But I didn’t handle this in a foolproof or perfect way either. I am loyal to him to this day. I absolutely love him.”
Did ESPN cross an ethical line by making this information public?
“If ESPN is reporting this without his permission, it is terribly concerning,” Kristen Houser, the Vice President of Public Relations for the Pennsylvania Coalition against Rape said by phone Tuesday. “Mike McQueary’s role in this case has been so sensationalized. Thousands of people are trying to play detective, prosecutor, judge and jury. I’m fearful this is a really damaging breach of confidentiality. It certainly didn’t add anything to the story except a sensationalistic line.”
According to Houser, many children who are victims of sexual abuse never talk about it publicly because “they don’t trust the rest of us to handle the information with sensitivity and compassion. Survivors of sexual abuse keep that history to themselves.”
When asked for comment this afternoon, an ESPN spokesman said, “we stand by our reporting.”
Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute – she was formerly the ESPN Ombudsman – had her concerns about an ethical breach as well. “Immediately a bunch of questions came up,” she told The Big Lead. “They don’t make an argument as to why it’s relevant to this story. If you’re going to reveal someone has been sexually abused, and do that without their permission, you need a pretty high threshold. They don’t do that here at all.”
An email to Van Natta went unreturned.
[UPDATE: ESPN the Magazine Editor-in-Chief Chad Millman released this statement today: “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.”]