The Syracuse Post and Bernie Fine: An Ethical Dilemma

As both a two-time graduate of Syracuse University and a former six-year employee of the Syracuse Post-Standard, I have been asked quite a bit what I think of the allegations about Bernie Fine and how the newspaper covered the story.

Although it’s hard to explain to the public, my fear is that the public’s criticism of the Post-Standard’s decision not to publish the story nine years ago will make news organizations more willing in the future to print one-source stories that can ruin the reputations of innocent people.

While the Penn State story seemed more damning, the Bernie Fine story seems to dart in directions you don’t think possible. You go to bed one night with Jim Boeheim’s strong support of his friend ringing in your ears. You wake up to hear Fine’s wife on tape asking one of his accusers if he ever had oral sex with her husband.

In the Penn State situation, there was ample evidence that higher ups knew about the alleged abuse.  That chain of knowledge is missing at Syracuse.

A few weeks ago I wrote on Facebook that even though my college football team didn’t win a lot of games, I felt sure that if a child was sexually abused people would do something about it at my alma mater. I believe that today as much as I did when I wrote it.

As for the Post-Standard, I have great sympathy for my former colleagues as they struggle to explain to a disbelieving public the need for confidentiality of sources. Reporters don’t give unrequested information to the cops and say, “Here, check this out.”

Even when we are asked for information from law enforcement, in the form of subpoenas, we choose jail over compliance. It is difficult to explain to people that reporters do this to preserve the public’s access to important but confidential information.  It is especially hard when readers accuse the news organizations of failing to protect children from sexual abuse.

Frankly, the tape doesn’t put this story in the confirmed column for me, despite the titillating talk and innuendo. I recognize that non-journalists will not understand this. But our credo is: Just because you say it’s so doesn’t make it so. How many journalists have had a conversation start with, ‘I’ve got a story for you’ and by the end of the explanation discovered that there is no story?

I respect that other media will say they would have chosen to run the story in 2002, or done something else. This is not an absolute black or white profession. Gather up all the front pages of newspapers on any given day. No two will be identical.

Neither the Penn State nor Syracuse story is close to winding up. Do I wish that when I see SU flash across the ESPN sports wire at night it would be a story about the No. 1 Orangemen? Absolutely. But that just isn’t going to happen right now.

While these stories will keep going with intense media focus, I do wonder how this will change journalism, for it surely will. I fear that next time an accuser brings a one-source, no outside evidence story of abuse to a newspaper, that paper will look back at the protests of the Post-Standard’s method of coverage. That paper will choose to risk ruining an innocent person’s reputation rather than have its own reputation questioned.

And that, I think, is another sad lesson we will have learned.

Pat Louise is a 1984 (Newhouse) and 2001 (Whitman) graduate of Syracuse University. Her journalism career has included six years at the Syracuse Post-Standard, including three years as a sports editor heading up coverage of SU sports. She currently lives in update New York, where she is publisher of a community weekly newspaper and teaches journalism at Utica College.


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