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Of Race, Rugs, Respect and Responsibility

As a writer of independent media coverage of Lehigh athletics, mostly focusing on football, I feel like I am a part of "media coverage" when it comes to something that happens at Lehigh, good or bad.

In a sense, I don't separate myself from what the Morning Call does or the Express-Times does merely because I'm a blogger and they are employees of media organizations.

But when people take exception with how a Lehigh story is handled, especially as it regards to the football team, I try to understand the concerns - especially when it treads in very tough or sensitive territory.

I think it's worthwhile to tell the world my side of how I covered a sensitive story in an effort to talk about what goes into the reporting.  Putting on a brand-new hat for myself - a sort-of Lehigh Valley press ombudsman - I'll try to explain the decisions I made in covering the story, and attempt to look at how other organizations covered the story and acted.

Given the fact that a campus movement has arisen at least somewhat based on this coverage, I think it's worthwhile, and necessary.

I don't know how anyone is going to take this, but it does have the benefit of being the truth, and I'm hoping the truth might play a part in any campus discussions.


My Wednesdays during the football season are not exactly relaxing affairs, even in the best of circumstances.

For me, there are game previews to write, players of the week to compile, Top 25 ballots to discuss, things to edit, website stuff to take care of - it's not for the faint of heart, nor it is for people who enjoy 9 hours of sleep a night.

On top of that self-imposed workload is the occasional breaking news story, which will throw any journalist, professional or otherwise, out of any sort of rhythm.

On September 18th, 2013, my preparations for the Lehigh/Princeton preview didn't just get thrown out of rhythm, they were thrown off the soundstage.

I read extremely surprising tweets from Lehigh football beat reporters Michael LoRe and Keith Groller that broke the news was that four members of the football team were suspended indefinitely by head coach Andy Coen.

As you might imagine, this bit of news was of great interest to me and anyone following the program that four football players were involved in an "off-campus incident".

The interest, of course, was on a pure football level.

At this point, there was no information detailing which players on the 90 man football roster might be affected.  It could have been critical starter like senior WR Brandon Bialkowski, senior LB Nigel Muhammad, or anybody.  Were they starters?  The last guys on the scout team?  Would we have to suit up a guy off the street at tight end?

I can honestly say that even in the height of trying to figure out who the players were, at no time did the race of the four players enter my mind.

(I mean, it was four players - if three were quarterbacks, Lehigh might have been starting a former walk-on in a big game on national television on Saturday.)

The nature of what had happened also caught me completely by surprise.  I literally had no frame of reference, in my 10 years blogging about Lehigh football, to pull from in regards to covering something like this.  There had been a handful involving the football team, yes, but nothing like this.  Nothing involving violence.

As someone who reports on Lehigh football and has the point of view of being a strong Lehigh football supporter, to me it was big news that was important to break early, and correctly.

Immediately, my first stop was a visit of the Bethlehem Police department website, where all arrest activity is published as a matter of public record.

On a PDF file was the police write-up of the incident, and the name of the party arrested, Russhon Phillips.

In the meantime, people had already at this point posted the basic information of Groller's and LoRe's tweets on different message boards with the topic "Trouble at Lehigh?"  People on a national level were asking questions as to what happened - all within 15 minutes of the news breaking on Twitter.

Again, getting the story right and focused I feel is critical, especially with something like this.  All it takes is one anonymous poster to say something idiotic and say "I think I saw XXX there", an innocent person is tarred with something.

At this point I gathered up the information I had, the series of Tweets as well as quotes from coach Coen from the articles from the Morning Call and Express-Times of both the incident and the suspensions, and posted to a posting called BREAKING: Four Mountan Hawk Players Suspended Indefinitely for Off-Campus Altercation.  (In fact, I was in such a rush to publish it, I misspelled "mountain".)

In a different era, this type of news might sit in a newsroom for hours, the story and angle shaping for hours before putting something in the next day's paper.

Maybe, in another time and at a larger football program, too, wealthy boosters get wind of the problem and make a beeline to the news room to make a donation to the office beautification fund to make sure the story never sees the light of day.

In today's day and age, though, this isn't the reality.  Today, there's no time for the wealthy boosters, political activists or anyone to alter a story like this: the story gets out there fast.

With the speed of coverage a lot needs to be balanced out: sensitivity as to who is affected, getting the facts right, making sure that it's basically just reporting facts without innuendo, intentional or otherwise.

Nowadays, news is effectively instant, where it goes from a living room to (potentially) around the world in about 15 minutes.  This isn't an exaggeration: I've been told by people that they follow my coverage as they travel around the world, or follow Lehigh athletics from people who live overseas.

Nevertheless, the speed of the world is not an excuse for getting facts or tone wrong, although when you're dealing with news stories involving things breaking fast, information coming out of the news organizations sometimes are not always 100% correct.

Alongside the Morning Call and Express-Times coverage of the incident was the Brown and White, who was able to get more detail and information that wasn't available from the police report.

I found their coverage to be more local to the Lehigh community (unsurprising, since Lehigh University is their community) and more detailed than the regional papers, and I linked to their coverage alongside to others.

In my opinion, the coverage wasn't slanted or unfair: it simply laid out the facts as they saw it.  And there wasn't much place, either, to pass judgment.  It was reporting in the true sense of the word.

Like me, the Morning Call and the Express-Times, they got the meat of their information from the Bethlehem Police report.  The incident, which was later clarified as a brawl outside an off-campus bar, had names of participants on the official, public police report.  On that report one person was incorrectly identified as a part of the fight, a fact that was picked up by the Brown and White (and picked up by me when I quoted their story).

This caused understandable grief, but the source of the name was not some person playing whisper-down-the-lane: it was the police report itself, which is subject to the same "getting it right" rules as reporters. 24 hours later it was pulled from the public document, and removed from all published reports on the incident.

When it was corrected, the Brown and White correctly updated their story, something that happens all the time in media everywhere.  There was no effort to drag anyone's name through the mud; it was an error that had at its root the Bethlehem Police report and the chaos of filing that report.

Regardless of that one item, I don't feel I have to apologize for anything in regards to what I broke as news, nor do I have any second thoughts about publishing a name on a document that is a matter of public record.

In fact, I would say I went out of my way to not offer any judgement of any sort enter into what I posted.

For my part, I simply posted facts, and provided links to other published accounts.  I didn't mention race.  I didn't assign blame.  I simply took two facts, put two and one together, and I presented them, and nothing else, which I feel was unequivocally the right thing to do.

I completely reserved judgement on injecting any opinion because I felt like had no basis to say anything in regards to the specifics of the incident.  I knew something had happened - I had a police report and some sources, but I didn't have anything else.  I didn't witness the brawl on a Tuesday night - I was home with my family.  I didn't talk to anyone who had been there, or even have an inkling about what the confrontation was about.

What was the nature of the confrontation?  To this day I have no idea.  All I know is what I read from the Brown and White's account, where they said that "Police have now confirmed that the physical altercation was spurred by a verbal disagreement between the parties."  What that verbal disagreement was, I still do not know.

Furthermore, I got no joy about reporting his name.

As close as I am to the football program, when something happens to one of the players, it's as if it's happened to a family member.  It was like having to write that your cousin or brother was in jail, and all you're trying to do is perform the sad duty of finding out what happened.

All summer, I made blog posts with a fact or two on every football player in the program.  That may sound like a small thing, but in reality it connects you, in a small way, to every member of the team.

At the risk of sounding corny, the athletes you cover do, at some point, become more than just jersey numbers.  By going through this small exercise, it allows you to see the athletes as future doctors, managers, lawyers, scientists - maybe more so at Lehigh and Patriot League schools, I think, than perhaps some other places.

I like to think if anyone is going to be sensitive in reporting something like this, it would be me.

But I felt, too, that it was important to report this incident, despite the fact that it was not a pleasant thing to do.

I mean., what sort of person would I be had I just ignored the news and not reported it at all?

Contrary to what some people might think, I'm not on the Lehigh Atlhetics payroll - I am independent, and proud of this fact.

I feel like that independence is a rare and unique power these days, and that power needs to be used and wielded wisely.  If I just report all the sunshine and rainbows about Lehigh football and conveniently look away if something bad happens, how is that helpful?

I don't think it serves anybody to be a complete yes-man, and sweep something like this under the rug.  It doesn't serve Lehigh.  It doesn't serve the football program.  It serves nobody.

*****

After Phillips' name was essentially confirmed, if not officially confirmed, as a Lehigh football fan I still wanted to know who the other three suspended students were.

Not because I was looking for any extra wrongdoing - as a matter of fact, I was keeping my fingers crossed that there was some sort of misunderstanding.

Yet as someone who is reporting on Lehigh football, I need to keep in my head the possibility that more football players were involved in something more.  Could I rule it out?  No.  Could I generalize who the other players were?  No.  Could I say the other three players were guilty of anything?  No.

In the days ahead, along with the rest of my game-week preparations, I tried to find out who those three student-athletes were.  In the background I continued to investigate.

I looked online, and saw a name disappear from the team roster listed on Lehigh's official website.  I followed up, and found out that the disappeared name had nothing to do with the incident.  I kept digging.

I worked my sources, but where I made most ground was looking at the game notes of the Princeton game.

On Tuesdays, Lehigh publishes the game notes and lists the depth chart for the upcoming week.  But with the suspensions, Lehigh Sports Information made available a revised two-deep, with some changed names.

From there I was able to figure out one of the three names, with two still to find out.

My own editorial decision was that I saw no reason to publish that name at that time, or publicly speculate as to who the other members were, and certainly Lehigh Sports Information wasn't going to confirm any names I might be able to discover.

This is a reaction that I understand completely.  After all, the whole affair was still an ongoing investigation.  Releasing names early would have brutally unfair to any future doctor, lawyer, engineer or manager that was suspended, not to mention it could potentially open up the University to a lawsuit.  Like me, they were sensitive not to implicate any player, suspended or otherwise, and unfairly associate them with something.

In fact, Lehigh Sports Information was in a particularly tough bind: they announced that four players were suspended, but couldn't really say who they were because the investigation was still ongoing and not all the facts were clear.

Additionally, I feel coach Coen's response to suspend all four players was completely justified, too.  When he learned of the incident, less than 15 hours after it happened he had suspended the players - a loss of players that would make it much harder to prepare for the Princeton game in four days' time, not least from the distraction the media coverage would create.

He didn't hesitate, or have the athletes sit out a half, like Texas A&M did for QB Johnny Manziel.  Reaction was swift, correct, and without regard for wins and losses.  I've actually gone as far as to criticize other football programs for, effectively, looking the other way when there's wrongdoing in the athletic department, or merely slapping people on the wrist for things, including violent crimes.  That coach Coen did this, putting wins and losses at risk, is something that shows a lot about Lehigh's head coach.

It's important to emphasize that nobody knew the extent of the involvement of the other suspended players.  They were not arrested.  For all anyone knew, the three kids were coming home from Wawa and were in the wrong place at the wrong time.  In truth, nobody knew much.

Regardless of the circumstance, apparently Keith Groller came to the same conclusion on the names that I did, too, as he published late on Thursday or Friday that none of the suspended players were starters.  Though I didn't publish this fact explicitly, I did share his article on social media, as it was an important fact to report, I felt, in terms of the game on Saturday.

It was only after the Princeton game, where Lehigh thrillingly came from behind and won 29-28, that Michael LoRe of the Express-Times, identified the three other suspended players - suspensions that would be lifted a week later.

It so happens that the four Lehigh players were African-American, a fact made painfully clear when the Express-Times got file photos of the four players from Lehigh Athletics, combined them in one graphic and posted it on their website, identifying the other players.

The four players were dressed in suits, which is how coach Coen has his football players represented in Lehigh's official pictures.  It's a common practice.

By the time LoRe had published the names, I had figured them out, too.  I made an editorial decision not to publish the names on my blog, or social media.

Why?  Did I want to sweep something under the rug - did I not want this information to become public?

My reasoning for not publishing the names was that, to me, it felt to me premature to do so without some definite linkage to Phillips' arrest, who was actually in jail at that time.

In fact, the three other student-athletes were never arrested at all - a fact that was confused by some local reporters, but was something that could have been verified very easily.

Did the Express-Times do something wrong by publishing the names at all?

LoRe's article on this generated a lot of heated comments, and he responded to them by saying:
While I appreciate all of the comments, I feel many of them are off base. Please read the entire article before posting or accusing me or the paper of certain deficiencies in reporting.

This article was written to reveal the names of the suspended players, not make accusations regarding who was involved in the altercation. Obviously, since the Bethlehem PD only charged one player, the others were not. Coach Coen clarified today that the three players who weren't charged were 1. suspended for being out during the week (which is against team policy) and 2. have since rejoined the team.

The players' skin color does not matter, especially in regards to posting their pictures. As I commented below, we would have posted their pictures if they were white, black, green or purple. It doesn't matter.
One problem with online media today is the presence of anonymous comments, where anybody can toss a firebomb on an article by making an anonymous comment and levy some sort of racially heated comment.  If you allow anonymous comments on a news piece, it's critical to have aggressive moderation and a watchful eye, as any piece of published news can be a fountain for anonymous hate.

In a way, the comments on the article were much more incendiary and explosive than the actual facts reported by LoRe.

Did the pictures invite the comments?  It's really hard to say.  Anonymous commenters on news sites tend to be throwers of firebombs anyway, and may have done so even if there were no picture there.

But rereading the article today, the words in his article aren't opinionated, or incorrect (they were confirmed as the other suspended players), which makes his article journalism, not a piece with any sort of agenda.

I personally believe LoRe and the Express-Times were simply trying to reveal the names of the players to answer a football question that was brewing during the week - and I know this because he was publishing the answer to the same football question I was trying to answer.

Yet the choice of the pictures of the four players were unfortunate.

Like everything in a piece of reporting, the choice of pictures, whether file photos or live action, are editorial decisions.  This is the one are where I disagreed with the editorial decisions of the Morning Call and Express-Times.

Before getting into this, it's important to understand that the Morning Call and Express-Times have different audiences than me.

They serve the entire Lehigh Valley community, cover crime, arts, high schools, national news stories, and tons of stuff that I don't cover.  They cover a wider diversity of people than I do; my audience is Lehigh/Patriot League/FCS football/college athletics fans on a national level.

That means they will make different editorial decisions than I might make.

My thin red line, personally, is the publishing of a mugshot.  But the Morning Call and Express-Times don't have such a thin red line.  In fact, publishing mugshots are a part of their jobs as a local paper.

Both the Morning Call and Express-Times were perfectly within their rights to get and publish Russhon's mugshot, which, like the police report, is a matter of public record.

Personally, I would have never chosen to put that on any of my blog postings - in any context.  Whether it's because I'm close to the program and more sensitive to the lives of the student-athletes I do not know.

But the same rules that make it possible to find out the public information on the arrest record also makes the mugshots public record, too.  The same tools that allow me to get the initial story out there and right also allows anyone to get the picture of a mugshot and publish it.

Is it a good idea to make it illegal to publish mugshots?  I don't know the legal specifics.

Personally, though, I don't think it would be a good idea to go back to those days when it took 24 hours to construct a story, getting the information was hard, and plenty of pressure can happen to alter, or bury, a story.  With the good - access to important information - comes the not-so-good, which makes information that can hurt, like the mugshot, available as well.

Would it have been better twenty years ago, his mugshot and the arrest record delayed by the slower pace of news and the relative hassle it would have been to get the information in person?

Maybe the answer to that question is yes - it may have afforded everyone more anonymity. Maybe the wealthy boosters, in protecting people from bad media coverage, had it right.  It certainly gave people more of a chance to make mistakes, most of them of the innocent variety.

But regardless of that thought experiment, the reality is it's not twenty years ago.  It's today.  Information is now faster than ever. The same information that delivers good news about Lehigh football victories across the country also delivers bad news, embarrassing news, or terrible news just as fast.

Let's say all the Lehigh Valley media chose not to run the mugshot or the public-domain pictures, and did what I did.  It still wouldn't stop any individuals hell-bent on making problems from getting those pictures and doing something worse with them.

What is better - not publishing the pictures, which are publicly available, or publishing them?

The reality is public tools that expose someone like Anthony Weiner as a creepy fraud or the Koch Brothers as financiers of political movements are here, and they're not going away.  They can be used to do good by you, and they can be used to deliver news about you you'd rather not the world know.

Overall as a civilized society we have to accept that the tools are there, and act accordingly.  In my opinion, the answer isn't to shun the tools and turn back the clock to the days of His Girl Friday.

There's also the matter of personal responsibility, something that is probably unpopular with every college student but is a critical reality as well.

More than ever, too, responsibility is hard to dodge in this digital era.  Every time you go out on a Tuesday, breaking rules, you could be in the newspaper, or worse, all over Twitter.  Everyone has cameras on their phones.  Almost everyone has Twitter.  A bad decision on a Tweet or an Instagram posting, or even just being in the vicinity of someone's phone or Twitter, can have lasting effects.

Nobody wants that.

Furthermore, all people need to abide by rules, and football players, like it or not, have more rules than other students, especially due to the fact that a large spotlight is on them at all times.

Almost all the time the coverage is to highlight accomplishments, but not always.  I've devoted a better part of a decade to highlighting those athletes and those accomplishments, but that doesn't mean I'll just sweep things under the rug that I would rather not hear.  I'll be sensitive in my reporting, but I cannot and will not ignore things, either.

Like it or not, more and more people (not just students) need to be responsible and do right, because the consequences of being irresponsible can be devastating.  Irresponsibility can be captured easily, and go far.

It may not be fair, but that's how things are.  And with heightened coverage, unfortunately, comes heightened responsibility.

Like I said, I thought publishing the pictures was not an editorial decision I would have made and I thought it was regrettable.

But I have no problem with the Express-Times publishing the names because they were simply reporting the facts right - facts that I, too, was also trying to figure out.  Four football players were suspended, and like it or not, it's a news item as to who those people are.  It was to me.

And equally as important, the Brown and White played no part in identifying the other three suspended athletes, either.  Like me, they reported the suspension, gave key pieces of information and followed up with updates, but didn't do anything further than that.

Like me, they didn't run any pictures of people or mugshots in their coverage - they posted a picture of Leon's bar instead, where the alleged assault took place.  The place of the confrontation, of course, is a key piece of information and a more than appropriate picture to use.

In my opinion, to lump the Brown and White together with any other coverage of the incident, including my own, is incredibly unfair.  I'd recommend anyone again read closely the original piece from the paper when reporting the incident.  It stands up incredibly well, and to date it's the most complete report on what happened.

As for me, I think I made the right decision for my little community of readers, who are there to read about Lehigh, Patriot League sports and (if I'm lucky) some of my rantings on sports or other stuff.  In fact, I'll defend everything that I did in regards to this as the right thing to do.

In all, it's a deeply tragic incident and one which I am hoping - maybe a bit foolishly - that everything turns out OK for everyone involved.  But I do think it was worth going through what went through my own mind with the coverage, and why people did what they did.

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