Lessons on our Media Culture from Penn State

Today’s article gives some inside perspective to the recent events at Penn State from two fellow UPenn MAPP (Master of Applied Positive Psychology) graduates.  Leona Brandwene is a performance improvement coach and positive psychology instructor and  Lorrie Peniston is a positive psychotherapist in Bermuda with Pennsylvania roots.  Both are proud alumni of Penn State.

in hope by bass_nroll

“Penn State” elicits a broad array of emotional responses these days – but few are truly aware of how the community that is Penn State is responding to news of the past few weeks.  First, know that all of us in the PSU community are hurting.  For a university community that has lived “We are Penn State,” we have always prided ourselves on doing the right thing, even when the right thing feels hard.  We were proud of our squeaky-clean image, and yes, we know we have been self-righteous.  We were self-assured and confident of our own integrity.   

That self-assurance was both our strength and our Achilles’ heel.  We recognize that the court of public opinion has leaped ahead of due process in this matter; nevertheless, the allegations – and the potential that some of our own might have let the protection of our school’s reputation supersede the earning of that reputation  – have brought this community to its knees.  We abhor the alleged trauma visited upon those children; we as importantly abhor the possibility that our culture – the culture we honestly thought was least likely to allow this to happen – failed to uphold its own tenets of propriety.

Here’s what we offer to someone asking what they can learn from Penn State:

1. The process is important:  In our rush to get over the unpleasant emotions of this situation, we can rush to judgment, rush to justice, rush to conclusions – without all the facts.  There is a reason why we have due process, even for such heinous crimes as child sex abuse.  Judgments, policies, conclusions drawn in the heat of anger and without a full assessment can heap insult after injury.  As difficult as it is, we need time to process our grief.  Only then can we engage in deliberate reflection that will enable us to make good choices and create meaningful action from the tragic events.

2. Educate yourself about the realities of pedophilia.  We don’t need to wait for due process before we take action to change the future.  Learn the facts:  Pedophilia is a psychiatric diagnosis; there is no cure; prevalence rates are anywhere between 1-9% of the U.S. population; and the U.S. is the largest consumer of child pornography in the world.  That means that there is a high likelihood that there is a pedophile in nearly every community in the United States.  Pedophiles are difficult to discern as there is no ‘profile:’  they are not just creepy people hiding in the bushes at playgrounds.  Be vigilant.  Denial is dangerous.

3. Compartmentalize appropriately, be evenhanded and limit your media exposure:  The media’s globalization of this issue, casting Penn State as a “rotten to the core” institution has created collateral damage for the PSU community.  Please don’t confuse TV with reality.  Some specific examples: 

      • The “riot.”  On Wednesday November 9th, when the PSU Board of Trustees announced its initial action, students gathered in FOUR places on campus: three of those gatherings were sizable and peaceful.  The fourth place – downtown – had a gathering of about a thousand kids, of which about fifty got out of hand, and the media portrayed it as a “riot.”  The typical images evoked by “riot” include Los Angeles, Rodney King, person-on-person violence, looting, mob mentality, destroyed neighborhoods.  This is NOT what happened in State College.  The reality: two news trucks were up-ended and two light poles came down.  We certainly don’t condone this behavior; but it’s not the widespread violence that’s been portrayed; and the police are currently investigating the media’s role in inciting these activities.  The media offered little to no coverage for the other three peaceful gatherings. 
      • The vigil.  On Friday, November 11th, the Penn State student body held a candlelight vigil for the victims.  Over 8000 students participated.  In addition, money is being raised, students are pulling together grass-roots efforts, conversations are being had in classes, and student leaders are taking the lead.  There was little to no coverage of these positive events.
      • Anderson Cooper.  An illuminating and disappointing expose of  Anderson Cooper’s town hall on Penn State describes how PSU students were encouraged repeatedly to get angry, to cry, to be highly emotional on camera.  Those students that wanted to engage in a calm discussion were eliminated from the conversation.    

The media has focused on a fraction of the picture. We are all susceptible to confirmation bias – the psychological tendency to only see data that matches our foregone conclusion – and so must guard against it.  We are similarly susceptible to negativity bias–the tendency to notice what’s negative over what’s positive.   The incessant media focus on the few and the omission of the positive are creating a secondary victim:  the innocent Penn State students and community who go about exemplifying the values of this community consistently, every day.  These students did nothing to deserve this, and yet the consequences are being heaped on them.  If we claim to have empathy, it can’t be selective.  When we begin spreading the media’s negativity, we become part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.   

4. Empathize first, judge second.   As we rightfully exact justice over the most monstrous of acts, let us not become monsters ourselves.  Fundamental attribution error is our tendency to over-emphasize personality flaws in people’s behavior rather than consider context as a driver of behavior; we do the opposite for ourselves and explain away our own bad behavior based on context.  As David Brooks recently wrote in his New York Times column, It’s easy to be an armchair quarterback and say we would have done differently; but faced with believing that one’s closest friend/confidante/mentor/coach, etc. was engaged in an atrocity, would one’s mind create defenses to explain it all away?  We’d like to say “no,” but we can’t know.  What we DO know is that sometimes good people can make terrible mistakes and decide to look away, and it can have horrific consequences.  

5. Find the meaning, and take action to be a force for positive change.  Post traumatic growth is a process: we must experience our grief before we can make sense of it.  Many at PSU are finding ways to contribute to the healing.  A group of alums has already raised over $400K for RAINN.  President Erickson’s promises to this community have illuminated a path to the future.  Athletes, coaches, and alums collected money for PA Child Abuse Prevention and PCAR during the football game.  A small effort, but the droves of community members who donated money also contributed thanks, exchanged hugs, shared tears and a sense of communitas.  It’s refocused people on what’s important and strengthened this community’s commitment to remembering who “We are.”  None of this wellspring of good and hope is televised.

6. Leaders and parents:  Constantly monitor your culture and how it may be impacting people around you.  Make it safe for people to speak up.  Make it safe for your children to speak up.  At Penn State, our heavy emphasis on integrity may have had unintended consequences:  instead of just pressure to be clean, the fear of reprisal for not being squeaky-clean may have caused people to act fearfully when they uncovered the dirtiest and most despicable of acts.  Our new leader, President Erickson, has been clear:  “I ask for the support of the entire Penn State community to work together to reorient our culture. Never again should anyone at Penn State feel scared to do the right thing. My door will always be open.” 

There is no greater responsibility than our community’s children, and the news of the past week has brought us to our knees.  There is no way out but through.  We Penn Staters are owning our failures and we will move through this, but the frenzied schadenfreude you’ve seen from the media over the past weeks is at best, unproductive and at worst, harmful.  It’s no surprise that people external to PSU who have been solely exposed to the media’s interpretation would have an incorrect picture of who this university is and how it is responding.  

As stated earlier, as we exact justice over the most monstrous of acts, let us not become monsters ourselves.

 “Let no act of ours bring shame.” ~Penn State Alma Mater

We are (still) proud Penn Staters:

Leona Brandwene, PSU Ex Sci ’91, UPenn MAPP ’10

Lorrie Peniston, PSU H & HD ’87, UPenn MAPP ’10

4 Responses to Lessons on our Media Culture from Penn State

  1. Lisa Sansom November 25, 2011 at 11:24 am #

    Beautiful – kudos to Lorrie, Leona and the entire Penn State community who continue to act with integrity and honour. Any tragedy leaves victims in its wake – this event, perhaps more so than others. Let’s never paint an entire population with such broad strokes.

  2. Jeremy McCarthy November 25, 2011 at 9:51 pm #

    Thanks Lisa, and thank you to Leona and Lorrie for sharing this important message on my blog. They have a part of the story that somehow was completely lost in other media channels.

  3. Sara November 26, 2011 at 3:53 am #

    I too want to acknowledge the integrity of thought and action that is outlined here, and provides a valuable model for so many other challenging situations requiring our understanding. May such honesty and wisdom prevail.

  4. Leona November 27, 2011 at 8:03 am #

    Thanks everyone – the inconsistencies between the media’s depiction of the community vs. the actual community experience have helped both of us (Lorrie and Leona) to be more careful about our consumption of information from major outlets. A goal of ours was to help others not only have a more evenhanded assessment of the Penn State community but also derive some useful learnings which could then be applied in other contexts. We are grateful for your kind words and support.

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