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Why Spotlight PA waited to publish details about potential sexual extortion of Penn State student athletes

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The Centre County Courthouse on Nov. 1, 2018.
The Centre County Courthouse on Nov. 1, 2018.
Abby Drey / Centre Daily Times

This story was produced by the State College regional bureau of Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom dedicated to investigative and public-service journalism for Pennsylvania. Sign up for our regional newsletter, Talk of the Town.

STATE COLLEGE — A story broke Friday that revealed Penn State athletes had reportedly been extorted into sending sexually explicit images and videos of themselves and others, including videos recorded inside the football team’s locker room.

Spotlight PA was part of the effort to make public details of the alleged scheme, which had been sealed by a Centre County Court of Common Pleas judge. But when we gained access to the records last week, we decided it wasn’t right to immediately publish a story. And here’s why.

The contents of the file are disturbing. The documents include intimate details about potential victims of extortion, and describe possible sexual abuse. The documents raise a host of questions not just about what occurred, but how it was subsequently handled by the university, the district attorney’s office, and other law enforcement.

Those questions required more time, reporting, and context than could be provided in the hours after we received the records Friday afternoon. So we decided not to rush to publish.

Centre County District Attorney Bernie Cantorna had been investigating the potential sexual extortion since October 2021, according to court documents. During that time, court records related to the open investigation were sealed, as is customary.

On June 22, the district attorney’s office “formally closed the matter” without filing any charges, according to court documents. Cantorna told the university June 23 that he intended to allow the records relating to the case to be unsealed.

In a court filing that day, the university made an emergency ex-parte request that “the search warrants, affidavits of probable cause, and any and all records related to the underlying investigation” remain sealed because the interest of privacy outweighed any public interest in the case.

Centre County President Judge Pamela Ruest granted the university’s request.

About three weeks later, on July 14, Paula Knudsen Burke, a First Amendment attorney with the Reporters Committee for Freedom Press, filed a motion to intervene in the case on behalf of Spotlight PA, the Centre Daily Times, and WJAC-TV. The motion sought to have the court unseal the case, arguing that court records are public records.

“All court records are open — family law records, divorce records, protection from abuse files, criminal cases,” Burke said in an interview. “Even if there is embarrassing information or violence or family drama contained within these filings, the public still has a right to see them, to make sure the justice system is operating effectively and without discriminatory bases.”

Hours later, the judge granted a motion filed days earlier by the district attorney’s office and ordered that the search warrants — with names and identifications of the victims redacted — be made publicly available.

Our Penn State investigative reporter, Wyatt Massey, had the newly public search warrants in hand by 1 p.m. Friday and began discussing their contents with editors.

When we set out to build Spotlight PA’s first-ever regional bureau, based in State College, we had a lot of conversations about what it should look like and how it should be different.

We heard in numerous community listening sessions that you want us here, in the community, fighting for transparency and accountability every day. But we also heard that you value Spotlight PA’s deep, thoughtful coverage. You want the whole picture. You want context and answers. And you want someone to stay on the case.

That’s what we plan to provide on this story and every story we publish.

Massey is diligently working on getting answers about what happened, and a detailed examination of the case is forthcoming. But we know that journalists have an immense responsibility to get the story right, especially when it’s highly sensitive. We understand the importance of getting breaking news to the community and respect our local partners, like the Centre Daily Times, who make those decisions on a daily basis. Our decision is not a commentary or criticism of our partner newsrooms that chose to publish, but rather an explanation of our thought process and news judgment at Spotlight PA.

You can send tips or questions about the case to Massey at wmassey@spotlightpa.org or 445-236-0562.

SUPPORT THIS JOURNALISM and help us reinvigorate local news in north-central Pennsylvania at spotlightpa.org/statecollege. Spotlight PA is funded by foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability and public-service journalism that gets results.

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