“People can be good at lying,” says Sara Ganim, crime reporter for the Harrisburg (Pa.) Patriot-News. That was a major lesson of Ganim’s coverage of the Penn State sex abuse scandal that has earned the young reporter many awards, including a Pulitzer Prize awarded in April. Ganim spoke to the annual convention of Investigative Reporters & Editors, which ended Sunday in Boston.
Ganim’s basic message was that the tale of former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, who is now on trial, wasn’t handed to her. Ganim says she “stumbled onto the story” when someone mentioned that she should look into it, but it took old-school, knocking-on-doors journalism to get the story. Ganim is a fan of social media–“Twitter is a great way to stay in touch with readers”–but it wasn’t social media that produced the Sandusky revelations.
Rather, it was putting together bits and pieces of reporting over more than 18 months that resulted in the explosive allegations that Sandusky had abused several boys. Ganim didn’t name those who lied to her, but she alluded to a two-hour conversation with a source about the case that she first found convincing but later turned out to be “fabricated,” making her think, “This does not add up.”
An original source later asserted that the the source’s own tip about Sandusky was not accurate, but Ganim pursued it anyway. An example of her reporting: attending a fund-raising event sponsored by Sandusky’s foundation and noticing that the coach oddly was not present as he had been in the past, fueling her suspicions that something was wrong.
After being the lone reporter on the story for many months, suddenly things changed dramatically after she broke the story and scores of reporters nationwide were on to it. After the Associated Press “kicked our butt” reporting day-to-day developments, the Patriot-News returned to its original sources, including the mothers of Sandusky’s alleged victims, and managed to stay ahead of its competition, Ganim said.
A 2008 Penn State journalism grad, Ganim said criticism of her by other alums for reporting the story was not so bad as she had expected, but it did intensify when famed Penn State head coach Joe Paterno died. One bit of advice for IRE attendees was to find employers who support strong investigative reporting. The Patriot-News was willing to take her off the police beat, which she had recently been hired for from a smaller paper in Pennsylvania, and let her work full-time on Sandusky. Many media organizations wouldn’t have so much faith, especially in a new staff member, she said.
Read some viewpoints from The Crime Report’s expert commentators about the aftermath of the Sandusky case.
Natasha O'Dell Archer, J.D., the National Director of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, writes about the 700,000 other U.S. children who were confirmed victims of abuse or neglect in 2010. At least 1,560 of these children died a result. Read her viewpoint here.
Wendy J. Murphy, an adjunct professor at New England Law/Boston and a former prosecutor in Middlesex County, Massachusetts, writes about the language in media reporting on the Penn State scandal. Read her viewpoint here.