Making Journalism (Her)story: Sara Ganim: Cracking the Jerry Sandusky Case
By Hillary Johns, Editorial Assistant
Photo courtesy of The Patriot-News
Sara Ganim is an investigative reporter for The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Through intense reporting and investigating, Ganim was the first to break the sexual-abuse scandal news related to retired Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. A Penn State grad herself, Ganim’s courage, persistence, and passion for reporting news are important qualities in the world of journalism.
In March 2012, 24-year-old Ganim won a Pulitzer Prize for her coverage of the now- infamous Penn State scandal. She continues to work on the story daily and in her spare time, travels to universities to speak to college students about journalism.
Teen Voices (TV): What lead you to journalism?
Sara Ganim (SG): I kind of stumbled into it. As a teenager I started working for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I grew up. A t the time, they had a program where teens could write once a month for a teen section of their paper and I got involved in that. Immediately, I fell in love with being in the newsroom and writing stories and doing reporting. I eventually became a freelancer for them as a student. I was a sophomore at the time in high school, and I just knew immediately that that was what I wanted to do.
TV: Being an investigative reporter sounds like an intense line of work. Can you describe a little bit about what your life and career look like?
SG: “Pretty intense” is the right description. You kind of live and breathe the job. It’s not a 9-5 job. It’s not one of those things where you go home and it goes away. You’ve got to love it and be willing to work long hours and on weekends sometimes. In some ways it does take over your life, but in some ways that’s a good thing. I never feel like I’m working. I love pretty much every minute of it.
TV: What message do you think your reporting of the Penn State Scandal will send to young women interested in journalism?
SG: I hope that it sends a message to all young journalists that even though there’s a lot of heavy criticism on the media industry right now, and things are certainly changing, they are changing for the better. Young journalists are still needed and it’s not a dying industry. You can succeed. You have to work hard and you have to diversify yourself. You have to be able to do everything, not just print, not just broadcast, not just the web, not just taking photos, not just shooting video, not just writing stories, but everything all together. Make yourself good at everything and you will get a job and you will write good stories. Don’t be discouraged by what some disgruntled people are saying. It’s simply not true that the industry is dying; it’s changing. And I think it’s changing for the better.
TV: What were some of the most important journalistic skills and tools that have come in handy during your investigation and reporting?
SG: Well actually, the reporting for the initial story was all going out and knocking on doors. I really had to set aside all the non-traditional tools, the “new-age tools,” if you will. Social media, shooting video, it was the kind of story where I was not going to find anyone to go on camera. I wasn’t going to find people on Twitter. So it was all old school journalism; going out, getting out of the office, knocking on doors, sitting in people’s living rooms. Really old school journalism, up until the point when the story broke. When Sandusky was charged, everything changed; it became the story that everyone wanted. At that point, I was using social media and other alternative reporting methods to get the story out quickly. It was sort of two parts. You know, social media is great, I love it; but you have to know when to use it. And so there was an appropriate time for it in this story, and there was a time when it wouldn’t have been appropriate.
TV: When I was doing research for this interview with you, I came across a recent story about how you were asked to reveal your sources for the Penn State Scandal story and you refused. Can you explain for our readers what Shield Law is and your right to not reveal your sources?
SG: Right. Shield Law protects a journalist from sharing anything that is confidential—confidential sources, having to share confidential notes in court, and so on. It’s not always recognized. As you may remember, there have been journalists who have gone to jail for refusing to testify about their sources. In this case, the judge wanted me to testify about a conversation I had with a confidential source. He didn’t want me to reveal the source, necessarily, but I was not convinced that it wouldn’t lead to that if I answered the question. So I told him that I was going to refuse to answer the question and they ended up coming up with a stipulation without my consent. So it ended without me having to take the stand but I wasn’t necessarily happy about it.
TV: What kinds of journalistic ethics went through your mind when you were investigating and reporting?
SG: Well, I get asked that question a lot. The bottom line, I think for me, is that every situation is different and there’s no hard and fast rule on ethics. You have to have conversations every day about decisions. You have to have people that you can lean on, people that you can trust, people who have more experience than you do and whose judgment you can rely on. Because every situation is different. There’s just no good rule for a story like this. Having a good lawyer was really important in this story. We had a lot of confidential sources. We set the bar pretty high for ourselves in this case with confidential sources. But in other cases, we’ve gone with just one confidential source. So it really is situational. You can’t stick a rule and say it’s going to apply in all situations.
TV: So how does it feel to be a Pulitzer Prize winner this early in your career?
SG: Pretty overwhelming. I’m not really sure where I go from here. I get asked that question all the time. Yeah, this is the kind of story where we won and the next day we worked about 20 hours because things were still breaking. It’s an ongoing story. We still work on it every single day. I haven’t written about anything else in the last eight months. It’s just a huge story with so many avenues and so many different stories within the story. So I haven’t really had time to think about it, but it’s incredibly overwhelming.
TV: What are you plans for the future as a journalist? Is there anything you’d like to change about your job?
SG: My plan right now for the future is just to get through tomorrow. I have no immediate plans. I’ve really enjoyed the work that I’ve done in television since this story began. But you know, I’m very fond of where I work right now and I’m a big believer in knowing how to do a lot of different things. So I’m not sure where I go from here.
TV: As a woman in the media, do you feel any pressure to look a certain way when you are on screen? Or do you feel that you get treated any differently from men in positions similar to you?
SG: No. I have not experienced that. I think that being presentable is important no matter where you work, television or not. I’ve seen many print journalists whose appearance just generally turns people off, makes people not want to talk to you. I think they think they can get away with it because they are not on television. But the bottom line is that you want to make yourself blend. You don’t want to stand out too much; there are times when that’s bad. And then there are times when you just need to be open and appear to be approachable. So, that’s a rule that everyone should stick to.
TV: Who are some journalists that you look up to?
SG: Pete Shellem, who worked here at the Patriot, was a great mentor of mine. He got five people out of jail who were wrongfully convicted while he was a reporter. He’s the reason I have my job here, because he told my current boss to hire me. I didn’t know that until much later that he had done that for me. Jon Curley, who was a professor at Penn State, he’s the co-founder of USA Today and was a CEO of Gannet for a long time. He’s still someone whom I run ideas by and talk to very often. He’s incredibly intelligent.
TV: What is something you wish you had known when you were starting out in journalism? Or maybe a piece of advice that you would give to teen girls who are interested in journalism?
SG: My advice is that you can teach yourself to be a better writer, and the way you do that is by reading good writing and getting a coach—having someone who you think is a good writer read and help you grow as a writer. But reporting is really an instinctual thing; that’s the most important part [of the job], and you have to find that curiosity inside yourself. If you do that, you’re going to start out on the right foot.
TV: Outside of work, what are some of your favorite things to do, maybe to unwind from your intense job?
SG: Well, I really enjoy travelling and speaking to students; I do that a lot now. I taught a class before the story broke—a college class on journalism—and I absolutely loved it. But I couldn’t continue that with everything that’s going on, so in place of that, I’ve been doing a lot of talking to college students and I really enjoy that. It’s really inspiring to me. I don’t have a whole lot of time for anything else right now.
For more information on Sara Ganim, see her official website.
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