Sara Ganim: When covering big stories, ‘it matters who you work for’

Pulitzer Prize winner Sara Ganim says “it matters who you work for” when reporting on big investigative stories.

While working as a courts and crime reporter at the Centre Daily Times in State College, Pa., Ganim got a tip that former Penn State Assistant Football Coach Jerry Sandusky had been accused of molesting a local child.

“I wrote [Sandusky's] name down on a sticky note and stuck it on my computer,” said Ganim, who spoke at Poynter recently as part of a “Covering Sexual Abuse” seminar sponsored by the McCormick Foundation.

Ganim didn’t know much about Sandusky at the time and couldn’t find any evidence to support the allegation. Six weeks later, the tipster called her back to say he was wrong.

Ganim later attended a fundraiser for Sandusky’s charity for at-risk and underprivileged youth, and realized he wasn’t there. When she started asking why, some people said he had health problems. Others said he had family problems. The two different responses raised red flags.

While reporting on Sandusky at the Centre Daily Times, Ganim was “trying to prove that I could have the whole beat.” She eventually tracked down the boy who had accused Sandusky of molestation after talking with adults in the community where he lived. It wasn’t until she got a job months later at the Patriot-News in January 2011 that she was really able to pursue the story. Her bosses there initially gave her two weeks (and more time later) to focus solely on it.

“I had those two weeks to do nothing else. I was able to do a whole slew of interviews … and I was able to get some other supporting evidence,” Ganim said.

“It matters who you work for, it really does. These cases, these stories, take time, they take resources, they take understanding, they take someone who you can bounce ideas off of. You’re going to hit a lot of brick walls, and you need someone who will help you figure out ways to get around them. It’s not about the masthead; it’s about your boss.”

When Ganim was interviewing for the Patriot-News job, she asked about the paper’s media lawyers. She said it has been key to work with editors and a lawyer who understand the significance of the Sandusky story, and the need to report on some graphic aspects of it.

The lawyer she works with has been “all about how you get stories into the paper, not how you leave them out,” Ganim said.

Although Ganim surely has received job offers since winning the Pulitzer Prize, she doesn’t have immediate plans to leave the Patriot-News. “I’m not going to make a rash decision,” she said. “When the right opportunity comes, I’m going to consider it, but for right now I’m going to stick to where I am.”

Related: Sara Ganim explains how she develops sources, gets them to open up | Video highlights of Ganim’s talk at Poynter | Resources for covering child sex abuse.

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