Pulitzer winner Sara Ganim explains how she develops sources, gets them to open up

Pulitzer Prize-winner Sara Ganim was recently at Poynter to discuss her work covering the Penn State sex abuse scandal. During her talk, she offered insights on the challenges of covering child sex abuse and explained how she develops sources, reports stories on sensitive subject matters, and uses social media. Here are some highlights.

On developing sources

I tend to look for known associates, neighbors, hang out in coffee shops, talk to school principals, school secretaries. People who gossip a lot in communities tend to be [good sources]. Even if they don’t know the whole truth, they have nuggets you can go with. … 90 percent of the tips that we get aren’t true; they’re crazy. But you never know what 10 percent are true unless you look at all 100 …

I had a boss one time that gave me great advice. She said, “I want you to spend your nights and weekends doing investigations that will never go anywhere.” It’s true you have to practice at creative ways to get at things because every story’s different. …

So when you get lucky enough to land on one that’s big, and that does go somewhere, you have the skills to do it correctly. And that’s what happened to me, just really early. I got really lucky.

On getting sources to open up

Usually what I do is I tell them, “I’m working on this story, I’ve got a pretty good idea of what is going on but I know [you] have more and I want a complete story.” I usually always start the conversation that way. … I try to approach it from this idea of, “You’re helping yourself more than you’re helping me.” I don’t want people to think they’re helping me; I want people to think they’re helping themselves. Every situation is a little bit different. In some situations, you don’t have to do this at all. You can go at them and say, “I know this, this and this, tell me if I’m wrong.” But in some situations you can’t, so it’s constantly about having a conversation with someone else about whether you’re approaching it the right way.

On striking a balance between telling stories and protecting those affected by sexual abuse

Especially after a conviction, if you’re telling a story about a guilty verdict, you want to tell a story about the perpetrator and what they did. I don’t want to let anyone off the hook for the sake of an 80-year-old woman who’s eating her breakfast while flipping through the newspaper. I don’t really care if she gets a gag reflex — because this is what happened. …

I want to tell you what happened. There is a balance there for the sake of the victim. … If a perpetrator is purposely marrying a woman who he knows he’s never going to have sex with, who he knows he’s not going to live with, and who shares the bedroom with her 9-year-old son, I want to tell that story. This is what he’s doing; he’s seeking out women who he can manipulate so far as to share a bedroom with their kids instead of with them. But you can’t [tell this story] without a big conversation about what the impact is on that victim.

What I’ve found helpful is to find someone in the community — an advocate, someone outside of journalism. Bosses are great for these things, but sometimes they have the same point of view as you. … I found an advocate in the community where I lived. She was actually at the women’s resource center, and when I came across an incident like this, I would call her up and say, “What do you think?”

On figuring out whether to use graphic language in sex abuse stories

We’ve become a little bit less hesitant to use graphic language, and one of the reasons is because we had an editorial board meeting shortly after the Sandusky scandal broke with all the district attorneys in the surrounding counties that we cover. … They felt that the publicity of that indictment was going to help them win rape cases. That really struck a chord with our editor at the time, and he said, ‘Wipe the slate clean. We’re going to have a conversation about how we write these stories.” ….

In the Sandusky case, he was not actually charged with rape at all. It was sexual assault and what we call in Pennsylvania involuntary deviant sexual intercourse (IDSI), which is raping with objects — and that includes fingers, other parts of your body, anything but traditional intercourse. Are you going to write “involuntary deviant sexual intercourse,” which is four words that are very long in the paper every time? That’s a lot of copy, plus people are going to say, ” I don’t know what that is.” ….

In the past, we would just say he was charged with molesting someone, which is not really what he [Sandusky] charged with doing, and really it doesn’t tell you that much. We changed that and, in some cases, we were saying he was raping these kids because that’s what he was doing, but since it wasn’t traditional intercourse it was called something else traditionally under the law. We just started saying, you know what, that’s what people know this to be. We started using the word “sodomy,” and I think we actually started using the word “penis” in the paper, or at least online.

On why it’s worth sticking with an important story

What discouraged me was the local reporters in Pennsylvania who said to me, “We would never have written that. We won’t touch it. We will not reprint the AP’s rewrite until he’s charged, until this investigation ends one way or another. We’re not going to engage in that.” That, I thought, was pretty disheartening. …

There were so many missed opportunities that it’s a little outrageous. They go back as far as we know now to the early ’90s in court documents. But the story is still unraveling and investigations are still ongoing. I would not be surprised if they go back farther than that.

There were eyewitness accounts of very strange behavior. He was very open in the community. Other coaches, other parents, were seeing this activity and were blinded by it. They would testify at trial that they thought for a second that it was strange and then would decide it really wasn’t because of who he was and would move on. …

Common sense went out the window an abnormal amount of times. It was really a combination of three things: It was the combination a very small community with a very big influence on Penn state; the kind of crime — not just sexual assault but sexual assault of boys by a man in central Pennsylvania; and what psychologists have told me is the psychology of predatory behavior where where he built this image to protect him and insulate him from allegations. He was so good of a guy that there was absolutely no way he could be doing something so dreadful. If it had been one of those things, I think he would have been caught a long time ago. If it had been two of those things, he probably still would have been caught a lot time ago. But all three coming together was a trifecta, a perfect storm.

On when to use social media

I think that it goes right back to traditional journalism; you have to go to people, you have to talk to them to their face, you have to knock on their door, you have to sit in their living room. This isn’t something you can do on Twitter. But Twitter’s great and I love Twitter — really, maybe a little too much.

There are really two parts of the story — before you write it, when you’re out there doing shoe-leather journalism, you’re knocking on doors, you’re driving all over the place, you’re never at your desk. And then when it breaks and you’re telling people stuff. That’s when social media is great. …

When I’m gathering information, I don’t want to do it via social media. That’s awkward to me. I want to have a conversation with you. … Social media is a really great tool when you’re breaking a story, but it’s not that that great of a tool when you’re investigating a story. It’s easy to sit at your desk and look at Facebook, and sometimes I do get ideas there and find out things about people and I can get biographical information about people that way, but I think the bottom line is, you have to go out and you have to talk to people face to face. …

Our website has a three-minute delay from when you post [a story] to when you go live, which does not seem that long, but when things are breaking every 15 minutes, three minutes is a really long time. So what we were doing during the scandal when everything was unfolding in November was breaking things on Twitter, and we were actually getting more info out through Twitter than we were from our own website. It sounds crazy, but it really did work. It’s all about knowing when to use it.

Here’s a resource page for journalists covering child sex abuse, along with a News University course you can enroll in to see video highlights of Ganim’s talk at Poynter.


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