Penn State alumnus and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sara Ganim spoke to a room full of College of Communications students last night in the HUB Alumni Hall as part of the Foster Foreman Conference of Distinguished Writers. Ganim gained widespread attention in March 2011 when she broke the story of a grand jury investigation into Jerry Sandusky’s alleged child sexual abuse, eventually becoming the third youngest Pulitzer Prize winner ever.
Ganim started her speech by informing the crowd that she graduated with just a 2.99 GPA and was in “your seats not that long ago.” She went on to detail the five things that she’s learned since graduating from Penn State and entering the world of journalism:
1. It matters who you work for.
Ganim explained that if she worked for a bigger newspaper than the Patriot News, she would have lost the Sandusky story to a writer with more experience than her. She also said that working for a smaller news outlet as her second job allowed her to write valuable stories, do “actual work”, and learn a lot more than she would have logging tape elsewhere.
2. Social media matters sometimes.
Over the course of the Sandusky story’s development, Ganim and the Patriot News realized that social media is a “faster and more efficient way to break news than on the website.” She added that it’s important to know when to use it. Ganim also said that you should treat Twitter like a newspaper, making sure that you’re completely correct before sending out a tweet that you can’t fix.
3. People will lie to you.
Ganim did a lot of “knocking on people’s front doors” while reporting on the Sandusky case and trying to find sources. She wondered why people would “invite me into their home and give me coffee and crackers to perpetuate a lie for 30 to 45 minutes.”
4. Move the story forward.
This was one of the key points that Ganim emphasized during her speech. One example that she offered was to “talk to someone that no one else is talking to.”
5. Lie on your time card. (“Not the fun way, the opposite way.”)
I really tried my hardest to comprehend what she was saying here. She did tell a story during this part of the speech about a bum of a reporter that got a tip directly from the mother of a Sandusky victim and was too lazy to follow up on it so handed it off to Ganim. How that’s related to time cards I have no idea.
Following a quick 25-minute speech came an open student forum. Despite the majority of the students who raised their hands asking the same question about dealing with writing such a damaging news story about her alma mater, there was actually some interesting stuff that came out of the forum.
When a student asked Ganim about the feeling that she had the night before the Pulitzer Prize-winning story was published, she said that it didn’t bother her much at the time as the Sandusky story was not yet Penn State-centric. In her mind, it still focused on a children’s charity founder being an accused child abuser. She also told the crowd that the Patriot News lawyers wrote the entire story based on the facts that she had uncovered, calling it a “very well-lawyered story.” Perhaps they should have won the Pulitzer.
Ganim, a Penn State alum, was also asked how she is able to remain unbiased. “I love my craft. I love my school. But I love my craft more than I love Penn State…I am a journalist first,” Ganim said.
She also detailed how she first heard about the Sandusky investigation when a student asked her to tell the story. Ganim stressed that asking sources if they have any more noteworthy information can always help. During a late night conversation with a source about news unrelated to Jerry Sandusky, he mentioned that Sandusky “has been accused of molesting boys during sleepovers at his house”. Ganim had to Google his name to figure out who he was, but she realized that gravity of the accusation once she did.
Her source called her a week later to explain that the accusations were false, most likely trying to cover himself after releasing information that he shouldn’t have. It wasn’t until Ganim attended a Second Mile fundraiser five or six months later that she realized that the investigation was still taking place. Sandusky wasn’t present and when Ganim asked two different Second Mile board members why that was, she received two different answers. “The charity knew he was under investigation but didn’t tell people what to say if people asked,” she explained.