The dust of the Penn State sex abuse scandal is far from settled, but already so much has happened: former Nittany Lions defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky has been indicted on more than 40 counts of sexual abuse toward young boys; along with university president Graham Spanier, the late Joe Paterno was fired, dismissed from his position as head football coach after 409 wins over a 46-year career; and, most importantly for the purposes of this post, a young crime reporter named Sara Ganim, working for The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., asserted herself as a talented, up-and-coming journalist, one whose stories helped yank back the veil of secrecy at the college and expose the morally bankrupt individuals behind it.
Ganim visited Ohio University on Friday for a discussion with Molly Yanity, a doctorate student and instructor in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. The two had a half-hour long discussion before a roomful of journalism enthusiasts, a group that appreciated every insight Ganim had to offer.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime story,” Yanity said about what has happened at Penn State. “This is not a sports story.”
Throughout the conversation, Ganim talked about how she became involved with the story and what measures she took to acquire information. Because the issue was so sensitive, she emphasized her need to speak to people face-to-face rather than through phone calls or emails. To accomplish this, Ganim would spend 12-hour days knocking on doors, and she even interviewed people in their homes on Super Bowl Sunday.
Despite the presence of “one dead end and one brick wall after another,” eventually Ganim was able to gain the trust of several sources, and some of the facts regarding Sandusky and his alleged abuses began to trickle out.
“It took time,” Ganim said. “It was never going to be something that I could do a little bit here, a little bit there.”
But time was a luxury Ganim could afford, especially after she moved to The Patriot-News after spending time at the Centre Daily Times in State College, Pa, home of the university. By March 2011, Ganim had uncovered enough information to write a story that claimed five sources had knowledge of a grand jury investigation of Sandusky. The night before it ran, Ganim said she had no problem falling asleep, as she was perfectly confident in her reporting. Although the national media would not pick up the story for months, Ganim’s March piece was the spark that lit what would become a raging inferno.
Once the story became national news and high-profile members of the Penn State community — including Paterno — began coming under fire and losing their jobs, a strange atmosphere fell over the university. A proud Nittany Lion herself, Ganim said she never saw anything quite like the reaction to the scandal that she witnessed in State College. Emotions changed daily, ranging from shock to anger to utter sadness.
“We did not foresee this getting to a point where Joe Paterno would be fired,” Ganim admitted. With that said, though, she also cautioned, “You can’t worship other human beings.”
In addition to her personal experiences, Ganim shared many pieces of advice with the audience, much of which was comprised of students. She extolled the virtues of different mediums, explaining that the ability to work with photo and video has made her a better writer, and a better reporter. For aspiring journalists, Ganim talked about why it’s important to be able to write about many different issues. She said that young reporters seeking employment should choose a publication based not on the masthead, but on the people who work there. Ganim also had two suggestions for individuals looking to improve their writing: read good writing done by others, and find a good boss. You always want to be in a situation where you’re constantly learning, she said.
All in all, Ganim’s discussion with Yanity, and the Q-and-A session that followed, revealed a lot about good journalism and its importance to society. For Scripps students, Ganim is an admirable role model. She is both talented and intelligent, a hard worker who respects her craft. Her efforts have paid off in many ways, including institutional change, national recognition and distinguished awards. When the winners of the Pulitzer Prize — journalism’s highest honor — are announced next week, it will be a surprise to nobody if Ganim takes one home.