COLLEGE PARK – The reporter who broke the Penn State child molestation scandal said Monday that her enterprising reporting was “a testament to [the importance] of local journalism.”
Sara Ganim, a crime reporter at The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., scooped much larger national publications when she revealed in March that a grand jury was investigating whether former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky had sexually abused young boys.
“There is still very much a place for local journalism. You can have a lot of experience and … parachute down into a community and have an instinct [for a story], but you will never match up to the people who live there,” Ganim, 24, told an audience of 80 people at the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
Ganim’s initial story, which relied heavily on anonymous sources, was largely ignored by other media outlets. But after the grand jury indicted Sandusky in November on charges of molesting young boys, the case attracted international attention that quickly led to the firing of celebrated football coach Joe Paterno and the forced resignation of Penn State president Graham Spanier.
Ganim said she first knew there was a story to follow while on a “very routine call” with a regular source.
“I make a habit out of asking at the end of every conversation, ‘Is anything else going on?'” she said. “As soon as I heard the name Jerry Sandusky, I knew I should pay attention.”
She jotted Sandusky’s name down on a sticky note to research further.
“[This job involves] lots of long hours and lots of extra time that you don’t get paid for, but I always knew that there was a pay-off. This is how it ended up paying off,” she said.
Ganim, a Penn State graduate who was working at the Centre Daily Times in State College, Pa., when she first learned of the accusations against Sandusky, said members of the close-knit Penn State community at first were unwilling to believe the allegations.
“Most of the reaction of the people who wanted to talk to me was, ‘Go out there and prove that he’s innocent … We need him exonerated,'” she said.
She said she forced herself to separate her emotions from her reporting and focused on facts, especially when dealing with sensitive subjects.
“I try not to project into my reporting what I think this should lead to, because sometimes you can get tunnel vision and miss things that are important,” she said. “What motivates me is that it’s a good thing to get the truth, and it’s a good thing to tell stories. Stories are important, especially in local journalism.”
In the end, Ganim said, “Every story starts small, just like this one did – with Jerry Sandusky’s name on a sticky note.”