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Reporter discusses Penn State scandal

Sara Felsenstein | Monday, January 30, 2012

Just a few months ago, 24-year-old reporter Sara Ganim had only a handful of followers on Twitter.

Now, she has more than 13,000.

Ganim is a crime reporter for The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Penn., where she first broke the news in March that a grand jury was investigating former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky for allegedly molesting a high school football player.

Eight months later — when Sandusky was indicted, then arrested and charged — the story exploded onto the national media scene.

But Ganim said she never expected its magnitude.

“Until the night Paterno was fired, it never even crossed my mind that this could be something that would lead to what it led to, I never thought it would lead to the firing of Joe Paterno, ever,” she said. “I just followed the facts, piece by piece, as they came to us.”

Ganim spoke to journalism students at Notre Dame Monday afternoon, discussing her experience covering the Penn State scandal and emphasizing how crucial social media tools are to breaking news.

She said she could not believe how quickly the story evolved after Sandusky’s indictment.

“It was crazy, I didn’t even realize [the story] was leading The Nightly News for four days straight, I didn’t have time to watch television,” she said. “You’re running literally from place to place…and trying to squeeze interviews that will keep you one step ahead of everyone else the next day.”

Ganim, who is a 2008 graduate of Penn State, said she did receive negative responses to her reporting but had expected the backlash to be much worse.

“In November, when it became clear that Joe Paterno was not going to come out of this looking as nice as he would have liked, and all of his [fans] were going to start to get very upset, yeah you get hate mail,” she said. “But you often get hate mail as a reporter … You’ve just got to remind yourself that somewhere between the praise and the disgust is probably where you should be.”

Ganim’s research into the scandal dates back to 2009, when she first received a tip while working at State College, Penn.’s Centre Daily Times. A source told her that a child had accused Sandusky of molesting him.

She said she approached the story just as she would “any other crime story.”

“I looked into [Sandusky,] and I found out who he was, and I thought, ‘wow if this guy really molested a child, that’s a big deal,'” she said.

But without hard facts to go on, Ganim said the story could not move forward. She said victims had spoken up and made allegations, but those allegations did not lead to charges.

Eventually, Ganim moved to the Patriot-News, where she was given time to do “nothing but knock on doors.”

When she had information from five independent sources who had testified before the Grand Jury, the Patriot-News ran the story.

“We learned after the story ran that it led to more victims coming forward, and Jerry Sandusky admitted that all of the facts that we had alleged — yes, they were alleged,” she said. “He just said he didn’t do it.”

Ganim said a combination of compassion and persistence are key to a modern-day reporter’s success.

“I got a little lucky, I was in the right place at the right time,” she said. “But I really think it all goes back to local reporting.”

She advised aspiring reporters to take positions that offer hands-on experience with writing and multimedia, not just those that pay well or come with a big name.

“Your first job is never your dream job, you don’t want it to be your dream job,” Ganim said. “I had a police scanner next to my bed, because I was obsessed with not missing anything. [Mine] was a 24/7, all-consuming job.”

Now, in addition to reporting for the Patriot-News, Ganim is also a contributor for CNN.

Ganim’s list of Twitter followers keeps expanding, but she uses the audience largely as a sounding board for story ideas.

While her groundbreaking coverage of the Penn State scandal may open doors for her career, Ganim said she has no plans to leave Harrisburg.

“I really, honestly, am not thinking about [moving] right now,” she said. “I’m pretty focused at the moment on the next part of the story. I mean I could map out a schedule for the next three months of a story a day I want to do on this — this story has so many avenues.”

Sara Ganim can be found on Twitter at @sganim. Her personal website is

www.saraganim.com.