Student journalists so used to sharing and receiving information via social media got a reality check from someone of their own generation Monday night at Stony Brook University.
Sara Ganim, the reporter who broke the Penn State pedophilia scandal and won a Pulitzer Prize this year at age 24, told students that she “did not get a single lead or a single important tip via Twitter.”
In a lecture on campus sponsored by the School of Journalism, where I am an adjunct professor, Ganim said the key for her was visiting private homes, knocking on doors at night and on weekends, to speak to people who might shed light on allegations that former Penn State football defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky had sexually abused young men.
A 2008 Penn State graduate, Ganim was a crime reporter at the Centre Daily Times in State College, home of Penn State, when she received a tip in 2009 about a probe of Sandusky. She said she kept ever-growing files and lists to piece together facts about people in and around State College who might have been associated with Sandusky, his foundation for youth, and potential victims.
When she showed up at homes, some people who didn’t turn her away welcomed her inside, served her tea — and then told her “complete fabrications” to throw her off track. After moving to a new newspaper, the Harrisburg Patriot-News, in January 2011, Ganim continued to pursue the story and broke the first news of a grand jury probe of Sandusky three months later. The scandal exploded nationally in November 2011 when Sandusky was indicted on dozens of charges of abusing boys. Ganim continued to lead coverage of the rest of the dramatic story -- including legendary coach Joe Paterno’s resignation and his death from cancer, and Sandusky’s conviction on 45 charges in June.
Her old-fashioned gumshoe approach is reminiscent of Watergate, the investigative story of another generation, and Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s persistent visits to the homes of people connected with efforts to re-elect President Richard Nixon.
In April this year, as the 40th anniversary of Watergate approached, Woodward reflected on how Watergate has changed perceptions of how investigative journalism is done. He told a meeting of the American Society of News Editors in Washington that students in a Yale University journalism class were asked how reporters might investigate Watergate today. Some students said they would simply enter "Nixon secret fund" into Google. Woodward said such responses upset him. "The truth is not on the Internet," Woodward was quoted as saying. "It is in the people."
For her part, Ganim gave the journalism students five pieces of sage advice: 1) Starting at a small paper can give you chances to cover many kinds of stories — and learn from mistakes; 2) Don’t forget that people will lie to you; 3) Move the story forward, especially in print, to tell people what they haven’t already learned on the Internet, radio and TV; 4) You’ll never get a journalism job that’s 9 to 5, so if you pursue it, you’d better love it and accept the long hours and low pay; 5) In gathering facts, social media matters — but only sometimes.
For young journalists, the lesson is to put down the smartphone once in a while and knock on a door.