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Oct. 22, 2012, 10 a.m.

Monday Q&A: Pulitzer-winner Sara Ganim on working the crime beat in the digital age

“I use Twitter mostly to get the word out, especially when it’s a really intense situation where news is breaking by the minute or second, and a lot of people are working on a story.”

“People kind of look at me funny a lot when I say I love crime reporting, ’cause they think about how horrible it is,” Sara Ganim tells me. Funny looks may not be that bad when you’ve got a Pulitzer Prize to back it up. Ganim is the reporter for The Patriot-News who broke the story of Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State assistant football coach at the center of child sex abuse case that became national headlines. That ongoing story won Ganim and The Patriot-News a Pulitzer for local reporting in 2012. Ganim has spent her brief career thus far as a crime reporter, spending her days talking to victims, advocates, cops, and lawyers. It’s a timeless, and essential, beat for most newspapers, but one that’s also transforming along with the rest of the journalism world.

Ganim admits to an old-school approach to the beat: going door-to-door talking to people, digging for documents. But Ganim sees her beat changing, from how journalists deliver stories in new mediums like Twitter, to the quickening pace of crime reporting thanks to 24-hour news cycle. That last part will become crucial when The Patriot-News, like many of its siblings in the Advance Publications family, is reducing to three days in print. Here’s a lightly edited transcript of a conversation I had recently with Ganim about how new platforms and new tools are changing the crime beat.

Justin Ellis: You’ve talked a lot about crime reporting and why it’s important to you. Was there something you could look back to when you started that was the thing that made you want to pursue crime reporting long term?
Sara Ganim: I think there was probably not one big moment. But in the beginning, I was pretty bad at it, to be honest with you. I could write the stories inverted-pyramid style, and I liked the topics. But I didn’t do a very good job. I got into a habit — which I think is pretty easy on this beat because everything is open, documents are right there — of kinda rewriting court papers, or rewriting police reports. It wasn’t too long before I figured it out. I started reading other good crime reporting done by some of the more famous crime reporters across the nation, and I realized the really good stories were the ones that went beyond the obvious, beyond the documents. Finding people, talking to people, telling human stories, enterprise, and identifying trends.

Once I got that into my head, that’s really when I fell in love with it, because I could see the good that it was doing and the impact it was having. To be honest, people kind of look at me funny a lot when I say I love crime reporting, ’cause they think about how horrible it is, and knocking on people’s doors when they’re victims or perpetrators. Yeah, you are talking to people on the worst day of their life, but often what you do leads to something good — if not for them directly, then for a greater good.

Ellis: As much change as there has been in newspapers, crime reporting seems to remain a corner stone.
Ganim: People, as much as they love to say they hate it, love to read it. I’m not a psychologist — I’m not going to guess why. But they’re always the top read stories, especially when it’s quirky, weird crime news. It is driving some website coverage, I think, but it’s such a strong community issue. People want to know what’s going on in their communities when it’s crime.
Ellis: In what way do you think the transition to digital journalism, the new tools we can use to distribute the news and find information, has changed crime reporting?

I use Twitter mostly to get the word out, especially when it’s a really intense situation where news is breaking by the minute or second, and a lot of people are working on a story.

Ganim: Well, certainly we don’t have deadlines anymore — your deadline is always right now. It used to be that if a murder was committed in the morning, you had all day to track down people and find out what happened and dig up court documents. There’s more pressure to get the story out immediately.

And I think with a 24-hour news cycle, sometimes those stories get lost. If a murder happens in the morning and at noon something else happens, the brief you put on the web in the morning may be all the attention that crime gets, because things are changing so fast. I can only speak for us here at The Patriot-News — we take a lot of pride in moving the story forward. And if the story is worth it, and often crime stories are, we’re going beyond what you might see on the five o’clock news. Not just regurgitating the last 24 hours you’ve read online, and not just regurgitating what you’ve read online and what you’ve seen on Twitter.

Ellis: Do you have any rules for yourself in the way you use social media? I notice you’ve done some tweeting during the Sandusky case, but it seems like you do it in a measured way. What’s your approach?
Ganim: I use Twitter mostly to get the word out, especially when it’s a really intense situation where news is breaking by the minute or second, and a lot of people are working on a story. I use Twitter to get information out fast. It’s faster to get it out on Twitter than our website first. That’s how I use it. But the flip side is to not go too quickly and not before you have it verified like you would for the website.

What I try to remember is to treat it not like a website, but like a newspaper. I remember when I was at the Centre Daily Times — I was 19 or 20 years old, my first full-time job. I would make a mistake and would get an email in the morning: “I need you to write a correction.” And you have that feeling in your stomach that you want to go around to every news box and burn every Centre Daily Times, because you feel so terrible. I try to remind myself of that a lot. Would I write this in the paper? Am I confident enough in this information that I would let it go to the presses right now? Because that’s essentially what you are doing.”

Ellis: At the same time, with Twitter you get a lot of instant feedback when you’re covering the issues you cover. Specifically with the Sandusky case, there’s a lot of emotion. How do you deal with responding to people?
Ganim: I don’t do a whole lot of responding, to be honest with you, because I get so much. I could do that all day. I try to read some of it. There was one situation when I was at a press conference — people started tweeting me questions they wanted answered. I thought that was very interesting and I took it into consideration. But then there are times when the feedback is very extreme. I’ve kinda realized over time that Twitter tends to be two extremes. I do use it as some kind of gauge of what my audience is thinking when I’m really in the weeds on a story. There’s a balance there. I don’t live or die by it.
Ellis: You’ve followed the Sandusky story from the beginning. Nowadays in most newsrooms, reporters have to do a lot of juggling and have a lot of responsibilities. How were you able to work on this story so persistently?

I think sourcing is hands down the hardest part of the job, because you’re walking such a fine line.

Ganim: There were a lot of days where I was juggling a lot of other stuff. If you look in the archives at The Patriot-News, I was definitely writing a lot of stuff on my beat while I was investigating this. Same at the Centre Daily Times. This was a nights-and-weekends kind of story for me at the CDT, because we only had six reporters — I was one of six.

My beat was crime, courts, and public safety, so there was a lot going on. There was never any guarantee I was going to come back with a story at the end of all of this. It wasn’t months at a time doing nothing else — it was a day here, a day there, or a couple hours there. It was definitely a lot of juggling, but they set aside the time when it was necessary. Since Sandusky has been charged, I have not written about a single other topic. It’s been that intense. I do give them a lot of credit for realizing that it was an important story.

Ellis: How have you handled the relationship building that’s so important to reporting cops and courts?
Ganim: In crime reporting generally, and in reporting generally, I think sourcing is hands down the hardest part of the job, because you’re walking such a fine line. You might think you have a really good source and your source thinks they have a really good friend. It almost like a take-take-take relationship. It’s very difficult to balance and make sure that you’re constantly not crossing the line, but getting as close to the line as you can. It’s really hard — I can’t say that enough. It’s definitely the hardest part. I’ve made mistakes — I still do.

That first experience means a lot. If you accurately quote someone the first time, and give their side of the story adequately, and don’t burn them to get that good bit. There is a crash-and-burn type of journalism that a lot of people practice. You come in, you do whatever you have to do to get the best story you can get, and then that person is never going to talk to you again. That can work for some people, I guess. But I definitely don’t agree with it. I found that first story means a lot.

POSTED     Oct. 22, 2012, 10 a.m.
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