It’s All Journalism: Lead reporter in Sandusky case now investigating barriers in school data reporting

Why are some educators better than others at gathering and supplying data about their institutions or students to the press? Whose privacy is protected by barriers to school data reporting: the students’ or the schools’?

Sara Ganim

Sara Ganim, a former CNN investigative reporter, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is trying answer these questions through a Hearst Journalism fellowship at the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications. She’s working with students to tackle these “data deserts” in different levels of education, from public school privacy laws to NCAA concussion statistics.

“The laws that protect, are meant to protect student privacy — a lot of times they’re used to protect institutions, and the information that they don’t want to get out,” she said. “And even when they have nothing to do with any kind of identifying information, they are kept secret under the false premise that you know, needs to be kept secret because of for privacy reasons.”

Any problems encountered while gathering data will likely end up being stories themselves, she said. The fellowship is about a year and Ganim expects to have the team’s stories ready by the end of the spring semester.

“I think we’re going to see that it’s going to take some change in some laws in order for this kind of information to be not just compiled but made readily available and consistently reported,” she said. “I think that there are some places where they’re trying to do the right thing. But it’s so inconsistent from even school to school, forget state to state, that getting a big-picture look at an issue is nearly impossible.”

If there’s no data to report, how do you track a school’s progress on issue?

Ganim has some experience with in-depth investigative reporting. In 2011 she broke the story of former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky’s history of child sexual abuse through his charitable organization, as well as the university’s lack of action in response to the original allegations.

She was the third-youngest journalist to receive a Pulitzer Prize for her reporting for The Patriot-News newspaper in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and then moved to CNN where she produced an investigative report on college fraternity hazing.

Similar to her work in Harrisburg, the nature of Ganim’s project means she has a luxury which many investigative journalists lack: Time. The Patriot-News gave her the flexibility to concentrate on the rumors and allegations of Sandusky’s case, more so than she would have had with a regular reporting beat, and as a result she said it only took about three months before the first story was published.

For others that may mean allocating just 15 minutes or so each work day to their investigation, or a half-day on weekends. But all of that adds up to less time to breathe, or spend with loved ones, and it takes a toll, she said.

Now with the fellowship, what she also has is money. This can be a barrier not only to news organizations but especially to the average citizen — a parent — trying to glean information from a school or school district.

“Big stories of, for example, what I’m doing at the Brechner Center absolutely cost money. We are putting out almost 500 Freedom of Information Act requests, and some of them are going to require fees,” she said. “And if I don’t have, you know, the resources to pay for the data, then I also don’t have a story.”

For those without financial backing, or whose FOIA requests get denied, Ganim said interviewing and nurturing that cordial relationship with public information officers has been a common fallback. The feeling that a FOIA denial is “because of who they are” can be felt both by journalists and parents when it comes to requesting school data, she said. With the fellowship, she hopes to discern if something more systemic is afoot.

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