- For more than a year, journalists at various outlets devoted their reporting to coverage of Larry Nassar, USA Gymnastics and Michigan State. From the role of national media to difficult moments and what's next, five reporters detail what it was like to cover the horrific sexual abuse scandal.
The stories coming out of Lansing, Mich., over the past few weeks have been gutting. More than 150 women gave victim statements in the sentencing of former Michigan State University doctor Larry Nassar, who in November pled guilty to 10 counts of first-degree sexual conduct with minors. Credit the Indianapolis Star, who in 2016 published a lengthy investigation into USA Gymnastics and its handling of sexual abuse complaints over decades, for triggering the reporting.
This week I impaneled a group of five reporters (including two of the IndyStar reporters involved in the investigation above) who have covered the story in full, from the role of USA Gymnastics and Michigan State to the Nassar sentencing. I wanted to get insight into their reporting and what the public should know about this kind of work. I hope you will find it as illuminating as I did.
• Mark Alesia, reporter, IndyStar
• Kim Kozlowski, higher education reporter, Detroit News
• Marisa Kwiatkowski, investigative reporter, IndyStar
• Matt Mencarini, reporter, Lansing State Journal
• Kate Wells, host/reporter/producer, Michigan Radio
When did you first start reporting on USA Gymnastics or Larry Nassar—and what was the impetus behind that decision?
Alesia: After Marisa came back from Georgia with about 1,000 pages of court documents, I was asked to get involved. Tim Evans joined us soon after that.
Kozlowski: One of the metro editors at the Detroit News thought we needed to do a story about the Larry Nassar case in January 2017, when it became clear that his sexual abuse extended beyond USA Gymnastics. Another colleague, Frank Donnelly, and I wrote the first few stories and I continued to follow it after that.
Kwiatkowski: In March of 2016, I was investigating failures to report sexual abuse in schools when a source suggested I look into USA Gymnastics and its handling of sexual abuse complaints. The source pointed me toward a lawsuit in Georgia. As I gathered more information, I was told a judge was about to seal important records in the case. My bosses allowed me to fly to Georgia later that day. I picked up nearly 1,000 pages of court records. As soon as I returned to Indianapolis, Mark Alesia, Tim Evans and I began our investigation into the organization.
Mencarini: My reporting on Nassar began the day the IndyStar story was published. Indy and the Lansing State Journal are part of the USA Today Network so I knew something was coming in the days before their story, but my reporting the local side of it began that day.
Wells: Our newsroom actually started covering this from the sports angle, after the IndyStar 2016 report came out. We didn’t recognize the scale at that time—it seemed to us, in our limited perspective, like it was an offshoot of IndyStar’s incredible USA Gymnastics investigations. It was one of our sports/general assignment guys, Josh Hakala, who jumped on it first in our newsroom.
When did you realize the scope and importance of this story?
Alesia: For Nassar, it was when Jessica Howard, a former national champion in rhythmic gymnastics, left a message on my work voicemail on a Sunday evening. I called back and her story of Nassar’s abuse tracked closely to what we had heard from Rachael Denhollander and the people behind a lawsuit that was about to be filed by Jamie Dantzscher, then an anonymous plaintiff. The women didn’t know each other. I thought there had to be more victim/survivors.
After publication, we started hearing from more victim/survivors (and getting nasty emails and voicemails from Nassar’s supporters). We also checked the public Michigan State University Police log daily. More and more people were reporting sexual assaults at addresses connected to Nassar. At no point, though, could I have ever imagined more than 250 victim/survivors coming forward to police.
Kozlowski: February 2017 was a key month, when Michigan State head gymnastics coach Kathie Klages stepped down after Larissa Boyce and another gymnast filed lawsuits that they told Klages about Nassar in 1997 but she didn’t believe them. Also in February 2017, Kyle Stephens became the first woman to publicly testify against Nassar during a preliminary exam in court. She spoke of how Nassar assaulted her for years beginning when she was six years old during family visits to his house. Other women testified about Nassar’s pattern of grooming them, earning their trust and then assaulting them. But the tipping point was just a few weeks ago when more than 150 women came forward and made statements about Nassar’s abuse in a courtroom. During those seven days, the majority of woman shed their Jane Doe identities and gave their names, allowing the world to see and hear their painful stories and how many people did not believe them or take action. Had the majority of the women remained anonymous, the cameras would have stopped rolling and the newspapers wouldn’t have been able to put so many faces behind Nassar’s crimes. But one woman’s courage empowered the next and created a milestone in women’s history in the movement to end sexual violence against women.
Kwiatkowski: We knew early in our investigation that USA Gymnastics executives had followed a policy of dismissing complaints as “hearsay” unless they were signed by a victim or victim’s parent. My colleagues and I spent the next few months investigating the impact of that policy on the safety of children in gymnastics. From the beginning, we knew it was an important topic. I started to understand the scope of allegations against Larry Nassar after we published our first piece about him. We received calls and emails from more than a dozen other survivors.
Mencarini: Within days of the first Indy story, police and prosecutors were saying they had received more than a dozen new sexual assault reports against Nassar. So it was clear whatever criminal case developed would be high profile. But early on, my editor Al Wilson instilled in me that the real story, for us at the State Journal, was MSU. We covered every step of Nassar's criminal cases, but from the start our investigative reporting focus was squarely on the university. This felt, to us, like an important institutional story pretty early on, especially once we had the 2014 Title IX report.
Wells: Honestly, every time I think I do understand it, that’s usually a sign that the weight of this—of the experiences of the people involved in it—is just going to hit me like a freight train all over again. Going into the sentencing hearings, I’d been so consumed by this story, and then Kyle Stephens stood up there as the first to speak and taught us we don’t know s---. It’s humbling. And in those moments, your job is to shut up and let these women and girls speak for themselves.
What would you consider to be the most difficult part of your reporting and why?
Alesia: I can think of a few things. I’m a 54-year-old man. Much younger women were telling me about deeply personal and private matters. We had to have a certain level of detail so readers wouldn’t think these were accidents or misunderstandings. There was sexual abuse. In a few instances where we needed a lot of detail—even if it wouldn’t be published—Marisa talked with the women. Also, with one exception, USA Gymnastics would only take written questions. We received written answers that invariably ignored some questions and gave partial answers to others. It was frustrating. And we found USA Gymnastics to have a secretive culture with power concentrated in a few people. People at all levels of the sport were afraid to rock the boat.
Kozlowski: Language. Getting words like “vagina,” “anus” and “clitoris” in the paper. Publishing these words was not meant to be titillating. They involved crimes against these women. But there was more than one debate in the newsroom about how to describe the crimes accurately. For the public to understand what Nassar did to these young women, I believe we should describe what he did briefly but explicitly because not every person pays attention to every news story.
The phrase “sexual abuse under the guise of a medical treatment” is commonly used. But what will that mean years from now? Nassar had a pattern. Since “sexual abuse” can mean many things, I believe it should be clear that Nassar inserted his fingers inside women’s vaginas, and sometimes their anuses, without gloves, lubricant or consent, often while their parents were in the room. All the women testified in court what he did to them so I believe we have a responsibility to report the words they used and be part of the culture that sheds light on sexual violence so it doesn’t stay in the shadows.
Kwiatkowski: It was difficult to pin down whether USA Gymnastics had changed its policy for handling sexual abuse complaints. The organization declined our request for an in-person interview and, with one exception, required all questions to be submitted in writing. When USA Gymnastics responded, it ignored some questions and provided partial answers to others.
Mencarini: This is a tough question. This story is a heavy topic. It can grind you down mentally and emotionally over the course of 16 months, or during a seven-day sentencing. Understanding the overlapping timelines, separate investigations, individual assaults, lawsuits, university responses and connections between them all is, in my opinion, the most crucial part of reporting this story. I think the most difficult part of my reporting is understanding those connections while being aware of the specific abuses and trauma suffered and not getting burned out. It pales in comparison to what the women and girls have gone through, or are going through, but as a reporter it's been the most difficult part of covering this story. I've had ups and downs with it.
Wells: I don’t think I’m going to have a good answer on this one for a while. It’s not done yet.
When did sources begin reaching out to you on this story?
Alesia: In summer 2016, before our first story, I had been trying to contact a longtime coach and judge in the sport. Finally, I left a letter at the door of her home. That weekend, the woman happened to be staying with a former national team gymnast, Molly Shawen-Kollmann, in Cincinnati. Molly saw the letter and sent me an email. She became an invaluable source on the culture, history and power players in the sport. Now we’re getting so many tips, we can hardly keep up.
Kozlowski: Immediately after we started reporting the story, in early 2017. There was an understanding about the power of media among those who wanted Nassar behind bars. That understanding came as news is more accessible than ever. Denhollander’s report about Nassar to Michigan State was followed by her account to the IndyStar. There used to be a time when mostly Indiana residents might have seen that story. But that story, and so many others, reverberated beyond local markets and prompted other victims to come forward. Journalism gave voice to those who were voiceless for so long, and those voices are louder than they have ever been.
Kwiatkowski: It was a source who first suggested I look into USA Gymnastics. As word spread about our investigation, we received calls from others.
Mencarini: I began hearing from sources within days of the first Indy story.
Wells: Late fall 2016? Maybe very early 2017?
Journalists are not necessarily well versed in topics like sexual assault and child predators. How did you prepare for this assignment?
Alesia: I worked a lot on the Jared Fogle case, including a feature on the prosecutor and cops who specialize in child pornography cases. So, unfortunately, this was not new territory for me.
Kozlowski: Many years ago I attended a training for journalists held by the Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence.
Kwiatkowski: I’ve spent years reporting on child abuse and neglect. In my role at The Indianapolis Star, I handle investigations relating to social services and welfare issues—such as child abuse and neglect, poverty, elder abuse, human trafficking, domestic violence and access to mental health services. I used that experience as my colleagues and I investigated USA Gymnastics and the allegations against Larry Nassar.
Mencarini: I cover the criminal justice system and had reported quite a bit on sexual assault by the time Indy published the Nassar story. I spent good portions of 2015 and 2016 reporting on a local case that involved a pediatric dentist who had been convicted, years later, of sexually assaulting a young boy who was a patient. I profiled the victim in that case, who was in his 20s when he reported to police. I also reported on the Court of Appeals decision to overturn the former dentist's sexual assault convictions and the no-jail plea agreement on a child abuse charge that followed. In June 2016, I began working on an investigation into the way Michigan State University handled sexual assault and harassment complaints over a several year period. That story ran in Dec. 2016 and included details of Nassar's 2014 Title IX investigation and an interview with the victim. So by the time the Indy story was published, I had already had a lot of conversations with sexual assault advocates and experts about trauma, sexual abuse and the systems in place to respond to abuse. Those conversations have proved invaluable.
Wells: So, fortunately or unfortunately, I’d already had a few years of reporting around how higher education handles sexual assault, including a long, MSU-specific investigation.
But child sexual abuse is a completely different field, obviously, that needed very specific tools. Rachael Denhollander was the one who pointed me to specialists like Carla Van Dam (she’s basically written the manual for understanding men like Nassar: The Socially Skilled Child Molester: Differentiating the Guilty from the Falsely Accused, which should be required reading) and Anna Salter. It was also helpful to talk with organizations working to educate adults, like Darkness to Light, and those who’ve handled large child sexual abuse cases from the law enforcement perspective. All those people I talked to had seen this before—so many times, really, that they were totally unsurprised about the details when I filled them in on this case, and basically could have charted this out from the beginning. Which shows you how we keep letting this happen to kids, over and over and over again, because we are so abysmal at understanding that the most effective predators are the people we trust. From the journalism perspective, the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma at the Columbia Journalism School has some great resources for reporters doing this kind of work—basically, how to not screw things up further for the people you’re talking to. It is not just have you talked them through the potential fallout from this interview? But also, what kind of support system do they have? Are you just leaving them high and dry at the end of an upsetting, emotional interview? What kind of expectations are you giving them about what will happen or come of this story?
Is there anything you would have done differently in your reporting or writing or broadcasting and why?
Alesia: Not really. I think we made the most of our resources based on what we knew at the time.
Kozlowski: In 2015, federal officials issued a report that Michigan State did not have the procedures and policies in place to handle Title IX complaints. The report was part of a nationwide crackdown on campus sexual assault, so MSU was not alone. Even so, if we had looked more closely and reported on some of the Title IX reports upon which this report was based, maybe the story would have emerged a year earlier while Nassar was still assaulting women.
Mencarini: This is another tough question. I think I'm still too close to it all to have that perspective. The MSU side of this story is still developing rapidly. I'm immersed in the reporting every day. I'm proud of the work I've done and the details about MSU's involvement I've been able to uncover. Right now I can't think of anything I would have done differently, but ask me in two years and I might have an answer.
Wells: Oh, so many things. But top two that come to mind: 1) there were editors outside of Michigan, who were telling me this was a “local story” for a long time—pretty much right up until the sentencing. While I disagreed, I didn’t fight them that hard on it. I should have. 2) I wish I had started saying something earlier about how the media and the public are approaching this differently, because it’s girls and because it’s gymnastics. The women and girls I spoke with were saying that for months and months, and every time I said “yup, I totally agree,” but I never thought “let’s do a story about that. Let’s talk about that.”
In her sentencing of Nassar, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina said to him, "I just signed your death warrant." The remark sparked some debate. What was going through your head when she said that and how did you write/broadcast about that?
Alesia: I didn’t write it. My story that day was about Rachael Denhollander. I rode with Rachael and her husband to court from Kalamazoo, where they were staying with her parents.
Kozlowski: It was a provocative quote that became the headline over our story. But I agreed with the judge and others who thought the sentence was to serve justice for the victims. I wrote through the story with some of the victims’s quotes very high in the narrative, including one from Kyle Stephens, who said: “My monster is gone.”
Kwiatkowski: I was working on another project at the time and did not see that portion of the sentencing hearing. Nor did I write about it. Our colleagues at the Lansing State Journal did a great job handling that coverage.
Mencarini: I've covered enough sentencing hearings in Judge Aquilina's courtroom to know that a line like that was possible. I can't say I expected something so direct, but she doesn't hold back when addressing defendants at sentencing. We included the line high up in our story and as part of the headline online.
Wells: Honestly, it wasn’t that far out of line with things previously said during the sentencing hearing, and if you’re familiar with Judge Aquilina, you know she’s not afraid to say what’s on her mind. So I wasn’t clutching my pearls or anything.
Although this case generated significant national attention during the week of sentencing, Nassar was not covered extensively by most national media until then. Why do you think this was the case?
Alesia: I’ll take this answer and the one below together. The initial story, which had nothing to do with Nassar and was published on the eve of the Rio Olympics, received a lot of attention. But there wasn’t a big national hit on Nassar until three Olympic gymnasts went on 60 Minutes in February 2017. And although Rachael Denhollander had been doing media interviews consistently, the Nassar story didn’t get national attention again until more Olympic gymnasts went public with their abuse. It took the Lansing hearing and 156 women telling their stories to shake people into paying attention.
Kozlowski: Sexual assaults reported nationally generally involve unusual circumstances. In the Nassar case, national media reports emerged when Olympic gymnasts began going public in early 2017. But even before that, lawsuits were piling up against Nassar and he lost his job and medical license. Police also discovered 37,000 images of child pornography on external hard drives that he disposed of in his trash can. So I am not sure why the national media did not cover the Nassar case more extensively.
Kwiatkowski: Our investigation generated significant attention from national media when the first piece published in August 2016. That attention waned in the months afterward, until several high-profile gymnasts shared their experiences. National attention focused on USA Gymnastics, Larry Nassar and others again in January as 156 women and girls shared their stories during Nassar’s sentencing hearing.
Mencarini: I've thought about this a decent amount, but I don't think I have a great answer. In March 2017, Judge Aquilina granted a request by Nassar's attorneys to place a gag order on those connected to the criminal case, which included many of the women and girls who spoke at sentencing. A federal lawsuit was filed over that gag order. I think that played a role as many couldn't share the stories they did at sentencing until the gag order was lifted in November after Nassar pleaded guilty. This is also a complex story, with police and university investigations, lawsuits and sexual assaults disguised as medical procedures that even some victims didn't realize were abuse until decades later. I think it's a difficult story to drop in on and for a while it moved pretty fast.
Wells: If I’m being generous, it’s that the sheer scale and power of this case was really best demonstrated by seeing those survivors tell their stories, one after another. It was powerful and riveting and I understand why that moment made such an impact. But it’s also frustrating, because the women and girls were getting up in court and saying, “I was reporting this abuse 20 years ago, where were you guys then?” Rachael Denhollander and others had been putting themselves out on a limb, publicly, for more than a year and a half. The national media’s reaction doesn’t feel all that different. I was driving back from the sentencing hearing this week, listening to a podcast that covers the media, from a network I really respect. The two hosts were asking each other why it had taken so long for the national media to cover the Nassar case, and while their general take was that the lack of coverage had been an unfortunate failure, some of their reasoning didn’t hold water.
For instance: they were saying how even sports networks don’t have a full-time gymnastics reporter, so it’s not like you’ve got somebody who can really jump on this story. Ok, sure. But you’ve got a bunch of college sports reporters, right? You’re telling me if, say, the water polo team at Ohio State started having dozens and dozens of former male players come out to say they’d been sexually abused for 20 years and no adults had listened to them, that you don’t dispatch even one guy to Columbus for a couple days? These podcast hosts also said that, until this month’s criminal sentencing, there was no “present tense” to the Nassar story, no solid “news hook” to give your editor. But new allegations have been coming out for 18 months straight, with more than 130 civil suits being filed, multiple preliminary exams in the criminal case, charges at the federal level, a police investigation, an FBI investigation, suspensions, resignations, etc. Newspapers like the Lansing State Journal managed to produce more than 100 stories in 18 months. There were news pegs.
None of us in this job are perfect. There are 18 million things I would like to go back and do differently about this story. And lord knows, if I was working in New York or D.C. and had started hearing about the Nassar case, I’m not saying I would have demanded my editor put me on the next plane to East Lansing. Far from it. But I am saying, let’s be honest about what happened here: these were girls. So unless it was happening in your backyard, the media didn’t care—or worse, didn’t think its audience would care, and didn’t feel like putting in the work to persuade them otherwise.
In your opinion, did gender or that the sport was gymnastics play a role in why the story did not receive national coverage compared to other sports scandals?
Alesia: I do believe that gender and the sport played a role.
Kozlowski: I think gender played a role but some attributed it more to the sport and other factors. The Jerry Sandusky/Penn State case involved the national pastime of football and a legendary coach, besides the assaults of young boys and cover up. However, the Nassar case eclipsed the number of victims in the Sandusky scandal a long time ago. Our society seems a little more shocked when boys are assaulted than girls. Maybe this will help change that.
Kwiatkowski: My focus has been on examining failures in the system, not making comparisons to other situations.
Mencarini: I think it's possible. I'd like to think that the national media doesn't care less about young gymnasts, young girls or women (not all were athletes) being abused than it does young boys or men being abused. But I can't rule it out.
Wells: Yes. This case has shown us just differently people react when a woman or a girl accuses a man of abuse, compared with a man or a boy making the same allegations. Over and over again, we saw dozens of women and girls say the same thing during sentencing: I thought I must be mistaken. Or: it felt wrong, but this guy was a really big deal so I must be the one with the dirty mind. That says something about the way we raise our girls, the way we teach them to be so petrified of being “difficult,” that it’s easier to just say nothing.
I know with the Jerry Sandusky case we saw coaches and administrators look the other way when male children were being abused—but not because they didn’t believe the abuse could be happening. You can argue the cover up went so high up the chain of command, because those involved knew how big the fallout would be. With the Nassar case, multiple adults just didn’t believe girls.
Even now, when the national media is finally interested, the way we cover it sometimes feels…gendered. There are those who really want us to get to the point where these women are at a place of “healing,” where they’re “so empowering.” Are they powerful? Absolutely. Have they managed to survive a living hell? Yes. But if these were boys, would we be rushing them to emotionally wrap it up, so to speak? Their strength is formidable and awe-inspiring, but I’m wary of the desire to package these survivors’ experiences into something neat and pretty, just so we can feel more comfortable with it.
To that same end, I’ve encountered a lot of pushback and limits on what we can say about the abuse itself. I understand that, especially with broadcast, your kids could be in the car and you may have missed the disturbing-content warning at the beginning of the story. But what happened to these women, matters. Their decision not to shield us from that brutality and horror, matters.
Still, some of those I work with (and not everyone, to be clear) repeatedly want to edit those parts out and sub in the vaguest terms possible: words like “digital penetration,” which frankly couldn’t be more clinical, get replaced with the vague and confusing “inappropriate touching.” If you were the one who’d experienced this abuse, how would you feel about someone deciding your story, the one you chose to tell in court for the entire world, was too indecent to accurately describe? Of course it’s indecent. It’s abuse. And if we don’t trust our audience enough to tell them the facts about what’s actually happened, then we are doing them a disservice as well as these survivors.
What should the public know about the resources it takes to cover these types of stories?
Alesia: IndyStar devoted three reporters to the story, virtually full-time, for a year. That is a very big deal for an operation of our size. We travelled all over the country. And, we hired a lawyer in Atlanta to intervene in a court case in Georgia to unseal 54 files that USA Gymnastics kept on abusive coaches. USA Gymnastics fought to keep the files secret, saying in court filings that we wanted to do a “National Enquirer-like article … to satisfy the economic interests of Indy Star’s advertisers, owners, and investors.” The process dragged on for about nine months. I don’t know how much our company paid, but the lawyer could not have been cheap. It was a big commitment by Gannett, the USA Today Network and IndyStar. We used the USA Today Network for help on various aspects of the reporting, especially Matt Mencarini in Lansing, Mich.
Kozlowski: These stories demand enormous time and energy, and involve numerous members of our staff. But telling the Nassar scandal is the reason why my colleagues and I are in journalism: To give voice to the voiceless and hold those with power accountable. In a public statement in Eaton County court on Friday, Larissa Boyce turned to the media and told us to not forget. She asked us continue to report so that other victims will come forward and the dialogue around sexual assault will result in change in the future. To Boyce, and every other woman who has been sexually assaulted: We will continue to report on this and other sexual assault stories, and demand answers from those who don’t do the right thing.
Kwiatkowski: Our bosses at IndyStar and Gannett invested significant time and resources toward this investigation. They supported our project from its first day. They let Mark, Tim, Steve Berta, Robert Scheer and me work on this investigation nearly full-time for a year. We flew to a dozen states. We sought public records in at least 23 states. We received help from colleagues throughout the USA TODAY Network. And the company fought a legal battle for access to court records in Georgia. If you believe in the value of journalism, please subscribe to your local newspaper.
Mencarini: The State Journal has 13 news reporters. For much of the 16 months since the first Indy story, this is the only thing I did. There were stretches, especially at the end of 2016, when I did other reporting, but for the most part this story has occupied nearly all of my time. In a newsroom of our size, that's a significant investment. Time, in my opinion, is the most valuable resource for a story like this. I needed time to review each lawsuit, go to each hearing, dig through court and public records and speak with as many people connected to the case as possible. Not every newsroom could or would devote resources that significant to a single story for such a long time. I can't imagine covering this story without the time and resources my editors gave me. Local journalism and local investigative reporting are important, and the Nassar story—with the USAG and MSU sides—shows exactly why.
Feel free to add anything you wish.
Kwiatkowski: Thank you to the people who trusted us to share their stories.
Wells: Sorry, I’m going on my soap box here, but I worry that, as Nassar becomes a name we put in the same category with Sandusky or Boston priests, the general public concludes these predators look like boogeymen, you know? When the reason they were able to victimize so many, is because these were seemingly kind, trustworthy, respectable people who looked like they were doing a lot of good. The most effective predator is the one who makes you think, “there’s got to be a misunderstanding here, let’s work this out” when you see a red flag. Most adults don’t get into coaching or medicine or just general education because they think, “I hope I’m part of enabling large-scale sexual predation one day.” Lots of good adults are capable of giving other nice-seeming adults the benefit of the doubt. And that’s how this continues.
If interested in the work of the panelists above, click below: