In 2016, reporters from The Indianapolis Star began publishing the “Out of Balance” investigative series that looked into years of sexual abuse allegations involving the USA Gymnastics organization. The investigation helped uncover the crimes of Larry Nassar, an athletic doctor at USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University who is now serving essentially a life sentence for child sexual abuse and child pornography charges. Since the proceedings started, more than 250 former patients have said Nassar abused them. Marisa Kwiatkowski, one of The Indianapolis Star reporters who helped to expose Nassar, graduated from Grand Valley State University in 2005 and previously worked for the Grand Haven Tribune. Kwiatkowski returns to her alma mater on March 26 to discuss her involvement in the series at an event at Loosemore Auditorium. She spoke with MiBiz about the need for strong investigative journalism and other topics.
How did you wind up getting into the USA Gymnastics investigation?
I had been investigating failures to report sexual abuse in schools. There had been a number of local cases here in central Indiana in which an official was having sexual relations with an underage student and school officials were informed of it, but didn’t immediately report it to police or child protective services as required by law. I was working on a broader story about how come that is and why does this seem to keep happening, when a source suggested that I reach out to an attorney who was suing USA Gymnastics. That source said that USA Gymnastics was basically doing the same thing.
The Star isn’t the first publication people think of when it comes to groundbreaking investigative journalism on a national level. What does the series say about the paper’s commitment to in-depth reporting?
First, let me say that this kind of reporting can happen at any paper in the country. There are talented reporters all over the country who can do investigative work. I think for us, we are incredibly fortunate here at the Indianapolis Star to have fantastic bosses who believe in the importance of the work that we do and are willing to not only give us the time to do that work, but also the resources to do that work because they believe in it.
What kind of dedication does that require from the paper’s executives?
We’re incredibly fortunate here to have an entire team of bosses who from day one, they flew me to Georgia the same day I got the tip (about USA Gymnastics being neglectful of sexual abuse). They paid for almost 1,000 pages of court records. They filed a motion to intervene in the Georgia lawsuit, so they flew Mark (Alesia) and Tim (Evans) and I all over the country. They supported this project from the beginning and really we couldn’t have done what we did without their support. So, I guess the short answer to what you just asked is good leadership.
The financial struggles of local papers in recent years has been well documented. What lessons can other publications take from the Star’s dedication to this project?
Well, continue to focus on the stories that matter to the community. Also don’t be afraid to tackle the big stories, because you don’t have to be a New York Times or a Washington Post to do investigative journalism and to do journalism that can make a difference in the community that you serve.
Larry Nassar received the majority of the national media attention since the ‘Out of Balance’ series debuted. Do you envision the fallout continuing to go deeper?
Yes. Understand that Larry Nassar — through his own guilty pleas, through survivors’ statements, through the testimony of others — obviously he was a predator, but he’s also just one person. This problem, as we’ve shown through our reporting and will continue to show, is bigger than just one person. It’s bigger than Larry Nassar. It’s about the entirety of the system that’s in place and the way that that system breaks down.
As a GVSU alumna who worked for the Grand Haven Tribune, you have roots in West Michigan. How did your time here affect your career?
The foundation of my career started there. My first professional job out of college was at the Grand Haven Tribune and I was fortunate enough to also have freelance opportunities in West Michigan while I was there to work at the college paper. So, a lot of the foundation of the work that I do started at Grand Valley State and started at the Grand Haven Tribune and in West Michigan.
What about investigative journalism led you to pursue it as a career?
I am driven by giving a voice to those who don’t have one, to exposing wrongdoing and hopefully making a difference. It’s the story that has an impact not just in one specific case, but will also have an impact on the community moving forward.
What do you plan to look into next?
There’s always more stories to tell. I can’t talk about anything specifically, but also it is worth noting that our investigation into USA gymnastics and its handling of sexual abuse allegations and the way that it handles those sorts of complaints isn’t over either. In addition to the other things we have that we’re working on, we’re not done yet.