AMA: Marisa Kwiatkowski, Journalist
Three-hundred-sixty-eight allegations of sexual abuse. The Olympics. A generation of victimized gymnasts. Where did you start?
I was working on an investigation in March 2016 related to failures to report sexual abuse in schools. A source suggested I look into USA Gymnastics, and they pointed me toward a lawsuit in Georgia that a gymnast had filed against the organization. I flew to Georgia later that day, picked up almost 1,000 pages of court records, and as soon as I got back to Indianapolis, Tim Evans, Mark Alesia, and I went on from there.
What first clued you in that this wasn’t a one-off 4,000-word feature, but a years-long investigation?
We knew from the beginning that USA Gymnastics executives had a policy of not reporting all allegations of sexual abuse they’d received to law enforcement, and that their policy was to dismiss complaints as “hearsay” unless they were signed by a victim or a victim’s parent. There was a systemic policy issue in place, and our investigation was looking for examples of the impact that policy had on the public, gymnasts, and the safety of people involved in the sport.
What was the most challenging aspect of the investigation?
Just the amount of time invested—our lives were pretty much on hold for that time period. My situation was probably a bit more extreme than the other reporters’ because I had started MBA school at the same time, not having known this story was going to come up.
You, Mark Alesia, and Tim Evans shared a byline on each story in the series. How did the collaborative writing process work?
We just overcommunicated on everything. We all handled different aspects of each story, and then we would get together and draft it from there. That probably slowed the process, but we all had expertise and information to provide, so it was what worked best for us.
What was the toughest detail to pin down or fact to confirm?
It was difficult for us to pin down whether USA Gymnastics had changed its policy for handling sexual abuse complaints. The organization had declined our request for an in-person interview and, with one exception, it had required all questions be submitted in writing. And when they responded, sometimes they would not respond to certain questions or provided partial answers to others. So it was really important to keep coming back to them to try and get a complete understanding of what their protocol was for handling such allegations in the present.
Did you receive any threats while reporting?
Not really. Obviously USA Gymnastics was not happy at the time with the report that we’d done, although they later hired an outside expert who confirmed our findings. But our safety was never at risk.
Many of the survivors’ accounts are difficult to read and couldn’t have been easy to hear or elicit. How did you convince survivors to reveal such intimate details about such horrible experiences?
I think it was just empathy. We were really upfront about what we were working on and why we wanted to talk to them. We made it clear that it was important to us to get a significant amount of detail because we didn’t want people to think that it was a mistake, or that it was a slip of the hand, or a spotting maneuver. We wanted the public to understand that these were intentional acts that were allowed.
Was it difficult to convince survivors to go on the record?
Once we explained what we were working on, how we’d use their stories, and why we wanted to talk to them, most of them were very supportive of the work that we were doing and willing to share their stories in the hope that it might improve the system.
As you interviewed more survivors, did you ever reach a point where you could ask, “Did so-and-so do this to you?” as opposed to “What did he do to you?”
No, it was important for us to treat every interview as a single interview. We didn’t want to not ask a certain question because somebody else had already answered it. It was important to consider each victim’s experience individually.
The first story in the series came out the day before the Rio Olympics. Was that the original plan?
We didn’t have a specific publication date in mind; we were just trying to make sure we had the most accurate and complete story possible.
What factors delayed publication?
Just continuing to gather more information. We went back and forth with USA Gymnastics to make sure that we were accurate with the information that we were sharing.
“We haven’t done the story for recognition. Our concern has been in exposing failures in the system and investigating the policies and procedures that ensure the safety of children in the sport.”
When did former USA Gymnastics Olympic Team Physician Larry Nassar’s involvement come to your attention?
August 4, 2016, is when we received the first allegation about him. Rachael Denhollander was the first to reach out to us, on the same day the first part of our series published.
If you could do the investigation over again, is there anything you would change?
The series wasn’t a Pulitzer finalist and was largely ignored by the national media until a few months ago. In your opinion, did the Star get the recognition it deserved?
We haven’t done the story for recognition. Our concern has been in exposing failures in the system and investigating the policies and procedures that ensure the safety of children in the sport. That’s where our focus has been from the start.
So the Pulitzers never crossed your mind?
I’m motivated by the work.
What’s the most satisfying change that has come out of your reporting?
Larry Nassar has gone through the criminal justice system and been sentenced, which brought a measure of justice to the survivors, who in some cases had been waiting for decades. But Nassar is one example of a larger systemic problem, so we’re continuing to look at the entirety of the system, from local gyms to USA Gymnastics to Michigan State University to the United States Olympic Committee. It’s hard to be satisfied with the good work we’ve done. We have a lot more work to do.