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Reporter's Notebook: What I learned covering the Larry Nassar case

Rachael Denhollander and her husband
Emma Winowiecki
Michigan Radio
Rachael Denhollander embraces her husband after giving her victim statement.

When Rachael Denhollander told her story to the Indianapolis Star in September 2016, none of us knew this would eventually become one of the largest cases of child sexual abuse in recent memory. Denhollander’s accusations against Michigan State University and former Olympic gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar eventually encompassed more than 250 reported victims, led to crises at both MSU and gymnastics national governing body, and gained international attention.

When I started covering this story some 18 months ago, I thought I was equipped. By that point, I’d spent a couple years talking with survivors and counselors while covering sexual assault and higher education, including a long investigation into how Michigan State University has mishandled these cases.

But in a surprise to nobody who’s ever covered child sexual abuse before, I was decidedly not ready. And while my overall thoughts are still mostly just a tired puddle of mush, here’s a few things I wish I’d known 18 months ago.

1. Your editor is your compass, and she will save you.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with both local and national editors around the country, and I’ve learned from all of them. But the senior editor here at Michigan Radio is the kind of editor who makes you want to come into work each day.

Our ongoing conversations, and her perspective and instinct for what will take a feature from “just ok” to “makes people want to listen,” meant I never once felt like I had to navigate this incredibly complex investigation alone. She kept our focus on two things: how was this abuse able to happen unabated for 20 years? How do we add to the audience’s understanding?

That meant every story we did had a bigger purpose behind it. And the way we approached difficult subject matter was honest, direct, and in service of those larger goals. Her guidance informed every step of my reporting, and kept me going when things got rough or it felt like every other outlet had more resources to cover this than we did.

2. Some of these women and girls will have your whole heart, and you won’t be sure if that‘s ok.

If I were covering a court case and another reporter were up hugging some of the victims, I’d be…less than impressed. I’d raise an eyebrow archly and make eye contact with another reporter so we could exchange looks.

Hugging is not professional. Nor is it appropriate, frankly. And yet, by the time we got to the criminal sentencings, I was embracing women, girls, their moms, husbands, dads...and it wasn’t something I decided to do.

But this was a small handful of people I’d spent months getting to know, talking with them about the most difficult, painful parts of their lives, sitting in their kitchens or talking about vegetable gardens with their fathers. At some point you’re just a human and they’re just humans and I cared about them deeply. A couple of them will text me when they’re falling apart or they’re nervous or they’re wanting to know if I’m doing ok, and I tell them they’re doing a great job, it’s ok, this is all really hard and humans aren’t built to do what they’re doing.

At some point you're just a human and they're just humans and I cared about them deeply.

And I’m torn about that. Most of me is just grateful to have had the opportunity to know these women. They are every bit as incredible as you’d imagine, and if I’m lucky, I’d like to continue knowing them for a long time.

On the other hand, I wonder if this is even ok. Aren’t I supposed to maintain some kind of…emotional distance? I try to tell myself that forging these relationships and level of trust has allowed us to bring listeners more insight and honesty in our reporting. But the truth is, I don’t know if I did this the “right” way.

3. You’re going to fall apart a bit, and your team will catch you.

Beyond interviewing survivors, covering this case meant delving into the literature, psychology, and forensic work around child sexual abuse. And that means learning things you can’t forget. It’s nothing compared to the professionals who work in this field every day. And obviously, the only real victims here are the actual victims (seriously, don’t whip out your tiny violins for the reporters).

But articles like this one were a lifesaver: veteran reporters (including some former combat reporters) talk about grappling with the personal impact of covering child sexual abuse – and tell you how to do it well. It just lets you know you’re not crazy, and periods of depression and burnout are normal.

The real help comes from having a team like ours, where so many different editors and reporters could jump in when things really hit a boiling point during the several weeks of criminal sentencings: more than 200 women and girls making incredible, devastating impact statements, many more requests for coverage and feature stories and interviews than we could possibly accommodate, and probably the peak of my own exhaustion.

One of our amazing reporters, Lindsey Smith, graciously offered to step in for me for two of those days in court. Saying yes was a tremendous relief, and also a source of guilt: it felt like I was letting her take on a giant load of stress and trauma, just so I could sleep in my own bed and eat some homemade meals for a while.

On top of that, we had a team who knew the story really well. During the criminal sentencing, those editors, producers, program director, and news director could handle the madness and chart out a map for our coverage, from daily talk shows to social media, photography, web stories and digital content. Most importantly, they were willing to put real resources into this coverage.

We are a small team and we like to say we punch above our weight class. But it means that it takes great generosity and flexibility to put major staff power and significant time into covering one specific story very well. I had the luxury of focusing mostly on covering this case, for the good part of the past 18 months, and especially as the case ramped up.

But when this case and this story grew to the point that one single reporter couldn’t possibly cover it on their own, this team stepped up in the best of ways.

This article was originally written for the Radio Television Digital News Association

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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