Marisa Kwiatkowski, an investigative journalist with the Indianapolis Star, was one of thirteen journalists recognized by the Newseum’s Free Expression Awards for her work covering sexual harassment. TKNN caught up with her before the event and what follows is our conversation (very lightly edited for clarity).
TKNN: You and your colleagues reported on USA gymnastics back in 2016. Do you think this would have been easier to cover like if it had come up post-Weinstein or late last year? Was it harder just given the, like the atmosphere to report it then or?
KWIATKOWSKI:I don’t think so because the survivors that we interviewed were willing to talk at that time and — as you know– one voice leads to another voice leads to another voice. And so the one thing that we’ve seen throughout this project is that when one person has the ability to come forward and share their story with the public, at least with others being able and willing to share their stories. So I don’t think that the timing in any way affected the project. I think that the survivors using their voices is really what drove the project forward.
You got this via tip, right?
Why do you think they came to you for the tip? Or have you thought about like why they chose your organization?
Yes, so I had been working on an investigation into failures to report sexual abuse in schools. And I was doing a broader piece on why does that seem to be so common-wise and continue to happen because we’d had a number of local examples and it was in that reporting process that a source reached out and said you should see what USA gymnastics is doing and how it’s handling sexual abuse allegations. So there was sort of a natural reason that they contacted me. The other thing of note is USA Gymnastics is based in Indianapolis, so there’s a local connection.
So you do work for a local newspaper, do you think being at a local news organization helped you or kind of impacted your ability to report this or not really like versus a national organization?
No, I mean we have three reporters on this full time as well as the visual journalist and editor and we had the full support of Gannett and the USA Today network. We had help from other properties. The Lansing State Journal in Michigan’s done an amazing job working with us and helping us as well as the Detroit Free Press. So you know, we’re lucky to be part of a broader network that was supporting us the whole time.
So you said how Gannett played a role this. Can you just kinda, like did the national organization do anything [to help report the story], like I think you mentioned legal advice or legal input they were able to provide?
So Gannett and the USA Today network on behalf of the Indianapolis Star filed a motion to intervene in a Georgia lawsuit involving USA gymnastics and a coach who had been accused of sexual misconduct and there were warning signs about his conduct for years so we filed a motion to intervene to try and get access to depositions in the case as well as coaches, sexual misconduct complaint files that have been compiled over a 10 year time period. So we had legal and financial support to do that process. We also have an amazing team in house legal counsel that– you know– we just bounced things off of to make sure that we’re being, you know, completely accurate and fair and all of those things. And they helped us throughout this process too.
So is there more to the story that you’re reporting on or do you think there is more to the story?
There’s a lot more that we haven’t reported yet that we’re still working on so this isn’t over for us.
So you were one of three to report on the story–
Plus the a photo journalist you said. What role did each of you play, doing it as a team?
We were a team and so for us it was really divide and conquer. So, you know, Mark and I backgrounded more than a hundred coaches while Tim was pulling together national information on mandatory reporting laws throughout the country. All three of us divvied up names of coaches that we had been looking into to delve further and request records relating to those individuals and then we all branched off and were doing various interview. So throughout the entire process it’s been very much a team effort among all of us.
So from getting the tip until like how long did the work take until you were able to publish some of the stories?
So got the tip in March of 2016. It was four and a half months before we published the first piece in the series. And then, you know, we’ve had lots of pieces come out after that.