Investigative work drives documentary films in Oscar spotlight

cover of Athlete A documentary (Netflix)

By Savanna Strott

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The documentary “Athlete A” has brought new attention to The Indianapolis Star’s investigations into systemic sexual abuse at USA Gymnastics and by sports doctor Larry Nassar. Although “Athlete A” didn’t make the cut in this year’s Oscar race for best documentary, the well-regarded film is an example of how investigative journalism is making its way to the big screen in a big way.

There were hundreds of documentary submissions for consideration this year, ranging from the pandemic from Wuhan, China, to a filmmaker’s unlikely friendship with an octopus in South Africa. Several of the documentaries submitted highlighted the critical work of investigative journalism.

Among the journalism-related films submitted were the Frontline documentary “A Thousand Cuts,” which examined how Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte spread misinformation through social media, and “Collective,” which followed Romanian investigative journalists as they uncovered deeply rooted corruption in the country’s health care system.

Before the release of the now-winnowed Academy Awards’ shortlist for Best Documentary Feature, Netflix’s “Athlete A” was among the 238 films seeking to be recognized in 2021 by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The film, named after Maggie Nichols’ pseudonym in court documents describing her complaint against Nassar, details the Indianapolis Star’s 2016 investigation into Nassar’s decades of sexually abusing young gymnasts and USA Gymnastics’ efforts to cover up allegations of abuse. 

While “Athlete A” didn’t make the final Oscar cut, it does “highlight very important work,” said Thomas Curley, one of the lawyers who worked with the IndyStar staff during their investigation. “When I talk about the Larry Nassar story to folks, people remember it generally … but very few people know it was broken by The Indianapolis Star.”

The Investigative Reporting Workshop spoke with Curley and former IndyStar reporter Marisa Kwiatkowski, who now works for USA Today, about the investigation that led to “Athlete A,” which won a Critics’ Choice award last year.

Exposing systemic abuse

By the time Kwiatkowski and the other IndyStar team members — reporters Tim Evans and Mark Alesia — started looking into USA Gymnastics in March 2016, other journalists had already reported on sex abuse in  the Olympic-designated body that governs the sport in the U.S. But Kwiatkowski and the team, like The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team investigating sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, wanted to look past those individual instances to see if the abuse was systemic. 

Kwiatkowski, who joined the IndyStar in 2013, was investigating child and sexual abuse. In the spring of 2016, she was investigating inappropriate relationships, between school officials and students, that weren’t being reported to law enforcement as required. 

That’s when she got a tip to look into USA Gymnastics. 

And that led her to another source who hinted that there were revealing court records in Georgia that might soon be sealed. Kwiatkowski left for a “whirlwind” trip to Georgia that same day.

“At the end of the day, that was the only way to get access to those records,” she said. “Based on the conversations that I’d had [with the source] and the conversations that I had with my editors about those conversations, we decided that it was worth it to go and to see what we would get.”

Those records proved essential to the investigation.

The documents — which included depositions from USA Gymnastics officials — let Kwiatkowski and the team know USA Gymnastics’ process for handling allegations of sexual abuse, which was out of line with best practices and some state laws for reporting child abuse.

The Georgia documents and other court records across multiple states not only revealed key details, but also gave the IndyStar the legal footing needed to publish such monumental information. 

“It’s not so much about ‘don’t report this’ or ‘don’t report this paragraph of a longer piece.’ It’s more about how we say it and how we attribute it,” lawyer Curley said, describing the process involved in producing investigative journalism.

Compared with daily reporting, investigations are more intrusive into the lives and operations of its subjects, which are often powerful organizations, companies or people with money and influence. Because of that, Curley said it’s best for investigative teams to attribute information to court documents and records when possible as a way to offer some protection from lawsuits linked to their stories. 

But despite journalists’ best efforts, Curley said a libel case could always be on the horizon with investigative reporting, because sometimes people sue simply to “punish public speech they disagree with.”

“So you can’t approach it from, ‘How do I prevent a libel suit, which has no merit?’ because you’ll end up publishing a blank sheet of paper,” he said.

No lawsuits were filed against The Indianapolis Star or its reporters based on the investigation into Nassar and USA Gymnastics.

He advises reporters to “make sure you put yourself in the best position to defend those kinds of suits.” That usually means having journalists work closely with their legal teams, playing devil’s advocate to try to find any holes in the story and trying to anticipate what the reaction will be from those included in the story, Curley said.

‘Quintessentially’ local journalism

The documents the IndyStar was able to secure only went so far.

“We were sure of what they were doing because it was their own words and other documents that we had access to,” Kwiatkowski said. “The one big piece of it that was important that we get from them was whether since those depositions had been taken, their process for handling these allegations had changed.”

Confirming USA Gymnastics’ current process was a challenge, she said, but months of back-and-forth communication and partially answered questions with the organization and its attorney eventually led to the journalists discovering that the policy had not changed.

The August 2016  publication of their initial story on systemic cover-ups of abuse in USA Gymnastics brought a wave of allegations from survivors of sexual abuse. These additional stories were the launch pad for the IndyStar’s first story on the allegations against Nassar.

Kwiatkowski said it was difficult to manage all that information and ensure that she and her colleagues were responding to each source in a timely manner. 

“My colleagues and I all worked mornings, days, nights, weekends pretty much nonstop for a long time to get this out there, and so that’s incredibly emotionally draining, too, from a personal perspective, working that much,” Kwiatkowski said. “But you know when you’re in it, so much [is] about what is the next task that I have to complete. You’re not thinking about the bigger picture … you’re just thinking, ‘What do I have to do next?’ ”

The months of hard work created waves that reverberated throughout the nation, including combined prison sentences of more than 300 years for Nassar and a 2018 federal law that requires all governing bodies for amateur athletes to do mandatory reporting of all child-abuse allegations.

The stories led to at least 150 people coming forward with allegations of sexual abuse against Nassar. Kwiatkowski, giving credit to the survivors, said the women who first shared their stories helped others feel comfortable talking about what they had been through  — sometimes for the first time. 

“The power of one voice and having people feel comfortable sharing their own stories is something that I’m proud of,” she said. “For people who wanted to do that and were ready to do that, we gave them an opportunity to do so.”

Curley, too, pointed out the importance of highlighting the voices of survivors in the USA Gymnastics and Nassar investigation, which he said is “quintessentially the kind of work that journalists should be doing at the local level.” 

“This was about local journalists dealing with young women and girls that most of us had never heard of, who were not Olympians,” Curley said. The reporters “were out there doing these stories precisely because these people didn’t have a voice and would have no realistic ability to piece together lawsuits and police complaints in disparate states across the country.”

Four and a half years after the initial investigation into abuse in USA Gymnastics, reporting on the organization is still ongoing, and “Athlete A” is giving renewed attention to the work of the IndyStar.

Both Kwiatkowski and Curley said that having investigative journalism showcased in documentaries such as “Athlete A” is important in highlighting the depth of work that goes into stories.

“Public confidence in journalism is not what we would like it to be,” Kwiatkowski said. “Educating the public on exactly how much goes into these investigations and the care that we take in making sure that we’re accurate, and that we’re doing things the right way, will only help the public understand what we do, and hopefully inspire more people to pursue this kind of work.”