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PAINTER: Award-winning journalist inspires GVSU students

• Apr 9, 2018 at 4:00 PM

The audience listened intently to the speaker. Many were students. Some typed away on their laptops. Others wrote with pens and notebooks.

A large crowd was on hand March 26 at the Loosemore Auditorium in Grand Rapids to listen to journalist Marisa Kwiatkowski discuss the Indianapolis Star’s investigative series on sexual abuse cover-ups occurring in the U.S. Gymnastics organization that eventually led to the conviction of Larry Nassar.

Just days after her Grand Rapids appearance, the Indianapolis Star’s investigative team of Kwiatkowski, Mark Alesia and Tim Evans were named winners of the prestigious O’Brien Fellowship Award for Impact in Public Service Journalism. That is just one of a number of awards won by the Star’s investigative team for their groundbreaking series on sexual abuse of U.S. Gymnastics athletes.

Kwiatkowski, a 2005 Grand Valley State University graduate, was invited to talk about the team’s investigation by GVSU’s Department of Communications as part of a new series of programs honoring the memory of Robert Mayberry, professor emeritus of communications and philosophy who died last December. I was among those who were invited to hear Kwiatkowski speak.

The question-and-answer format was moderated by Jeff Kelly Loewenstein, GVSU professor of multimedia journalism.

I recently wrote a column about Kwiatkowski’s accomplishments, so I won’t go into great detail about her talk.

Here is a summary: Kwiatkowski told the audience that she first learned about allegations of sexual abuse of female athletes enrolled in the U.S. Gymnastics program while investigating reports of sexual abuse at Indiana schools that were not being reported. A source told her a lawsuit had been filed against U.S. Gymnastics in Georgia.

Because U.S. Gymnastics is headquartered in Indianapolis, the allegation was of special interest to the newspaper. The Indy Star sent Kwiatkowski to Georgia to look at the documents. She returned to Indianapolis with more than 1,000 documents.

She then explained how the three reporters compiled information for their series titled “Out of Balance.” The first story ran August 2016, one day before the Summer Olympics got underway in Brazil.

Kwiatkowski also offered some informative advice for future journalists. She explained how she tried to make her sources feel comfortable by not pressuring them to tell their stories. “I wanted them to trust me,” she said. Her methods worked.

Future journalists will also want to take to heart her advice for working on investigative stories. Check and double-check your facts, she said. Accuracy in any story is important, but it is especially imperative when journalists are writing about sensitive matters.

I once worked for an editor who placed placards on our desks that read: Accuracy! Accuracy! Accuracy! He wanted to remind us how important it was to be accurate. I never forgot that word when I was writing a story.

Kwiatkowski and her colleagues made sure that they were on the same page for every word they wrote. The impact of their series has been phenomenal. Not only did it lead to the conviction of Nassar, the series also paved the way for many more victims to tell their stories.

In my opinion, the Indy Star’s series ranks up there with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s series of stories on the Watergate scandal that eventually led to the resignation of then-President Richard Nixon.

I was in college as the Watergate scandal unfolded. Woodward and Bernstein sparked an upswing in students wanting to become journalists. Whether the Indy Star’s work results in another upswing remains to be seen. But Kwiatkowski’s work says volumes about GVSU’s communications program. While Kwiatkowski has earned celebrity status, there are many very good journalists graduating from GVSU.

Her success should be an inspiration to future journalists. Kwiatkowski began her career working for me at the Grand Haven Tribune. I’d like to take credit for her success, but it was her drive and dedication that enabled her to become a star journalist. She was determined to become an investigative reporter and worked her way up the ladder to become an award-winning journalist. The doors for journalists are open if they are willing to show the same dedication and determination.

We hear about how newspapers are suffering because of lost advertising and circulation losses. Yes, large circulation newspapers have had to reduce their news staffs. But there still are going to be other opportunities — whether it be writing for an online news organization or a magazine — for young journalists.

Reporters like Kwiatkowski, Alesia and Evans have shown that newspapers can make a difference in our lives. The GVSU journalism students appeared to be listening.

— By Len Painter, Tribune community columnist

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