Interview: Journalist Katie Strang on Nassar coverage
Larry Nassar, the sports doctor who was convicted for molesting 190 girls and women earlier this month has been making headlines nationally. Katie Strang is the managing editor of The Athletic, a sports news publication in Michigan. Her coverage of the Nassar’s trial stood out in that it centered the stories of the women who spoke out and stood up to the doctor who abused so many. WGVU’s Mariano Avila talked to Katie Strang about her coverage. A warning, accounts of abuse described here may be disturbing.
MA: I’m really interested in how you started to cover this story and just from a journalistic stand point, how you dove deeper into…
MA: Yeah, difficult!
KS: Difficult, and multi-layered.
MA: From many angles.
KS: Yes. So, the first time I started covering this was in December when he was sentenced on child-pornography charges. And I went to that. Several of the survivors were there and spoke afterwards. You know, I'd followed along, but this is something that I thought was a huge story in our own backyard that wasn't getting the attention and the coveratge that it probably deserved and was so compelling on a number of levels.
MA: So you felt, it was your idea to go, you weren't assigned this.
KS: No, so I'm the managing editor at The Athletic and so the way it works is that we sort of have our own beats. I'm essentially the Tigers' beat writer, but I do a lot of different stuff. Occassionally I also do some hockey. And so, I went to the first day of these victim-impact statements and the original intent was not for me to continue covering it. And after that first day I called my editor-in-chief and I said 'listen, I think we need to see this through, this is a huge story, we have to be there.' And, to his credit, he said 'absolutely, cancel all plans, you are on this for as long as you want to be on this,' and has been incredibly supportive and encouraging in covering this story.
MA: And where did you decide to start. I mean, how do you grab this bull by the horns.
KS: It's hard because it's so multi-layered and there are so many tangential stories and off-shoots of these stories. But to me, the most compelling thing and what I think you saw captivate the national attention was the stories of these women. And I think there's a reason for that.
When you read that there were 190 women sexually abused, that's a number. And while it's awful, you can digest that as a number. It is something entirely different to see a young girl with bangs and braces--someone who fiddles with her necklace and has tears rolling down her cheeks and is shaking--reading her letter. That's not victim XYZ to you. That person has a name and a story and I think what we saw this past week is that really resonated with people throughout the country and for good reason. I think these women did a wonderful, powerful thing in making their stories heard and I think people are now listening.
MA: My guest is Katie Strang, she's the managing editor at The Athletic and she covered the Nasser trial from the perspective of the women who survived his abuse.
MA: Who did you interview first and what was that like for you, going into the story that way?
KS: Oh gosh, I'm trying to remember the first person. It's a bit of a different set up because it's in court. It's not, you're not working the phones like a normal sports story. The first woman that I talked to and became aware of her story was Rachel Denhollander who really spearheaded this entire movement and really sparked this phenomenon and truly was so courageous in coming forward alone. When no one else was willing to. And she prompted this entire thing by coming forward in a story in the Indianapolis Star in 2016. And for that reason I'm so glad that Rachel got the last word yesterday, because she deserved it. She endured tremendous personal risk and trauma and pain, I think, to share her story. So it was wonderful to get that satisfaction and that validation that she got in confronting him.
MA: So the narrative in the last year or so has really shifted power dynamics. An this is just from my point of view as a man.
KS: No, I think you're right.
MA: I think, even a year ago, which just seems ridiculous, it was something that you knew that a lot of men with a lot of power just did and got away with on a regular basis. Now, this narrative changed and I think this was one of the main stories--from my point of view. How did you watch that change, how did you experience that change.
KS: Yeah, I mean, I think this is a--listen, I'm a sports writer, but this story transcends sports in so many ways. It is, in its essence, a sports story in the sence that there are so many variables at play that enabled this to happen. The sports culture certainly being one of them. But I think you're right, I think it is universal in the distorted power dynamics and the treatment and the subjugation of women, the not believing of women, the doubt of women, the culture of silence and shaming sexual abuse survivors. So, I feel like I witnessed incredible transformation, not just from these women individually. And truly, there were times that you could really palpably see this weight lifted after they spoke. I think it was tremendously cathartic for them in the sense that they reclaimed power, they really took ownership of their own story. And so, I think that's when you really saw the narrative shift.
MA: How do you talk about that narrative shift as a journalist?
KS: I think you have to show and not tell in a lot of cases. And as emotionally taxing as it was to witness, these women's stories were so powerful and each one of them unique. Each one of them had incredible insight and heart and bravery. And so, you just let them tell that story and that does a lot of your work for you. As a journalist you just have to get out of the way a little bit and let their voice be what drives the bus here. And I think that's what I tried to do.
I think when talking about sexual abuse it's really important not to sanatize or to steralize, especially with language, but you also have to navigate a very fine line of not wanting to be voyeuristic either and exploitatve.
MA: So what are some of the techniques that you used to balance what is intensely personal and potentially voyeuristic versus what is necessary for your audience to understand.
KS: When we say sexual abuse, again, that's like that number:190. I can hear sexual abuse and I know it's bad. But when I hear about a 14-year-old being digitally penetrated in the room with her mother, that means something different to me as a human, as a mother, as a journalist.
I found that when I wrote, I tried to write in much more simple, direct sentences, because I didn't want to editorialize or sensationalize as much. I tried to be as almost clinical in the language that I used as I could. And I hope that that helped me navigate that line. But, you know, it was something that I had to navigate throughout.
MA: What was the response from your audience?
KS: Oh I was so heartened by the response from our readership. So many people reached out to say than you for covering this and recognized what an important story it was. And I should add, also we are a subscription site and the majority of our content lives behind a paywall. And me and my editor in chief, Craig Custance had a discussion before this about this being something that is public-service journalism, that deserves to be outside of the paywall. And so, all of my coverage this past week has been outside of our paywall and I'm really, really grateful that we were allowed to do that because I think it does a service to our readers.
MA: Katie Strang is the managing editor at the sports news site The Athletic
MA: How did this turn out for the paper? Did this increase your exposure? What has been the experience from that point?
KS: This happened in our back yard. It affects one of our major institutions. This is one of the institutions we cover--we cover the football and basketball team. And so, I think, what I hope it showed is that we are not afraid to hold power to account. And that we well tell important stories. If a story is important and deserves recognition, that we'll cover it. And I like to think that that showed our thoughtfulness in that way.
MA: Is there something else that you wish had recieved more attention about this story?
KS: That's a really good question. I think, in the past week, it centered around these women. As it should have. Moving forward, what the story will increasingly shift to is the role of the institutions that failed them. And I think because of the systemic failures and the myriad of people probably accountable/culpable for what happened here, I think the story is going to spread like wild fire in the sense that people are going to question and try to shed light in to what really happened and why and how to prevent that in the future. I hope that that really does happen.
[Listen to the full interview above]