Michigan State’s student newspaper on the frontlines of covering the Larry Nassar sex abuse case

MICHIGAN — Months before the nation began tuning into the emotional proceedings of the Larry Nassar scandal, Michigan State University’s student newspaper was digging deep into the USA and MSU Gymnastics team physician. The State News was one of the first outlets to cover the case, posting its first story less than a day after The Indianapolis Star published its investigation.

The Indianapolis Star’s investigative story, published Sept. 12, 2016, featured interviews with two of Nassar’s sex abuse victims. Since then, more than 260 women and girls have come forward, according to The New York Times. On Jan. 24, 2018, he was sentenced to 175 years in prison after pleading guilty to abusing seven girls. On Feb. 5, 2018, he was given a maximum of 125 years after he pleaded guilty to three counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct.

Rachel Fradette is the second editor-in-chief to run The State News during the Nassar scandal. Before that, she covered the story while working closely with her predecessor.

“I knew what I was inheriting,” Fradette said. “I was someone who knew this backwards and forwards. [But] I don’t think we could have predicted what it was going to turn into.”

In Jan. 2017, The State News designated a Nassar beat reporter whose main job was covering the scandal, Fradette said, but a number of reporters have been involved in the coverage. Madison O’Connor, The State News’ campus news editor, said most of the reporters have reported on the scandal, including those from other sections, like sports.

It was very much an all-hands-on-deck situation, Fradette said. 

“Everybody was prepared to be a part of this. Quite literally everyone is contributing to this story.”

Souichi Terada, the spring 2018 city editor for The State News, said he spent most of his time with the paper on the sports desk. He said the sports aspect has been a big part of the coverage.

Sports reporters have even covered protests and court, Fradette said.

“One big that was lost in everything is that Larry Nassar — this whole story, this whole scandal — was a sports story to begin with,” Terada said. “Both MSU athletics and USA Gymnastics were both part of it, and both have had to have huge upheavals.”

Before becoming campus editor, O’Connor had a stint on the Nassar beat. She said she had to prepare mentally and emotionally to take on that coverage.

“I’m a 19 year-old female who goes to Michigan State University. I end up sitting in court, listening to people give testimony who are younger than I am and people who are my peers.”

The newspaper’s work also drew attention nationwide, Fradette said. Once the story began drawing national interest, other outlets began calling The State News for information. 

One reporter even got a call in March of 2017 from Sacha Pfeiffer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who worked on the Boston Globe’s investigation into the Catholic Church covering up patterns of clergy sex abuse. Fradette said the reporter reached out to Pfeiffer on a whim while she was investigating Nassar’s work with a local Catholic church’s seventh grade class.

The State News has also made national headlines recently, primarily through its editorials. Over a series of months, the editorial board penned pieces calling on the university to release investigation reports, asking administrators and trustees to step up, and — most notably — calling for former President Lou Anna K. Simon to resign.

Less than a week later, The State News became the first outlet to report that Simon would step down, Fradette said.

Fradette said part of the reason the editorials had the impact they did was because of the writing style. It was personal and passionate, and the editorial board waited “for feelings to strike” before writing the pieces.

Fradette said professional editorials are usually more strict, but they wanted to take a different approach to connect with MSU students.

“Ours are normally…the way pros do them, but when it came down to this, we wanted it to be personal,” Fradette said. “We wanted to make sure we were still using our voice.”

*Correction: A previous version of this story said Rachel Fradette was the third State News editor-in-chief to cover Nassar, she was actually the second. 

SPLC staff writer Taylor Potter can be reached by email or at (202) 478-1926. He is on Twitter @wmtaylorpotter.

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