Anyone paying attention to the international news story with Larry Nassar at its core may have a sense of its impact on survivors, on women's gymnastics, on Michigan State, even on an outspoken judge who sentenced him.
Still, there's more to learn. Kate Wells, a Michigan Radio journalist for nearly six years, looks back at what it's like to cover the emotionally searing case for a year and a half.
"In a surprise to nobody who’s ever covered child sexual abuse before, I was decidedly not ready," she writes in a "what I learned" post for a national media group, the Radio, Television and Digital News Association.
Wells, a Boston native living in Ann Arbor, has worked in public radio since a summer 2009 internship in Concord, N.H., before her senior year in college, At the industry site, she reflects on "a few things I wish I'd known 18 months ago." Excerpts:
♦ Compassion: "Hugging is not professional. Nor is it appropriate, frankly. And yet, by the time we got to the criminal sentencings, I was embracing women, girls, their moms, husbands, dads -- and it wasn’t something I decided to do. But this was a small handful of people I'd spent months getting to know, talking with them about the most difficult, painful parts of their lives, sitting in their kitchens or talking about vegetable gardens with their fathers.
"At some point you're just a human and they're just humans and I cared about them deeply. . . . I wonder if this is even OK. Aren't I supposed to maintain some kind of emotional distance? I try to tell myself that forging these relationships and level of trust has allowed us to bring listeners more insight and honesty in our reporting. But the truth is, I don't know if I did this the 'right' way."
♦ Respect: "Humans aren’t built to do what [the victims] are doing. . . . They are every bit as incredible as you'd imagine, and if I'm lucky, I'd like to continue knowing them for a long time."
♦ Strains: "Beyond interviewing survivors, covering this case meant delving into the literature, psychology and forensic work around child sexual abuse. And that means learning things you can't forget. It's nothing compared to the professionals who work in this field every day. And obviously, the only real victims here are the actual victims. (Seriously, don't whip out your tiny violins for the reporters.)"
♦ Editor as compass: "The senior editor here at Michigan Radio is the kind of editor who makes you want to come into work each day. . . . She kept our focus on two things: How was this abuse able to happen unabated for 20 years? How do we add to the audience’s understanding?
"That meant every story we did had a bigger purpose behind it. And the way we approached difficult subject matter was honest, direct and in service of those larger goals. Her guidance informed every step of my reporting, and kept me going when things got rough or it felt like every other outlet had more resources to cover this than we did."
Note: The unnamed hero of that last tribute is Sarah Hulett, a Michigan State graduate who became Michigan Radio's senior editor in 2011 after five years as five years as the station's Detroit correspondent and five previous years as state Capitol correspondent for Michigan Public Radio.