Communications Journalism

A Story of Human Failings: How Reporter Emily Lawler Investigated the Larry Nassar Abuse Case

SMU hosts reporter emily lawlerBy Alix Sommers 
B.A. English, B.A. Fashion Media ’20

Emily Lawler, capital and business reporter with MLive Media Group, shared the experience of her year-long coverage of the Dr. Larry Nassar abuse case in a lecture at SMU March 1, sponsored by the Meadows Division of Corporate Communication and Public Affairs.

Nassar is the former Michigan State University (MSU) and USA Gymnastics (USAG) team doctor who was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison for sex crimes.

Lawler spent more than a year reporting on the case. At the beginning, she said the public questioned the accuracy of the story.

“He had a lot of community support – there were a lot of people who frankly didn’t believe he had done anything wrong,” Lawler said. “But despite the initial reaction, we kept going.”

Nassar’s first public accuser was Rachael Denhollander, but over time, more victims were encouraged to break their silence.

“There were more than a dozen victims that we knew of by the time we published our first story,” Lawler said.

In order to gain more information on Nassar’s behavior toward patients, Lawler talked to people in the medical field to evaluate the kinds of procedures he was performing.

“We talked to some other doctors and pieced together that there’s a procedure that involves digital penetration but it’s done very, very differently,” Lawler said.

The number of alleged victims were tracked down and regular updates were published. “We were also tracking a federal possession of child pornography case against him,” Lawler said.

What Lawler quickly found out is that institutions failed to communicate. In 2004 the local Meridian Township Police received a complaint from one of Nassar’s patients, accusing him of sexual assault, but they never told MSU. In 2014 MSU got a complaint against Nassar but never told USAG. In 2015 USAG cut ties with Nassar but never told MSU.

“Twenty-nine months he’s under investigation, but none of the institutions are talking to one another,” Lawler said. “MSU’s response throughout our reporting was to distance itself from any liability.”

There were 256 reports of sexual assault. Lawler showed a clip of gymnast Jordyn Wieber’s victim statement: “He was known as the best gymnastics doctor in the world,” Wieber said, adding after a pause, “He would do it time after time, appointment after appointment.”

There are more than 150 victims who have sued. “I would say everyone in this case was asking for the harshest sentence,” Lawler said.

Even after Nassar’s sentencing, Lawler’s investigation isn’t over.

“Right now I’m working on pinpointing what it was about the culture at MSU that led to this massive institutional failure,” she said.

After Lou Anna K. Simon resigned as president, MSU hired former Republican governor John Engler as interim president. The search for a permanent president is underway, and many people are calling for an outsider to be brought in to lead the university and provide a “fresh start.”

“These women have gone through so much,” Lawler said. “It’s a story of human failings.”