As tough as it is for Paula Lavigne to hear the troubling stories of countless victims of rape, sexual assault, domestic abuse and many others, she said it must be even tougher for the victims to tell her their stories.
“I’ve had so many women tell me their stories,” Lavigne said. “It’s frustrating; it really is.”
As a member of ESPN’s enterprise unit, Lavigne has worked remotely from home in Omaha, Neb. for the past 12 years reporting on sexual assault and domestic violence within sports, crime and white-collar crime, health and safety issues for athletes and fans, sports gambling and many other topics.
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Creighton University graduate fostered her love for journalism as an undergraduate when she worked at The Daily Nebraskan. She fostered various friendships there, too, and said she still keeps in touch with professors and former classmates. One former classmate is UNL journalism professor Matt Waite who is well known for his work in data journalism.
“Matt and I are still friends; I owe a lot to him,” Lavigne said.
Waite and Lavigne worked together in the past using and perfecting their data journalism skills. Despite her close ties to Nebraska, Lavigne covered stories this year about Creighton’s FBI investigation and UNL’s sexual assault charges against players.
“I’ve reported on both of my alma maters in probably not the best light,” Lavigne said.
Lavigne treated these investigations and pieces as she would any other university scandal. She remained objective in her reporting and sought the truth. Despite the emotions the truth may bring, she said she continues to and is able to tell these stories because she wants to hold people accountable and enact change for the better.
She did just that when she exposed how Baylor University handled sexual violence among students in her and Mark Schlabach’s book “Violated: Exposing Rape at Baylor University Amid College Football’s Sexual Assault Crisis.”
Another piece of hers, “Spartan Silence: Crisis as Michigan State,” also helped enact change. In this Peabody Award-winning piece, she exposed Larry Nassar and other Michigan State employees for sexually assaulting women and suppressing and ignoring women who were seeking help. While writing this, she said she had an abundance of people calling her that she had never reached out to. Sometimes they were the victims themselves, while other times they were the parents of the victims. She knew she couldn’t tell all of their stories but said that sometimes these people just wanted to be heard. She listened and recognized she could help by staying focused on promoting positive change instead of dwelling on the negatives that have occurred.
“This mindset lets me focus on a goal instead of being overwhelmed,” Lavigne said.
By staying focused, Lavigne said she “gave a voice to a lot of survivors.”
This focus has also led to reform in areas beyond sexual assault. While she is well-known for her work on Baylor and Michigan, one of her lesser-known pieces is one she is most proud of. Early in her career, she said she received a tip-off about gambling on youth football games in South Florida. Players were as young as 5 years old.
“People were betting upward of $100,000, and deals would end in violence,” Lavigne said.
Her piece led to many arrests and resulted in legal actions.
“I like to think that it affected change,” Lavigne said.
As a transparency and accountability advocate, promoting change is one of her core beliefs in her reporting. Despite this, she still receives a lot of questions about whether her stories can be trusted. She said one of the biggest challenges she faces is the grief she gets from fans about her stories. Lavigne explained that many fans think she and other ESPN reporters are told to write unfavorable pieces about certain universities in order to make other universities seem more favorable. When ESPN first started the Longhorn Network, she and Mark Schlabach were writing their book about Baylor University.
“Mark and I kept getting criticism because people thought we were trying to bolster the Longhorn Network,” Lavigne said.
They even put the topic of criticism in their book because they received so much. Regardless of the criticism, Lavigne said she works to report fairly, regardless of which university is under fire. Yet, she fears she and ESPN are still accused of having an agenda in their reporting.
“Most of the time, what are you going to do?” Lavigne said. “For college sports fans, it is truly a religion.”
Lavigne said the best thing to do with overzealous fans, social media trolls and those who give grief is to ignore them. Reporting the facts is what matters to Lavigne, and she said it would be nice if fans could understand that from a publicity standpoint, she does not “give a crap about your team.”
Despite the stress her job puts on her, she has no plans of leaving.
“I love my job at ESPN, and I’ll be here for however long they will have me,” Lavigne said.
Her vast career almost never was as Lavigne never even intended to work for ESPN.
“It was a complete diversion from what I was doing,” Lavigne said. “I had never really done sports before, and I hadn’t done television either.”
After working as a reporter and data analyst for The Des Moines Register, The Dallas Morning News and The News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash., Paula Lavigne joined ESPN in 2008. Lavigne said her editor at the time was hired by ESPN, and he offered to bring her along because of her investigative and data journalism skills. She hopes to someday continue to use her skills in other areas that are not sports oriented.
“I have a book idea that has nothing to do with sports,” Lavigne said.
But from her experience with her first book, she said the time commitment is huge. Her biggest time commitment right now is covering the economic impact the coronavirus outbreak is having on sports. She had to put a lot of her other projects on hold.
“We’ve been working on a lot of stories out of the FBI’s investigation in college basketball, but we had to put this on hold because interviews have to be put on hold,” Lavigne said.
Lavigne is usually traveling a lot for her stories, so due to the coronavirus pandemic, she had to alter her work style.
“I haven’t gone anywhere since all this started,” Lavigne said in March.
However, she still retains some normalcy; she knows how to continue her work at home and look for data trends to report on. Becoming well-versed in data journalism is a skill she recommends all young journalists develop. Consumers of news have become skeptical and untrusting toward journalists, so Lavigne said data journalism helps take some of this doubt out of the equation.
“Here are what the data say and here’s how we can back it up with analysis and methodology,” Lavigne said.
Using data helps take opinion out of journalism and may help foster trust between consumers and journalists. Data journalism also opens the door for presenting stories in novel ways that may attract more viewers. Lavigne said she doesn’t know where journalism will end up after this pandemic but that it remains vital in this time where accuracy and quality of news is so important.
“If there’s anything good for journalism that came out of this pandemic, I hope that people will go back to quality journalism.”