Fact checking

Though not perfect, The Cavalier Daily’s coverage of Morgan Harrington’s disappearance proved to be complete and factually accurate

Last week, Morgan Harrington's parents held a press conference outside of John Paul Jones Arena, where their daughter attended a Metallica concert in October. She disappeared that night. What was left of her body was found in January, on a farm about eight miles from Grounds.

"The man who did this - and I am confident that it is a man - is being protected by his environment, by people in his environment, and that needs to stop," Gil Harrington said. "Evil is still afoot in this town. There is a monster in Charlottesville, Virginia, who likes to hurt young girls."

If anyone in the world is entitled to have and voice a theory about this case, it's Morgan Harrington's mother. Her theory is certainly plausible. But there are also plausible explanations that don't involve cover ups and conspiracies and a monster afoot in Charlottesville.

People are concocting and spreading all sorts of stories. I've read and heard speculation that Harrington's death was caused by exposure to the elements, a serial killer, a curse on Virginia Tech. And there is the persistent assertion that The Cavalier Daily has engaged in a campaign to cover up any connection this case may have to the University.

I put a series of questions to Thomas Madrecki, who was managing editor of The Cavalier Daily last semester. Madrecki said the paper was trying to be responsible.

"Basically, the process and discussion that shaped our coverage was a rigid reliance only on confirmed facts," Madrecki wrote in an e-mail. "Did we hear about members of the basketball team potentially seeing Morgan? Yes. Did we hear about a lady who allegedly saw her on the Lawn? Yes. Did we hear dozens of other claims? Yes. And all of those claims were carefully investigated; not one was able to be confirmed with police officials, and in many instances, they were themselves unclear/logically faulty."

Madrecki specifically addressed the case of a newspaper delivery woman who was certain that she saw Harrington early the morning after she left JPJ.

"I spoke with the lady three times, twice in person," Madrecki said, "and also spoke with members of the Lawn community, Virginia State Police, and University police. In the end, I simply couldn't track down anything - and concluded what was more accurate or printable was that this lady had seen someone who probably looked like Morgan, but wasn't Morgan."

The lack of verifiable information frustrated Madrecki, but he seemed to prefer to risk being beaten on the story to printing something that wasn't true.

"I don't think it's crazy or outlandish for me to say that anyone who thinks there was just tons and tons of readily available information that 'we withheld' or 'failed to print' leans to the side of being a conspiracy nut," in Madrecki's view. "Any newspaper's goal is to print THE TRUTH. Why would anyone withhold information or not seek it? The job of a newspaper, though, is also to vet that information and scrutinize it."

Overall, Madrecki rates the paper's coverage as "adequate."

"I think we didn't screw up - and I think a lot of other papers did, because what they did was print rumors ... Overall, however, I'd say we didn't hurt ourselves - and that's a good thing."

Madrecki doesn't argue that the paper's coverage has been perfect.

"Looking back, I wish we could have done at least one well-written feature, but to be perfectly honest - and not to throw anyone under the bus or anything - that simply wasn't within our capability given the staff at my disposal," he wrote. There's not a lot of slack built into the system. "So, it would have been difficult to design and implement the kind of coverage I would have ideally wanted, because that would have had extremely negative effects on other dimensions of the paper."

Madrecki's instinct is right. Much of what the paper has been accused of covering up appeared in print, just not as quickly as the conspiracy theorists would have liked. And it's better to be late than to print falsehoods.

If I had been in Madrecki's shoes, I probably would have shifted people to this story, even if that meant "extremely negative effects on other dimensions of the paper." Newspapers make decisions all the time about how to allocate reporters and column inches. This was, and is, a big story. I would have given it more attention.

Despite having a different idea of how the story should have been handled, I don't see any evidence of a cover up.

Of course, anyone convinced The Cavalier Daily is hip deep in a cover up will decide that, as the paper's ombudsman, I'm part of the conspiracy. And they'll go right on ranting.

No devoted conspiracy theorist lets something as mundane as fact ruin a theory.

Tim Thornton is the The Cavalier Daily's Ombudsman. His column appears on Mondays.

Published March 22, 2010 in Opinion

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Witness accounts are news
(03/23/10 5:18am)

I don't get what you're trying to say here -- that witness accounts don't qualify as news? Of course they do.

There are still rapists and murderers at large who I knew personally -- two were men I called friends at one time, another a former co-worker. But for some reason the police never arrested either that I know of (except for an ex-friend/gang rapist -- when he was caught drunk driving). The typical police standard is more along the lines of whether they can prove it in court or not. They want a good case before they go through the trouble of taking it to the D.A., and the D.A. wants a good enough case to take to a Grand Jury. But an airtight legal standard like that misses 90% of what really went on. Reporters don't need standards like that, otherwise there wouldn't be any news to report until years after the event.

L K Tucker
(03/23/10 1:06pm)

Harrington's mother recently made an announcement that her daughter's bones were crushed. That would seem to prove she was murdered. We still don't know what happened. The police should have concluded death by blunt force trauma if the damage had happened before death.

There is another case in the news on the West Coast involving a medical coder who drove away with her son. The car was found submerged in a cove. The son has been found fifteen miles down stream.

In another case a high school student went for a coffee run but drove forty miles parked and locked her car and was found dead with her feet in the river. A single set of footprints left the car site.

These cases happen all the time. No one investigates Subliminal Distraction exposure even when there is evidence of a mental event in the disappearance. There was such evidence in the Harrington case.

(03/23/10 6:57pm)

Tim Thornton,

Thank you for finally facing up to this huge story, and printing details about this case that the Cavalier Daily had thus far never printed. I will give credit where it is due. But it is too late for Morgan, and there are still some gaps here. For your part, you made it through yet another article without mentioning that a black Pantera T shirt matching the description of the one Morgan was wearing that night was found in the vicinity of 15th. Street and Rugby Road. This was reported by other local media just after Morgan's body was found, as police were once more canvassing the area asking questions. At the same time, state police were asking UVA students to come forward and tell them which fraternities had been having parties the last few years at the farm where her bodies were found. You know that 15th. and Rugby is right in the heart of the fraternity rows of UVA. Yet, somehow, nobody wants to connect the dots here and even call it a reasonable theory. We both know why, don't we, Tim? Anywhere else, and any other demographic - and this would all be very different, now wouldn't it?

If the details you DID finally print here are all just rumors from conspiracy nuts that are untrue - then why is it that you are covering them now? And why is it that the police do not call any of them untrue? I daresay I am the one who got you to face this issue whereas before you would never have. I cannot speak for other posters, nor for people who may have posted using my name. Every detail I have discussed on this site was merely gleaned from other local media coverage that's available to everyone. And as much as you would like to think that the Cavalier Daily was more professional and didn't print baseless theories while the other local media did - the facts simply and completely refute that defense. These details took a long time to find their way into the Hook and other sources thereafter. And they did not print anything that was not confirmed as a sighting or a discovery that was not confirmed by police. That is just you and your former EIC trying to put up a smoke screen of professionalism while most everyone around here is very familiar with the lengths the UVA administration will go to to squelch any bad publicity about "the university."

Had this been your daughter that was missing, I'm betting the cavalier daily's coverage would have been far, far different. It is common sense and historical reality that the more information that gets out to the public - and the faster it does - the more likely a happy ending may come from a missing person's case. that did NOT happen here with this case, Tim. And it's too late for your or Mr. Madrecki to rewrite history now. Could someone's else's memory have been jarred in the days after Morgan's disappearance had her interaction with the basketball team or the sighting on the lawn been covered front page top left right away? Did other witnesses see those 4 people on the west range of the lawn that night that would have been reminded and come forward back then? We'll probably never know now, will we? And does it not strike you as very strange that NONE of these 4 people have EVER been identified since? Or that the resident of the room where they were seen coming out of has lawyered up and refuses to say anything? You can suggest all you want that a totally sober eyewitness at work doesn't know what she saw. But nobody else in the vicinity of the event is saying much of anything at all, now are they? It would have been nice if these 4 folks had simply come forward and explained she made a mistake thinking the woman was Morgan. But they never have. Again, this is reputations taking precedence over the safety and life of a young woman at the very least. And the Cavalier daily went right along with that.

I understand the difference between confirmed and single sightings. But for you to suggest that the sighting on the lawn was false is simply wishful thinking on your and Thomas' part. Neither you nor know whether that was Morgan spotted or not. And if the sighting had been at, say, Woolen Mills, we all know the Cavalier Daily would have printed it the morning after they knew about it. But this was different. Alas, this was "on Grounds!"

As for the basketball team, you let the former Editor In Chief get away with an incorrect comment. He is quoted here as saying “Did we hear about members of the basketball team potentially seeing Morgan? Yes." Well, Tim, her INTERACTION with the basketball team has been confirmed by police and the athletic department for many months now. It was not a case of them "potentially seeing" her! Yet, again, we have a big hush as to what that interaction was. While minute details of her interaction with others outside the JPJ and in the RV parking lot have been discussed at length and were known to all back last winter, Morgan's time spent with UVA students in the U Hall parking lot remains shrouded in a hushed mystery. Any rational person can see the pattern here, Tim. There is one class of people who were protected from too much coverage. We've become used to this over Mr. Casteen's time here in town. I just didn't think it would go as far as to include a missing persons/murder investigation. I am not alone in this belief.

Thomas Madrecki,

I'm glad that I got these details printed that you did not want to print when you were in charge. I know you probably had many rumors floating across your desk that would have been irresponsible to print. But the ones discussed here were not rumors. They instead were a confirmed interaction, and an additional sighting of Morgan that the police acknowledge and have never refuted. It was single sighting, so it has not been confirmed. Additionally, nothing was printed regarding the Pantera shirt on 15th. that police confirmed finding and canvassing about.

So you have one very under investigated interaction that you hear incorrectly refer to as a potential sighting, a sighting confirmed by police that you suggest and concluded for the rest of us was false, and the discovery of a short matching what Morgan was wearing that night in a fraternity neighborhood that was never covered at all. All three of these unfortunate omissions/presumptions/mistakes involve UVA students or student areas. And this is compounded by the fact that we now know that Morgan's body found was in difficult terrain on a remote farm where UVA students are to have had some parties. If you were a student at a west coast university looking from afar, would this all make perfect sense to you?

After talking with the eyewitness, did you interview any of the residents of the west range of the lawn? Did any of them give you a quote that you decided not to print? How many of them had hired lawyers and were not saying a thing? Did you talk to the resident of the room in question? Did you talk with any members of the Basketball team about their interaction that night with Morgan? Did any of them want to talk about it? Of all the people who worked for you at the Cavalier Daily, did you ask any of them to take a break from their stories about dating and beer pong and movies to ask them to investigate these stories in more detail for you? Or did you ask nobody to do this?

Most importantly, are you really not ultimately responsible for what happened on your watch regarding this story at the cavalier daily? Was there someone else looking over your shoulder making sure that as little as possible got covered as late as possible if it involved "the university?" Was there someone in a position of power and influence over you that warned you not to go too far with coverage of UVA students in this tragedy?

At any time since Morgan vanished, did anyone from the UVA administration contact you and discuss with you what should and should not have been covered? Did the president, someone from his office, a Dean, alumni, or Board of Visitors want to talk to you about all this? If so, what did they tell you?

Here's your chance to get your self off the hook, Thomas. You will be graduating in a few weeks I presume, and this administration is on its way out also. They can't do much to you now. Nothing, really. If all this was and is your doing, so be it. I would want to look back on my time at the Cav Daily and say with confidence that I held to journalistic professionalism while getting any and all info known and publicized by the police out and about as quickly and as boldly as possible to help find a young woman in danger. But all you have to say now is that your paper's coverage was "adequate." Would that pass muster for you had Morgan been your sister, aunt, or daughter?

If there was some creep(s) at the controls here behind the scenes, Thomas, please don't take the rap yourself. Wash your hands of them, and out them. Because, especially after this article from your ombudsman, that rap sits squarely with you at present. And if the killer(s) end up having nothing to do with anything UVA, the rap will likely be short lived. But if it so happens that these hushed up details turn out to be essential parts of the story of the abduction and murder of a beloved daughter, sister, and niece right under your nose on your campus while you ran the student newspaper - then I daresay you will agree with me that the rap may follow you as a great burden the rest of your life. You can't rewrite history or change the coverage that was not given to this case under your watch. But you still can write an article about this experience and tell us all something we don't know about who was really at the controls if indeed that was the case.

Now's your chance, Thomas. Not later. People will believe you now.

(04/01/10 8:44pm)

Sean - as someone who has worked with Madrecki - I find your accusations a little bit hilarious. Madrecki doesn't have something as devious and evil as as covering up a murder. Remember that he wrote the extremely in-depth and University-critical features on the Semester at Sea. He was critical of the University then, why not now? There's no big cover-up, just lots of rumors and uncomfirmed facts floating around.

(04/01/10 9:20pm)

I never accused Thomas or anyone at the Cav Daily from being in on any murder. Only challenged them to explain why details involving UVA students and/or student areas were covered very late - or never at all. To specifically cover something up in a journalistic sense, you have to know what happened and manipulate things so as to keep the truth from coming out. I don't think Madrecki or anyone at the Cav Daily knows who the killer(s) is/are. So maybe the term "cover up" wasn't the best, but it gets the point across. Let's go with "suppression of potential leads so as to protect the reputation of the university" instead, if you like.

Seems to me that it would be easy enough to come out and simply answer a yes or no question as to whether or not anyone from the UVA brass came and had a talk with him about what should and should not appear in the Cav Daily. This, a murder, is rather more serious than any Semester at Sea Drama involving a few copy and pasted lines from Wikipedia - as I've said. If the sighting on the lawn was "probably" mistaken identity that was "accurate and printable," then why was that never printed? My guess is that somebody thought that even having the words "Morgan" and "lawn" in the same article was too dangerous. Was that Thomas, or was it someone else?

Gil Harrington herself has said publicly that she is frustrated that reputations seem to have taken precedence over getting all the details in a missing person's turned murder investigation out ASAP. I hope that Thomas does not think that UVA brass can do much of anything to him now that he is about to graduate. I'm guessing they leaned on him hard, but I obviously can't prove that. IF that is the case, then he owes it to himself to wash his hands of this and point the finger of blame where it belongs. Again, it is a very simple yes or no question. One that nobody seems all that eager to answer. Imagine that..

Tom Madrecki
(04/02/10 7:39am)


I hesitate to reply for many reasons, the foremost among them being that ultimately, what I write will not deter you from thinking The Cavalier Daily negligent. I also hope you realize that, unlike you, I frequently don't read the comments on articles - especially now that I am no longer the paper's managing editor.

In any case, to answer your question ... "No."

The Cavalier Daily is completely independent (both financially and administratively) from the University. Nobody called me, nor did I "suppress leads to protect the reputation of U.Va." Moreover, anyone who knows anything about my personality would know that the minute someone did call requesting that I hold back information, THAT story would have gone to print.

I stand by my assessment that the newspaper's coverage was adequate. I'm not saying it was anywhere close to perfect. But there are realities that are ignored too frequently in assessing The Cavalier Daily from an outsider's perspective:

Surprisingly foremost among these realities is that it is a student newspaper. This fact makes for several important issues that are critical to understanding why coverage of issues isn't always perfect.

The most experienced writers and editors have been here for four years. If they are among the few who do not leave the paper during that time span and who have survived elections, they have been placed in management and editorial positions. Less experienced staffers fill lower roles, and in most cases first-year or second-year students are the ones writing stories and gathering information. The survival of the paper is predicated upon a proper relaying of institutional knowledge, which is of course difficult to handle given that senior editors have countless other tasks to tackle throughout the course of a day. Throw in actually attending class and finding ways to print the other 20+ stories each day, and you'll begin to understand the constraints imposed upon The Cavalier Daily's managing board.

During my term, I tried to lend my reporting experience and ability to the Morgan Harrington case as best I could while still filling my actual job, managing editor. Amid trying to settle staff conflicts and editing every story that went to print, I followed up on a host of leads related to the case, and then handed off information to less senior staffers. At a professional newspaper, this might work smoothly and result in blockbuster coverage every time. At The Cavalier Daily - or any student newspaper across the country for that matter - it will result in something less than ideal almost every time. I say almost because I believe it's possible for a student newspaper to make a tremendous impact, but only if the right people are in place at every step of the writing and editing chain. Without those people, senior editors are somewhat handcuffed while making decisions.

Under the usual circumstances, I'd probably agree with Mr. Thornton and say that shifting resources to a breaking/significant story is for the best even if other sections of the paper suffer. What was not fully explicated in my initial response to him, however, is that shifting resources as so described could have had tremendously unfortunate effects on the paper as a whole (at least in my judgement, working with the staff on a daily basis). The Cavalier Daily is extremely fragile, both from a personnel standpoint and a financial one. This was not a question, therefore, of simply moving reporters around and adjusting column inches. This was a matter of ensuring that a paper came out each day while also attempting to dig deeper into Morgan Harrington's case. (Make sense?)

"Adequate" is a conditional description of The Cavalier Daily's coverage. Had we the resources or time to devote whole sections of our staff (and see those new applications of manpower bear fruit), then I wouldn't describe the coverage as adequate ... because it would then be less than that. I am not attempting to avoid criticism or to avoid taking responsibility, but you must recognize that there is only so much that can be done in a day.

Lastly, as to why "investigations into rumor" were not printed, it was because in my journalistic judgment, doing so without a definite answer (confirmed or denied) would lend credence to unfounded claims (because doing so in effect shows that it is at least worth printing).

In short, The Cavalier Daily played it safe. We didn't go out on a limb. I admit - and already admitted - that much. In the past, I've played a provocative and liberal-minded reporter, but this was a time for conservatism at least on the part of The Cavalier Daily. A potential criminal case already deserves more restraint because of its legal implications, and in a time of managerial and financial crisis, printing only confirmable facts was a policy that both served the community and protected the newspaper's long-term viability.

(04/06/10 5:38pm)

Thomas Madrecki,

Thank you for your response. I have no other recourse than to believe you, but for your sake much more than mine I hope you are telling the truth and not protecting anybody. The safe way out now might not turn out to be the best choice depending on how this case plays out. And this is a perfect time to remind you that the article of mine that was supposed to get printed a little less than a year ago never did. Apparently you were supposed to contact me about this, but you never did. You let time run out, and did not print the article in the final issue of the paper. Your own colleagues were misled, as was I. I still have the emails.. This controversy was one you could have avoided simply by letting all sides of a controversial issue be heard. You chose to keep one side silenced, just as you did with the Hoos For Life girls a few months before. They told me the very similar story of how their article was stalled to death also.

I understand completely how busy you were, and the limitations of the organization in its current form. I also understand the IDEA that perhaps printing details that were not specifically confirmed by police via multiple witnesses is a tough call for any editor. But the facts remain that even those details that were confirmed by police took some time (weeks or months) to appear in your paper IF they involved UVA students. Furthermore, other leads you decided not to print at all also just so happened to involve UVA students and/or student areas. Other local media printed these leads. You did not.

It would be interesting if we would have had a test case to see if indeed your stated strict adherence to journalistic ethics and caution about details not confirmed by police were to somehow be tested if, say UVA students themselves were at risk instead of being under suspicion.

Wait. Actually, we do have a perfect example of this. Note the canyon of difference in coverage when it is a lone female witness that sees something - unconfirmed by police - that just so happens to be a UVA student:


Top left, front page coverage with huge picture - printed immediately and with every possible detail covered in hopes of preventing the horror of a black man in a wheelchair saying "hey baby" to a female UVA student ever again! Call me the bad guy, but I daresay that a missing person's turned murder investigation warranted way more rather than way less restraint with regard to printing and publicizing leads than this "story" did.

But Morgan didn't go to UVA, did she, Thomas and Tim?

I know it's too late to turn back the clock, Thomas and Tim, but at the very least the Cavalier Daily could print the details about a murder case with even half the vigor that it did the not so successful (?) sweet talking dude in a wheelchair. Perhaps a front page restatement of ALL the leads.

Time for some introspection, fellas. The murderer(s) are still at large.

Bonar Law
(04/06/10 6:29pm)

You have a link for that pandora t-shirt.

Tom Madrecki
(04/06/10 6:53pm)

Sean --

I won't reiterate the reasons for The Cavalier Daily's coverage, and I won't heavily debate details or semantics with you. But I do wish to draw your attention to the fact that you are misinformed as to my role in the editorial process. Perhaps you spoke with Andrew Baker, the paper's editor in chief last term, or someone else on staff about "your article." But you never spoke with me, and you wouldn't have spoken with me about such an article, because I don't handle op-ed pieces (I handled everything BUT opinion articles). To be perfectly honest with you, I have no idea what your article entailed, nor do I have any idea what the Hoos For Life article entailed (because again, that article never landed on my desk).


(04/06/10 7:51pm)

Tom, I took "managing editor" to mean the same thing as "editor in chief." My mistake. I probably should not have even brought up the controversy with the two pro life articles that were not printed last year as it is out of context. I was trying to point out that the Cav Daily definitely had an agenda regarding many things - not just the Harrington case.

If Andrew Baker was at the center of these decisions, so be it. And if you were not the one who decided to give such completely different (immediate, saturation) coverage to some random guy in Alderman, so be it. Again, I have no way of knowing the ins and outs of what happens in the basement of Clemmons. I've only been there once about two years ago.

But the stark difference in coverage between these two stories (it's really a stretch to even call one of them a story at all), stands as is. It bears grim testimony as to what exactly happens when UVA students or areas may or may not be involved in one side or the other of a problem. If there is even a minute chance they are in danger, the coverage is overwhelming and instant. If a young woman from Virginia TECH vanishes on Grounds, however - every possible delay and/or omission is somehow suddenly the right thing to do.

And that is unconscionable. I don't know who was responsible, even if it was a group of people. Doesn't make it any some palatable. I hope this opens some people's eyes a bit. UVA students are no more important and should be given no more protection or concern than anyone one else. A radical, new idea to many - for sure. But even if a small minority wakes up and looks back on this with disgust at what their own colleagues and probably administration as well did, great. I doubt there will be much if any outcry.

And one more thing, Tim, there are ZERO possibilities here that suggest that there is NOT at least ONE monster still at large. Even IF Morgan was not murdered and passed away entirely from her own doing and whomever provided her with whatever caused her untimely death - there is still at least one monster out there who dumped her body out in the woods and left her loved ones in the lurch instead of calling the police.

(04/15/10 7:41pm)

Here's a new fact for you to check, fellas..


"Breathe deep, the gathering gloom.. Watch lights fade, from every room."

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