Fact checking

Though not perfect, The Cavalier Daily

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.

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