As the story of Yale University quarterback Patrick Witt (and his Rhodes scholarship that wasn't) got more convoluted last week, both The New York Times and the Yale Daily News came under significant criticism -- The Times, for running with a story that had too many holes, the Yale paper for holding a story they should have reported.

The critics are right. Both papers missed the journalistic mark on this one. The Times chose the wrong frame to tell the story. The Daily News let protocol prevent its journalists from acting as watchdogs. Because of these journalistic failures, the larger systemic issues faded into the background of our national conversation.

Yale quarterback Patrick Witt spoke at a December news conference in New York. (Seth Wenig/AP)

In case you missed it, here’s a quick recap: Last fall, the Rhodes Scholarship Selection Committee chose Witt as a finalist, leaving him with a tough choice: attend the day-long interview or play in the legendary Yale-Harvard game.

Witt withdrew from the scholarship, played in the game and garnered a lot of attention in the sports media, fueled by the Yale Public Relations Department, for putting the needs of his team in front of his own.

Where The New York Times failed

Last week the Times published a story suggesting that Witt’s withdrawal was actually due to an informal sexual assault complaint that had been filed on campus. The Rhodes committee, according to the Times, had been tipped off to the complaint and had asked Yale’s President to re-endorse Witt. Before that happened, Witt withdrew from the process, the Times reported.

The Times’ story takes a simple narrative arc, implying that Witt’s original storyline as a young athlete-scholar faced with Sophie’s choice was in fact a lie. But the Times story includes little timeline information and no details of the incident that prompted the complaint. The Times tells its readers that the journalists who wrote the story did not know the name of the woman who filed the complaint and therefore had no way of interviewing her.

By leaving that part of the story blank, the Times feeds into a two commonly mistaken lines of thought about sexual assault: That rape is invisible, faceless and a possible pathway for scorned women seeking revenge.

Critics condemned the Times for unfairly destroying Witt’s reputation by suggesting he had raped a woman when no charges have been filed, no investigation has taken place and the accuser did not speak to the Times.

The story set off a second simultaneous storm with critics lambasting editors and reporters at the Yale Daily News, accusing the paper of covering for one of their own.

Where the Yale Daily News failed

I talked this weekend with Max de La Bruyère, editor-in-chief of the Yale Daily News. He said they received a tip about the complaint in the days leading up to the Yale-Harvard game.

“The student who made the complaint chose to make it informally,” he said. “All the parties agreed to confidentiality. Because we wanted to be fair and honor that process, we chose not to pursue it.”

He explained further in a note to readers which was published this weekend.

If The New York Times overstepped its journalistic boundaries in publishing the story, the Yale Daily News fell far short. De La Bruyère said his reporters did not try to interview the woman who filed the complaint. They didn’t seek guidance from anyone on campus with expertise in sexual assault, nor did they ever seek an explanation from Witt.

There’s no telling what would have happened had they pursued the story while it was unfolding. Maybe they would have ended up in the same place, with no story to report. Often journalists go down pathways that lead nowhere.

Yale is one of several Ivy League schools currently under investigation by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights for the way it handles sexual assaults. Under Title IX legislation, colleges and universities are required to create an environment of equal opportunity for men and women. A college that allows a climate of assault, intimidation or harassment would be guilty of discriminating against women.

Wendy J. Murphy is one of the victims’ rights advocates prompting the Department of Education to investigate the sexual assault investigation practices at Ivy League schools. An adjunct professor at the New England School of Law, she files complaints with the Office of Civil Rights to force the colleges to make changes to their policies. (As one of the nation's leading experts in sexual abuse, Murphy has taught in Poynter seminars on the topic.)

Yale’s policies weren’t that bad, compared to Stanford, Harvard and Princeton, she said. She filed complaints against Harvard and Princeton with the Office of Civil Rights in the fall of 2010. Stanford was already under investigation. The broad inquiry that resulted was expanded months later to Yale and a few other schools, so that the glare of the spotlight would be on several schools in order "to disperse some of the shame," Murphy said.

The story about the complaint against Witt reveals a bigger issue, Murphy said. The entire informal process that Yale is using to settle complaints may be improper. Under Title IX, the federal government forbids schools from mediating charges of rape.

“I equate mediating with informal procedure,” she said. “I’m stunned they would do this while being watched so carefully.”

Reporters at the Yale Daily News have covered the changes the university has made in response to the Civil Rights investigation, De La Bruyère told me. And they have. But the paper hasn’t done much to document the existing climate victims face when reporting sexual assault, nor have they editorialized about the need for a rigorous response procedure.

“The Ivies are the worst when it comes to certain aspects of addressing Title IX,” Murphy said. "They tend to obfuscate more than most, and they can be very stubborn in believing they know better than even the Department of Education. I’ve been filing impact litigation against schools for years. It’s particularly effective when an Ivy League school is made to change its ways, because when they get whacked [by the federal government] all the other schools line up to get their policies in shape too.”

Why this matters

Newspapers are powerful institutions in their communities. That is especially true on the campus of a prestigious university. To that end, a paper can be a part of that power structure, or it can keep the power structure in line. Had it been fulfilling its role as a watchdog on the powerful, the Yale Daily News would have followed up on the tip they received that their star quarterback was the subject of a sexual assault complaint.

There’s no telling where that inquiry would lead. It’s possible that reporters would have spotted flaws in the system of fielding sexual assault complaints that allow the most powerful people on campus to avoid scrutiny. It’s possible they would have discovered a system that is truly working and could be a model for other schools.

I’m not suggesting the Yale Daily should have taken a tabloid approach and printed allegations or the rumor of allegation. Rather, while “respecting the confidentiality” of the woman who filed the complaint and Witt, the journalists in the newsroom missed an opportunity to find a story that held a powerful institution accountable on an important issue.

It’s not too late for the Yale Daily News or other student publications. Sexual assault remains a plague on college campuses everywhere. Statistically, college students are at a higher risk of sexual assault than the general population. Student newspapers should be looking for opportunities to explain why this is, to determine if their administrations are in compliance with Title IX, and to educate a widely misinformed audience about the true realities of assault.