Yale Daily News, New York Times both make wrong call on Patrick Witt sexual assault complaint coverage

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.

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  • Anonymous

    Correction: DKE’s actions were in October 2010, not spring, and they were in front of the dorm where many Yale freshman women live.  

    As for truth and justice, it is clear that those values are the last concerns at Yale.

  • Anonymous

    Kimball: The fact that his daily switched high schools endlessly does not have a bearing on his qualifications as a Rhodes Scholar. His prior record, and his membership in a fraternity whose actions are simply atrocious does, and I find it interesting that you ignore those gross violations. No one who belonged to DKE and did not personally renounce their actions should ever have been nominated as a Rhodes Scholar. And once again, had this been gay men chanting about straight men, I don’t believe the response would have been “boys will be boys.” 

    When it comes down to it – the problem is Yale. They could easily resolve this problem by simply stating that due to character or other issues, they could not write an additional referral letter for Witt. If that is not the case, they could easily clear his name by writing a press release that states that they stand behind him 100%. I haven’t seen that press release and it’s an obvious solution. Why is that?

  • F. Douglas

    I’m suppose many rapes go unreported, but I don’t know that anyone knows if “most” rapes go unreported. As for the inebriated part, I don’t know the ins and outs of the laws of all the states, but this seems to be pretty tricky. Probably every person has their own definition of what inebriated means. To one person, it might mean one glass of wine; to another, it might mean six glasses. On any given weekend in the US, a third or more of the married / committed couples might be having sex in an inebriated state. Is that sexual assault?

  • Anonymous

    calilou – what does Witt’s changing of high schools and states have to do with this? Unless you know him or his family, you can only speculate as to the reasons.  And even if he did switch schools/states for playing time or other issues (maybe he didn’t get along with his coaches, maybe the program wasn’t suited to his abilities), why does it matter? Are you suggesting we should question his character based on this conjecture? Are you suggesting we should not sponsor his Rhodes application because he switched high schools?  Whatever your issues with Witt, you appear to have an agenda that isn’t about truth and justice. 

  • Anonymous

    @rbruce20:disqus:  What is astonishing is that the leadership of Yale would recommend any young man who belonged to DKE and remained with DKE after last spring to be a Rhodes scholar.  This is the character of a Rhodes scholar?  And was Witt honest with the selection committee of the Rhodes Board about his prior record? Again, this is a Rhodes Scholar?  The individuals who agreed to confidentiality were those directly involved. Of course a victim of a crime would discuss concerns before contacting any authorities. That doesn’t mean that she was the source of the information – which you are certainly contending, based on absolutely no evidence.Yale was very quick to fire a black coach who had lied. It doesn’t seem to be able to summon the courage or creativity to come out with a cogent statement on this affair and that is very telling.This is a kid who switched high schools to play football, then switched states, then switched high schools again, and this was just high school. In college, he didn’t get enough play so he switched again. Such character. Now he has his own personal PR image agent, which does not lend to his credibility, either. This is the best Yale can offer? Pathetic.

  • Anonymous

    How is it possible for  “All the parties agreed to confidentiality.”, and yet be “fair and honest” in publishing an article with incomplete and unsupported facts?  Somebody didn’t abide to the agreement, and the writers weren’t truthful.  How does one recall the words that entered the minds of millions who read this tripe?  Shame the Constitution didn’t add; “Freedom from the Press”, in the Bill of Rights.

  • Anonymous

    I’m not remotely surprised that Ivy League schools “tend to obfuscate more than most.” I would imagine that smaller liberal arts colleges do exactly the same. They are intensely competitive – not just among students, but among themselves and crimes against women are not going to raise their rankings. My daughter attends one of these esteemed schools. When she was assaulted, she went to the college student health center. She was not asked how her injuries occurred, where they occurred or whether anyone else was involved. When she went to the Dean, the Dean literally put words in her mouth: “No one else was involved in this incident. At least we can be grateful for that.”  The physical signs of the injury made it extremely difficult for anyone to believe they were self-inflicted. She wasn’t looking out for my daughter’s injuries; she was looking out for her job and her rankings. 

    They understand sexual assault just fine. They just cover it up as much as possible – to the point of destroying young girl’s lives.

    As for rates of assaults, they are impossible to measure. Very few young women come forward. When they do, they are protected by privacy laws (in Connecticut, sexual assaults are not ever referred to authorities).  But the atmosphere at these colleges is pretty clear. The fraternity Witt belonged to (DKE) was in trouble last year for because frat members marched on campus shouting “No Means Yes!” and more revolting slogans. I wonder how Yalies would feel if gay men did the same thing and just happened to have sex with drunken fraternity brothers. Would the common attitude be “stay away from the booze?” 

  • Anonymous

    I’m not remotely surprised that Ivy League schools “tend to obfuscate more than most.” I would imagine that smaller liberal arts colleges do exactly the same. They are intensely competitive – not just among students, but among themselves and crimes against women are not going to raise their rankings. My daughter attends one of these esteemed schools. When she was assaulted, she went to the college student health center. She was not asked how her injuries occurred, where they occurred or whether anyone else was involved. When she went to the Dean, the Dean literally put words in her mouth: “No one else was involved in this incident. At least we can be grateful for that.”  The physical signs of the injury made it extremely difficult for anyone to believe they were self-inflicted. She wasn’t looking out for my daughter’s injuries; she was looking out for her job and her rankings. 

    They understand sexual assault just fine. They just cover it up as much as possible – to the point of destroying young girl’s lives.

    As for rates of assaults, they are impossible to measure. Very few young women come forward. When they do, they are protected by privacy laws (in Connecticut, sexual assaults are not ever referred to authorities).  But the atmosphere at these colleges is pretty clear. The fraternity Witt belonged to (DKE) was in trouble last year for because frat members marched on campus shouting “No Means Yes!” and more revolting slogans. I wonder how Yalies would feel if gay men did the same thing and just happened to have sex with drunken fraternity brothers. Would the common attitude be “stay away from the booze?” 

  • Anonymous

    I’m not remotely surprised that Ivy League schools “tend to obfuscate more than most.” I would imagine that smaller liberal arts colleges do exactly the same. They are intensely competitive – not just among students, but among themselves and crimes against women are not going to raise their rankings. My daughter attends one of these esteemed schools. When she was assaulted, she went to the college student health center. She was not asked how her injuries occurred, where they occurred or whether anyone else was involved. When she went to the Dean, the Dean literally put words in her mouth: “No one else was involved in this incident. At least we can be grateful for that.”  The physical signs of the injury made it extremely difficult for anyone to believe they were self-inflicted. She wasn’t looking out for my daughter’s injuries; she was looking out for her job and her rankings. 

    They understand sexual assault just fine. They just cover it up as much as possible – to the point of destroying young girl’s lives.

    As for rates of assaults, they are impossible to measure. Very few young women come forward. When they do, they are protected by privacy laws (in Connecticut, sexual assaults are not ever referred to authorities).  But the atmosphere at these colleges is pretty clear. The fraternity Witt belonged to (DKE) was in trouble last year for because frat members marched on campus shouting “No Means Yes!” and more revolting slogans. I wonder how Yalies would feel if gay men did the same thing and just happened to have sex with drunken fraternity brothers. Would the common attitude be “stay away from the booze?” 

  • Anonymous

    The problem, of course, is that most rapes and sexual assaults aren’t reported. And legally, in most states, you can’t offer consent if you’re inebriated.

  • http://twitter.com/jvward John Ward

    “‘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.’”

    Did it ever occur to Prof. Murphy — or the Poynter Institute — that perhaps the Ivies actually do know better than the Department of Education?  What is so magical about a bunch of Washington bureaucrats sitting in an office building that gives them great insight into the problem of sexual assault?  Why is there always this assumption by the Governmental Complex and their media cheerleaders that they and they alone should sit as judge, jury, and executioner?  I am still trying to figure out where in the Constitution it calls for a Department of Education, and seeing as how the department only dates back to 1980 I have a hard time believing they have improved education in this country over the past 32 years.

  • http://twitter.com/jvward John Ward

    “‘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.’”

    Did it ever occur to Prof. Murphy — or the Poynter Institute — that perhaps the Ivies actually do know better than the Department of Education?  What is so magical about a bunch of Washington bureaucrats sitting in an office building that gives them great insight into the problem of sexual assault?  Why is there always this assumption by the Governmental Complex and their media cheerleaders that they and they alone should sit as judge, jury, and executioner?  I am still trying to figure out where in the Constitution it calls for a Department of Education, and seeing as how the department only dates back to 1980 I have a hard time believing they have improved education in this country over the past 32 years.

  • F. Douglas

    Wow, “Sexual assault remains a plague on college campuses everywhere?”  This makes it sound as if bands of pirates are roaming the country’s campuses, raping young coeds. Enough to convince parents from sending their daughters off to college.

    But if you follow the link, it doesn’t take you to any statistics to back up the alarmist language. You have to follow other links and poke around a bit more to find some of the actual statistics from the Department of Education. When you do, you learn that, in 2005, there were 3,605 cases of forcible sexual assaults reported to campus authorities or police among the 17.5 million students at degree-granting colleges in the US. That’s a rate of 0.02 percent. That’s too many, of course, but is it a “plague?”

    There are other studies that show other rates of sexual assault, but these varying rates, it appear, can be explained by different methodologies and by how their authors define sexual assault and rape when they are interviewing coeds.

    Christina Hoff Sommers says that a number of studies of this sort have exaggerated the problem by defining rape and sexual assault as sex while inebriated, or sex after being promised a future relationship.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/cdc-study-on-sexual-violence-in-the-us-overstates-the-problem/2012/01/25/gIQAHRKPWQ_story.html

    Sexual assault is a really serious problem, but overstating the situation makes things worse, not better.

  • http://twitter.com/strobist David Hobby

    Yeah, read about this on Romenesko’s site last Friday. Pretty sure you did, too.