How USA Today unraveled Ryan Lochte's Rio drama
Last Thursday, Taylor Barnes and other journalists crowded into a theater across the street from a police station in Rio de Janeiro. The police were there to talk about what happened with four U.S. Olympic swimmers at a gas station the previous Sunday.
David Meeks, managing editor of USA Today Sports Media Group, was watching a feed of the conference from the Olympics press center in Rio.
The head of the city's civil police did most of the talking that day. He didn't lead the day-to-day investigation, so he was cautious. But, he told reporters, U.S. swimmers Ryan Lochte, Gunnar Bentz, Jack Conger and Jimmy Feigen had trashed a bathroom, and Lochte lied about being robbed.
Barnes filed her story about the press conference. Then she, Meeks and other reporters for USA Today Sports kept asking questions. By Monday, they'd begun to tug at threads woven neatly together by Rio police, much of the media and a wave of opinion on social media.
On Wednesday, they unraveled them altogether, presenting a story much closer to the one Lochte first gave.
The result: Nuanced pieces of reporting on a swiftly changing story that brought finger-pointing from all sides, with journalists caught in the middle. Although Lochte's saga has yet to conclude, USA Today's coverage to date provides some insights into handling a fast-moving story with caution. Here are a few examples.
Boots on the ground matter
Barnes, an American freelancer who has lived in Rio for six years, has kept busy in that time. She's covered the Confederation Cup, the World Cup, Rio +20, the Pope's visit and the Summer Olympics, among other things.
The day of the press conference, as she took notes from the crowded theater, a USA Today videographer was checking out the bathroom at the gas station where the whole incident happened. He shot a lot of video, which Barnes and other colleagues later pored over. This was four days after the U.S. swimmers supposedly tore the place up.
Maybe it had been cleaned up in that time. But a man who was there translating between the two parties the morning of the incident only saw a sign torn down. From USA Today's first story:
Deluz said the main point of contention was the swimmers trying to "flee" after Lochte damaged the sign.
"What happened really – it's not even the issue of knocking down and breaking the sign," Deluz said. "It was the attitude of the guys of messing up the place and then wanting to leave without a satisfactory resolution." He said if the men had even said they had no money to pay for the damages but had apologized, he thinks all parties involved would have been understanding.
Local knowledge paid off when trying to make sense of other details, too. Many Brazilians already thought something was off about Lochte's original story of being robbed on the side of the road, Barnes said. Getting pulled over and robbed by people with badges is a thing that happens in Brazil. But the place Lochte claimed it took place was a wealthy neighborhood where that kind of crime does not happen.
Another question came up in the press conference that stayed with Barnes: Were the security guards at the gas station off-duty law enforcement? That, Barnes said, is also common in Brazil. In the press conference, the police chief wouldn't confirm the identity of the men, but he did say they were off-duty law enforcement. Barnes kicked herself later for not asking then: So, Lochte correctly identified them?
"Having a reporter who lives in Rio, speaks Portuguese, knows all the officers and can really help guide our reporting was instrumental to anything we did," Meeks said.
The day after that press conference, a Brazilian colleague told Barnes that there was chatter on Brazilian social media about those guards and why they used a weapon.
She started pulling at more threads.
The international fiasco that many people will remember from the Olympics is a sports story. But it's also a police story. And a cultural story. And a legal one. The team that worked on USA Today's investigation had experience covering those beats, and Meeks has a background in investigative journalism. He's worked at The Times-Picayune, the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times. At USA Today, he was previously an investigative editor.
Their combined knowledge and interests matched up for this story, Barnes said. And it was one that Meeks knew just how to write.
"I’ll say it in a word: carefully," he said. "It’s a very challenging piece to write. We knew this was about to go directly against a huge tidal wave of media coverage that is condemning Lochte."
He wrote draft after draft Sunday on the plane out of Brazil, then filed the story that night. It includes this:
Lochte has admitted he exaggerated his initial description of how the four men were stopped in their taxi and robbed by men who flashed badges, as well as his sensational allegation of a gun being held to his forehead.
But a narrative of the night’s events — constructed by USA TODAY Sports from witness statements, official investigations, surveillance videos and media reports — supports Lochte’s later account in which he said he thought the swimmers were being robbed when they were approached at a gas station by armed men who flashed badges, pointed guns at them and demanded money.
Being first doesn't always matter
In the beginning, Barnes was a part of the media crowd chasing a developing story. Olympic organizers said 30,000 journalists were in Rio for the Olympics, she said, and the Lochte story was arguably the biggest of the games.
She didn't want to engage in media criticism, though. Reporters — including Barnes — reported what the police were saying. Plus, reporters in Rio and around the world have a long and healthy history of questioning police narratives, she said.
In this case, it was important to attribute the information they were getting and take time to independently prove or disprove it.
"We get really wrapped up, for valid reasons, in being the first on the story," Barnes said. "I understand. That's the online world. That's journalism these days. At the same time, giving yourself a breather, giving yourself time to think is very valuable."
It did cross Meeks' mind that someone else might get to what they were discovering first. But to him, it didn't matter. They had to get the whole thing.
"There’s no more nuanced criticism," he said. "It moves straight to shaming and then full condemnations, and then it moves on to sponsor-shaming. To me, it all adds up to the tempest in a teapot that just went way too fast."
Barnes agreed. She watched Meeks work and appreciated how he tried to understand the story from different perspectives, studying images and video from many angles.
"I think that eagerness to be first can come at the expense of skepticism and just giving yourself a break to analyze the tableau in front of you," she said.
That tableau looks different with both more time and more information. From Wednesday's story:
As new details of the encounter continue to emerge, legal experts in Rio say the security guards’ actions merit an investigation, claiming they might have broken Brazilian law by threatening the swimmers with guns as they demanded payment.
Since the drama first took place at that Rio gas station, a lot has happened. Lochte told NBC about being held at gunpoint. Then he left Brazil quietly. Two fellow swimmers were pulled off a plane and questioned. Police gave their narrative of events. Lochte offered an apology for the whole mess. Major sponsors dropped him. He'll be on the next season of "Dancing With the Stars." And on Thursday, Fox News reported Lochte would be summoned to Brazil for testimony.
So Barnes isn't done with the story yet.
But here's one thing she's learned after years covering policing and the public sector: "Few parties are heroes and few parties are demons."
And this isn't just a story about four drunk U.S. swimmers. It's relevant to the day-to-day reality of life in Brazil, Barnes said.
"The use of private security agents who actually are public officials and the inappropriate use of a badge is a very big deal, and it leads to violence across Brazil," she said.
A week after the drama at the Rio gas station first went viral, police in Rio still haven't responded to Barnes' request for comment. Maybe they will. Maybe they have a bombshell that will contradict USA Today's reporting, she said.
What journalists can do, what Barnes and Meeks did, is to find the threads that stick a bit too far out and pull at them until they fall apart or come together.
"Always be aware of seeing the latest piece of information as the final piece," Meeks said. "You have to keep questioning and looking."