When the scandal involving Manti Te’o and his fake girlfriend Lennay Kekua broke on Deadspin.com, the world of journalism seemed to freeze. Twitter became nothing but a steady stream of retweets and links to the article, all with the same stunned reaction. Outside of Deadspin’s Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey, the lead reporters of the story, the rest of the national sports media appeared completely shocked by the story. And that’s the problem.
You’ll have to excuse outlets such as ESPN, Sports Illustrated and CBS Sports for their stunned reactions, as they were the ones that had been pushing the made-up story from the beginning. Almost every major media outlet ran some sort of feature on Te’o’s tragic story, grabbing the great human interest angle and running with it, no questions asked.
In a way, it’s hard to blame these media outlets. Te’o’s story, known well enough now to make it unnecessary to repeat here, was one of the most touching stories of the year. These are the kind of stories the sports media drools over- an opportunity to ditch the standard game story for a chance to dabble in some dramatic sentiment. And it’s not as though the story smelled fishy from the start, how many journalists would actually believe that Te’o’s girlfriend, the one whose sob story he was convincingly retelling directly in front of them, was completely made up? Te’o had a reputation for having strong character and was a leader on the field for his team, so it is likely the journalists kept this in mind as they weighed the legitimacy of his story.
The breakdown occurred in the fact checking. As Deadspin reported, there were several discrepancies in the facts reported across the different media outlets, even confusion about whether Te’o’s girlfriend died before or after his grandmother. There was no record of Kekua’s existence at Stanford, her supposed college, no obituary following her death in any paper and no record of her or her death on any database.
It seems that the media didn’t want to let the facts get in the way of the story. The rush to be the first to report this compelling story over-powered the necessary fact-checking measures. Basic fact-checking rules were overlooked, and now the national media must face the embarrassment of being out-reported by an Internet blog with a smaller staff than most national media outlets.
At The Oswegonian, we are attempting to learn from this saga. This semester, we are implementing a more rigorous fact-checking system and encouraging our writers to double-check all of their sources. We are making every effort to remain cognizant of the fact that, as journalists, our duty is to strive for accuracy above all else. While it’s fulfilling for us, and great for our readers, to find stories that are especially interesting to read, we must not let that pursuit interfere with our obligation of getting all the facts correct. With Te’o’s strange, strange story, we, along with journalists everywhere, were reminded what we stand for.