What a story!
Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o mourns the heartbreaking death of his girlfriend who had been diagnosed with leukemia while recovering from an auto accident.
Then he goes out and contributes to a big win over rival Michigan State. Throughout the storybook season, he and his family talk about the special relationship he had with his girlfriend during her illness and how his faith helped motivate him. His team ascends to the national championship, and he finishes second in the Heisman Trophy balloting, a rare showing for a defensive player.
It was the kind of story that writes itself.
And that was the problem.
It turns out the story was an elaborate hoax. The girlfriend never existed. Te’o says he, too, was a victim of the falsehood, but that remains to be seen. Regardless of whether he was a willing participant in the whole bizarre affair, the role the news media played in perpetuating this hoax is disturbing.
This story had some local interest because Te’o, a native of Hawaii, is Mormon and was recruited out of high school by BYU. We published a number of wire stories dealing with this angle, both in print and online. Outside of the occasional column, we didn’t do any of our own reporting on Te’o or what turned out to be his fictional girlfriend.
Like many media we just relied on the information already being reported by established and respected news organizations such as Sports Illustrated, The Associated Press, ESPN and others.
All were duped.
This was not an investigative piece or one in which a source was leveling charges against someone else, so it didn’t cry out for balance from a legal sense. Still, you would think someone covering the story would have sought out family members or friends of the supposed dead girlfriend for context and a scoop.
There may have been no indication in the beginning that this story was fictional, but if there was trouble contacting any sources, such as family of the dead girl, that should have been a journalistic red flag.
The story was first reported last October by Sports Illustrated, ESPN and, on the local level, the South Bend Tribune. The Tribune, about the size of the Standard-Examiner, quoted Manti’s father recounting the special relationship Te’o had with the girl before her tragic death.
The newspaper did follow-up stories and much of the national media followed suit.
This week, the hoax was reported in detail in a lengthy article by the online news site Deadspin.
Following the Deadspin article, the South Bend Tribune released the following statement: “At the Tribune, we are as stunned by these revelations as everyone else. Indeed, this season we reported the story of this fake girlfriend and her death as details were given to us by Te’o, members of his family and his coaches at Notre Dame.”
In hindsight, there were signs during the on-going coverage that things weren’t square. Te’o and his family seemed to give contradictory statements regarding their familiarity with the girl and timelines of events.
But the most glaring fact was that no one seemed to score an interview with the girl’s family members. Some of the reporters apparently were told that the family did not want to be contacted.
I’m sure that is what prompted Deadspin to look more closely.
A common practice for journalists has always been to check and double-check facts. There is an old caution saying that if your mother says she loves you, get two sources to back it up. But, over the years, the rule has contracted to be applied only to storylines in which sources might have a motive to fabricate the truth.
The expansion of magazine-style writing, replacing old-fashioned reporting, has created many narratives describing scenes as if the writer had witnessed them, rather than attributing the information to a source.
Some of the reporters covering the Te’o girlfriend story may have sensed details were being exaggerated for promotional purposes, but they didn’t want the facts to get in the way of a good story.
It is a powerful reminder for journalists that in this digital age of self-promotion, anyone can have motivation to stretch the truth or to lie outright.
With all the competition in today’s news world, reporting basics are still a good practice.
Andy Howell is executive editor. He can be reached at 801-625-4210 or email@example.com.