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The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

Journalism squibs the Manti Te’o hoax story

As the Manti Te’o story gets weirder by the minute, whether Notre Dame’s star linebacker was in on the Lennay Kekua hoax is only half the story. The other half was a failure on the part of the media.

It was the story that was too good to be true, right? The highly rated Heisman candidate loses his (legit) grandmother and (non-existent) girlfriend within a 6-hour span. He then goes on to lead the Fighting Irish to a 13-6 victory over rival Michigan in which he makes two picks and 8 tackles.

What a leader. What a hero. What an inspirational story. What a hoax it all turned out to be.

Of course, hindsight is a beautiful thing, isn’t it? What Te’o said in his recent interviews with Jeremy Schaap and Katie Couric about the hoax is almost irrelevant to this point: The media fumbled at the goal line by failing to go one step further in their reporting.

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Fact-checking

“Really, who among us out there wouldn’t have done the same thing? Name me a reporter who says, ‘Sorry to hear about your loss, Manti. Can I see a copy of the death certificate?'” wrote Ed Sherman, a DePaul adjunct journalism professor, on ShermanReport.com. “In this new world, if a player’s grandma dies, he/she better have a death certificate handy. Right? And a picture too. Otherwise, we’re not running the story. Is that what it is going to come to?”

Sherman makes a good point. How many reporters would reasonably go around expecting to see death certificates?

And isn’t it always easier to sit in an ivory tower with the wonders of retrospect to cast down arrows of criticism directed at a foolhardy press?

Rivals of the Fighting Irish have long held that Notre Dame has always enjoyed a largely accommodating, booster press masquerading as sports journalism for years. So no surprises, right?

But really, there are some pretty big shockers in the lack of journalism in this story. There were warning signs months before Deadspin broke the story on Jan. 16: Two highly regarded reporters from Sports Illustrated and ESPN thought something was amiss, but ran the story anyway.

Take Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel for example. It was his “The Full Manti”story in the Oct. 1 issue of SI that helped create a large part of the myth. Thamel spent five days in South Bend conducting lengthy interviews and said, due to the campus “mourning,” he had “little reason to believe that [Kekua] didn’t exist.”

Thamel wrote after the hoax story broke there were a number of red flagshe should have caught: He couldn’t find anything about Kekua or her brother on Lexis Nexis. He couldn’t find an obituary, death notice or funeral notice. When he called an assistant athletic director at Stanford – Kekua’s supposed alma matter – she couldn’t be found in the alumni directory. Both Brian and Manti Te’o told SI Kekua was hit by a drunk driver and was subsequently in a coma. Thamel couldn’t find details about the car accident.

What did Thamel and Sports Illustrated do? Instead of going back for follow-ups, making an extra phone call, or continuing to dig, the story was edited and pushed through to make deadline. References to Stanford were omitted. Being hit by a drunk driver simply became a generic “car accident” that still resulted in a coma.

A young woman who is in a severe car accident, who is then in a coma, and who then has leukemia is pretty newsworthy on its own, if not for the simple reason that she must be the most unlucky person on the face of the Earth. Throw in the fact she was supposedly dating one of the favorites for the Heisman Trophy, and talk about a story.

Sure, sometimes getting the grisly details of such a car accident can be overdone – tacky, even – but for a magazine known for its quality in-depth reporting like Sports Illustrated is, it’s a shocking miss to add weight and personalization to a story of triumph and tragedy.

Thamel wasn’t alone. ESPN senior columnist Gene Wojciechowski came across similar issues in the research process for a broadcast piecehe did for the network. He too could not find an obituary or record of the accident. According to Wojciechowski, Te’o told him Kekua’s family preferred not to be contacted.

“And so in that instance, and at that moment, you simply think that you have to respect those wishes,” Wojciechowski said.

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Human interest, anyone?

There is too another side of the journalism in this story: How did no one from other media outlets not see this as a perfect human interest story?

“You don’t want to criticize other journalists or second-guess them because we’re all under a lot of pressure. It’s easy to be a Monday morning quarterback,” said Melissa Isaacson, an adjunct professor at DePaul and columnist for ESPNChicago.com. “I was surprised that someone didn’t, between the final game and national championship, look more into the background of the girl – even just as a filler story.”

The Lennay Kekua story would have been a good human interest piece, with enough sensitivity to it that it would have drawn in much more than just sports junkies. The tragic loss of a young woman who had been through so much, the Heisman-runner up who loved her and who was playing in the national title game in her memory. That’s Hollywood, Disney, Lifetime, whatever. Where was the fluff of your morning news shows hosted by Matt Lauer when you actually needed it?

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Deadspin

With all of that in mind, isn’t it just fitting that it was Deadspin – the bane of the mainstream sports media – that broke the story? Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey deserve tons of credit for the research and backlog of press articles and tweets between Te’o, the false Kekua accounts, and Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, the believed hoaxer. They shifted through hundreds of tweets and social media statuses, articles, and expounded on tips they received the whole thing was a hoax.

And yet, for all the praise Deadspin has deservedly received, there was something of a bad taste in the article. Namely, whether Te’o was “in” on the hoax. According to the article, “A friend of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo told us he was ’80 percent sure’ that Manti Te’o was ‘in on it,’ and that the two perpetrated Lennay Kekua’s death with publicity in mind.”

That is the exact same kind of laziness in reporting that got us here in the first place. If you’re not 100 percent sure on a fact, it doesn’t go in. And even if you are “100 percent” sure, double- and triple-check it. And if there are discrepancies over facts, go back and conduct another interview. Attributing “80 percent sure” to a friend of Tuiasosopo is too much of a copout from what was really a good piece of journalism.

The lesson to take from this is fairly simple: Make the extra phone call, dig a little bit deeper, and as the old journalism clich’ÛΩ says, “If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.”

Oh, and get your bullshit meter checked out. That includes you too, Manti.

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