The coverage of the Manti Te’o has been extraordinary. Since the story broke on Deadspin.com Wednesday afternoon everyone, from the Washington Post to the Boston Globe to CNN to ESPN to far more news outlets than I care to mention, has offered their angle on the coverage. But one such angle has yet to be touched. Which is where I’ll gladly pick up the slack.
I’m going to withhold my opinion as to what extent I believe Te’o was complicit in all of this. That’s not what this is about. It’s a story either way–a sad one if he truly was a victim of some “sick joke,” as he called it; a far more interesting one if he truly was involved.
What I’m here to do is call out every single media outlet that failed to do their job from the moment this became a “story.” Not one of them has stepped up yet to accept responsibility for their lack of professionalism–not like doing so at this point would be worthwhile anyway. If I remember correctly from Newswriting 101, one of the fundamentals of journalism–or any job that requires writing of some sort–is fact checking, making sure that everything that you are reporting is truthful, of merit, and (simply put) makes sense. They all threw that right out the window though.
How did some of the most reputable sources for sports news (CBS Sports, ESPN, Sports Illustrated, etc.) allow themselves to be made complete fools of and get caught up in all of this?
I’ll tell you how. They were too concerned with getting a headline and page views that they let slide one of the most basic functions of writing. And if anyone did find any holes in the story, it seems like they just made something up to fill it. What’s sadder than the actual story is the fact that not one journalist decided to fully vet the information presented to them before running with the it. Features were run in national magazines. A full segment was run the morning of the BCS Championship Game. Te’o even spoke with ESPN about his “inspirational story” in October. It’s an absolute disgrace.
The South Bend Tribune seems to be the biggest offender in all of this though. A lot of their fine reporting is shared in the “timeline of events” that Deadspin put together.
Example 1 (on Manti and Lennay’s first “meeting”):
“Their stares got pleasantly tangled, then Manti Te’o extended his hand to the stranger with a warm smile and soulful eyes.” Kekua, a Stanford student, swaps phone numbers with Te’o.
Example 2 (some background on the relationship):
“She was gifted in music, multi-lingual, had dreams grounded in reality and the talent to catch up to them” (South Bend Tribune). “They started out as just friends,” Te’o’s father, Brian, told the Tribune in October 2012. “Every once in a while, she would travel to Hawaii, and that happened to be the time Manti was home, so he would meet with her there.”
Example 3 (Kekua’s death):
Less than 48 hours later [after Lennay’s release from the hospital], at 4 a.m. Hawaii time, Kekua sent a text to Brian and Ottilia, expressing her condolences over the passing of Ottilia’s mom, Annette Santiago, just hours before.
Brian awakened three hours later, saw the text, and sent one back. There was no response. A couple of hours later, Manti called his parents, his heart in pieces.
Lennay Kekua had died.
All (apparently) fabricated since, according to ND, this was a 100% online-only “relationship.”
Deadspin’s editor-in-chief, Tommy Craggs, recently spoke with Poynter about working with his writers on the story. Poynter’s Mallary Jean Tenore asked Craggs for his reaction to the fact that no other journalists thought to look too deeply into the story. His response:
Well, I understand how this slipped through the cracks initially. If I’m a beat guy and I have 500 words to file after practice come hell or high water and the best player on the team has just told me a story about his dear, departed girlfriend, I’m not going to go spelunking through SSA death records to make sure he’s not full of shit. They won’t say that out loud in journalism classes or anything, but that’s just the nature of covering sports on a hard deadline.
I have less sympathy for the folks who crafted those painstaking “Love Story”-in-cleats feature stories about Manti and his dead girlfriend. Those were dumb, infantilizing stories to begin with, and they were executed poorly and sloppily, and if there’s any lesson to be drawn from this, it’s that this kind of simpering crap should be eliminated from the sports pages entirely.
Tenore also asked Craggs for his response to the Boston Globe challenging the journalistic standards of his website, to which Craggs said “Whatever. Why should I care what a craven, slipshod outfit like the Boston Globe thinks of my ‘journalistic standards’?” Funny, ’cause Deadspin happens to be the reason this story broke when it did.
How this all went down is a complete disgrace to the journalism profession. It makes me embarrassed to be associated with the craft. But more than that, and more importantly, it makes me determined to never overlook the fundamentals of this job. If I ever have to risk running a story that isn’t 100% factual just to get a juicy headline, I’ll know my time in the profession is up. Too bad not many other writers feel the same way.