The ridiculous Manti Te’o story that Deadspin broke today represents the best, and the worst, in sports journalism.
We’ll get to the worst in a bit here – and there is plenty to say about the worst – but let’s talk about the best. The reporting job that Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey did with this story is utterly sensational. It’s among the finest pieces of sports journalism I’ve ever seen. Look at how they reported this story. Look at the work they did, discovering the fact that the photos of Te’o's girlfriend were actually those of another young woman, the discovery of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo and his alleged role in the fraud. Hell, just read these graphs:
Manti Te’o did lose his grandmother this past fall. Annette Santiago died on Sept. 11, 2012, at the age of 72, according to Social Security Administration records in Nexis. But there is no SSA record there of the death of Lennay Marie Kekua, that day or any other. Her passing, recounted so many times in the national media, produces no obituary or funeral announcement in Nexis, and no mention in the Stanford student newspaper.
Nor is there any report of a severe auto accident involving a Lennay Kekua. Background checks turn up nothing. The Stanford registrar’s office has no record that a Lennay Kekua ever enrolled. There is no record of her birth in the news. Outside of a few Twitter and Instagram accounts, there’s no online evidence that Lennay Kekua ever existed.
That is reporting. That’s the kind of fact-finding, discovery and writing you want to see in the media. This isn’t a story graded on a curve because it’s Gawker. It’s better than almost anything you’ll see on any media site – mainstream or alternative.
That is JOURNALISM.
And now for the worst …
There’s no way to sugarcoat it. This story is an embarrassment to sports journalism. The fact that one of the highest-profile players on the highest-profile college football team in the country carried out this hoax to some degree* for an entire season, and nobody sniffed out anything about it, is embarrassing. It feeds the worst perceptions of sports journalism – that we’re all fanboys and fangirls, looking to tell cute little stories about games and that we’re not real reporters.
These are points that will be widely made in the next few days, and they’re worthwhile ones. One of the core parts of a reporter’s job is to verify facts. It’s to take what they are told by sources and try to independently verify them. Facts matter, even in a heartwarming feature story. A reporter should never take what he or she is told at face value. You know the old saying “If a story sounds too good to be true, it probably is”? Reporters need to live by that. The fact that nobody tried to verify the facts in this story is stunning.
(And, as a reporter, I can say I was not always very good at this. I was not a model reporter by any account. So yes, this is Monday Morning Quarterbacking to some degree.)
Here’s the thing: Verifying facts doesn’t necessarily mean being confrontational. It doesn’t mean asking Te’o “Yeah, I want to make sure your grandma and girlfriend really died.” Because yeah, you’d look like a terrible person if you did that. It also doesn’t mean harboring doubts about what you’re being told. It’s doing your diligence. If you’re doing a feature story about a player who’s inspiration is his dying girlfriend, it seems obvious that you’d want her voice in the story somehow. That would mean trying to find out about her. What was she like? What happened to her? Maybe you call Stanford, where she went to school. Maybe you request the police report for the accident, which is public record. The player said her family wants privacy. Which is fine and understandable. But one of the things I always tried to do as a journalist was this: If someone didn’t want to talk to me, fine. But they had to tell me no comment. Not someone on their behalf.
This is where it gets interesting. If you’re a reporter, and you start to see questions arise – not doubts, but just questions like “Huh, I can’t find her online at all aside from this one little profile … and there’s no accident report? … and I can’t talk to the family because they want privacy … huh … this is … odd.” What do you do? When you’ve got deadline’s coming, you’ve got three beats to cover and your editor is houding you for the story … what do you do?
I don’t have a good answer to this question. I’d love to hear if you do (honestly).
This was a failure of process. It was a massive failure of reporters, who appear to have fallen in love with the story (which is so easy to do) and told what sounded like a perfect story. It was a failure of editors, who are supposed to protect against this. A good editor is a complete pain in the ass, a person who questions every detail in your story. The fact that no editor raised any questions about this at any outlet is just as much a failure as that of the reporters.
This is the story that makes sports journalists look terrible, like caretakers of the toy department. It feeds every negative stereotype of sports writers and sports journalism.
And yet, the work of Deadspin’s reporters also showed that, when done right, sports journalism can be just as serious, deep and good as any reporting in any other section.
Brian Moritz spent 10 years as a sports reporter before returning to the safety of academia, where he’s a Ph.D. student at Syracuse University. He blogs at Sports Media Guy, where this post first appeared.