In this Nov. 17, 2012, photo, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o sings the alma mater following their NCAA college football game against Stanford in South Bend, Ind. / Joe Raymond, The Associated Press
In the quotidian practice of chronicling competition, sports journalists create heroes.
While keeping up with this tradition for one Heisman Trophy candidate at the University of Notre Dame, journalists at dozens of news organizations, media critics say, fell short of their duty to check facts independently.
Others say their journalistic shortcomings were understandable, chalking up the misrepresentation as an honest mistake born of a naïve or fraudulent primary source who triggered no obviously discernible reason for doubts.
Local and national media, including ESPN, SI.com, CBS and USA TODAY Sports, reported in recent months about one Lennay Kekua, a now-proven-to-be-fictional Stanford student whose untimely death in September inspired her boyfriend, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o, to play in her honor as the team reached the NCAA football championship game.
With the dramatic revelation late Wednesday afternoon that Kekua never existed and is part of an elaborate hoax, new questions are arising about the media's obligation to fact-check details even amid tighter deadlines, shrinking newsroom staffs and the ceaseless chatter blaring across social media. The hoax was first reported by Deadspin.com, a sports news site.
Enticed by the drama of the star-crossed lovers, numerous reporters took Kekua's existence as fact and freely repeated details from other existing media reports without attempting to speak directly to Kekua, her friends or family members.
"I'm afraid this is the mark of our times," says Tim McGuire, a journalism ethics professor at Arizona State University and former editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "It's an old adage. If your mother tells you (she loves you), check it out. No one's checking urban myths here. This is really an ugly mark on journalism."
Of course, reporters constantly receive facts from sources that are printed without independent verification. Checking each and all factoids would be virtually impossible, particularly in these financially trying times when newsrooms are laying off employees. The journalistic policy on how thoroughly and deeply facts ought to be checked with references other than the original source is an enduring question in many newsrooms.
ASU's McGuire says journalists should ask one simple question when faced with the fact-check quandary: "At what point will you lose credibility with your readers if that fact isn't true?" asks McGuire. "We're in the trust business."
In a statement released Wednesday, Te'o says he didn't mislead the public and that he, too, is the victim of an elaborate hoax that led him to believe in Kekua's existence.
In a press conference, Jack Swarbrick, Notre Dame's athletic director, insisted that Te'o never met Kekua in person but that the player believed in the authenticity of his online-and-phone-only relationship with her.
"Reporters should have done some minimum level of diligence," says Bill Reader, a journalism professor at Ohio University. "Is there a Facebook page? Is there an obit on Legacy.com? Where did the incident happen? That's the kind of minimal (fact-checking) that should happen, but doesn't for a complex set of reasons."
Some in social media sympathized with reporters such as Gene Wojciechowski, an ESPN columnist who interviewed Te'o and aired an ESPN segment about the player's tragedy earlier this year.
"I sat across from him, and I was moved by his story and it was heartbreaking and heartwarming," he explained on ESPN Wednesday. "But short of asking to see a death certificate, I'm not sure what most people would do differently in that case."
Wojciechowski says he tried to find Kekua's obituary and any record of the car accident that he was told happened prior to her death. He says he asked Te'o for Lennay's family contact information but was told that the family would prefer not to be contacted.
In October, the South Bend Tribune in Indiana published one of the earliest stories about Te'o's romance with Kekua and her death. Eric Hansen, a reporter at the paper who wrote the story, says he didn't try to contact Kekua's friends or family members because he trusted his sources, including Te'o, Te'o's father and Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. "I dealt with the people I've been dealing with for years. People I trust," he says. "(If I had reached out to her friends or family members,) I'd have been talking to people who were lying."
His story was widely circulated again on Twitter Wednesday. The newspaper re-displayed the story on its website Wednesday night with other links from the updates based on Wednesday's development.
"Its' a plausible story," Reader says. "This was bought into by coaches, the university's PR office. People who don't normally lie to reporters. I can see why, in a rush to beat the competition, they'd err on the side of trusting people. I think they were betrayed by not just an individual but an institution of the university and the whole concept of Division I athletics."
The complex web of social media and the messy footprints left in this case - the involved parties' Twitter accounts (some fake) and their tweets acknowledging each other, and photos of the fake girlfriend - may have also detracted reporters and weakened their sense of skepticism.
"If someone decides to abuse social media, it becomes more difficult (for reporters)," McGuire says.
The dramatic elements of Te'o's love story also drove reporters to overlook the inconsistencies in reported information, Reader says. "It's what-a-story! All one word. This is huge! This is big! As soon as you're talking about huge and big, your emotion starts pumping and, all of a sudden, you're bringing drama to it," he says.
There were several points in the story development that should have triggered a few extra phone calls, especially as Te'o was being promoted heavily by the university as a Heisman candidate, McGuire says. Verifying a car accident would have taken "one phone call."
At a minimum, that Te'o wouldn't attend Kekua's funeral - even at her insistence - should have prompted Notre Dame's public relations department to inquire further, McGuire adds. "This is a serious fraud."
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