Te'o saga a journalistic lesson to all
Hold on a moment while I reattach my jaw.
Manti Te’o, you rascal.
Unless you’ve avoided the little-known commodities called the “internet” or “television” in the last 24 hours, you’re well-aware of what was reported by Deadspin about Notre Dame’s star linebacker, blowing up Twitter in the process.
If you haven’t read the article, go now. But, here’s the gist of it, and the aftermath.
- ESPN, and others, had stories about how Te’o overcame the deaths of his grandmother (true) and his “girlfriend,” Lennay Kekua, within hours of each other to record 12 tackles in a 20-3 Irish win over Michigan State.
- There is no record of Kekua ever existing.
- Te’o and Notre Dame released statements calling Te’o the victim of a hoax.
Nerds have invented “girlfriends” since the beginning of time but Te’o, more of a jock, took that to a new level when he, allegedly, inventing his girlfriend, her fight with cancer and her eventual death.
I can’t even get a fake girlfriend, so I don’t know what Te’o is going through, but, I like to think of myself as a journalist.
And as a journalist, my ADD-riddled mind wandered upon hearing this news.
Satirical jokes about the reports made me laugh (My favorite: “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” — Lennay Kekua”, referencing the 1995 film The Usual Suspects).
But the lack of fact-checking in Te’o’s “uplifting” story overcoming her death, from ESPN and the South Bend Tribune in particular, created a sense of embarrassment for the field of journalism. However, it’s easy to retrospectively say “this or that should have been done.” In the moment, it’s not quite as cut and dry.
In an industry where many are under pressure to be fast, first and relevant, often (or most) times that gets in the way of a seemingly obvious or simple fact-check.
That doesn’t make this instance excusable, but it’s quasi-understandable.
ESPN’s Gene Wojciechowski sat down with Te’o in October for an interview on College Gameday.The death of Te’o’s girlfriend made up a large portion of it.
Wojciechowski made an appearance on ESPN in the aftermath of Deadspin’s article on Wednesday and reflected on his interview.
After rolling through each synonym for “shocking,” Wojciechowski recalled trying to find an obituary on Kekua’s death and “could not.”
He couldn’t find any record of her car accident either.
When Wojciechowski asked Te’o if he could contact Kekua’s family, Te’o told him they “would prefer not be contacted.” He asked him for pictures of Kekua, but received the same response.
He went on with the interview anyway.
“In that moment, you simply think you have to respect those wishes,” Wojciechowski said. “In retrospect, you can see where some of those things weren’t adding up to make sense. Easy to say now. At the time, it never enters your mind.”
That all makes sense, but that doesn’t mean it should ever happen.
Not to sound curmudgeonly at the ripe age of 22, but to all the young (and old) journalists out there, let this be a lesson to you (and me).
Double and triple check your facts.
Don’t settle for one, or even two sources.
And, as Te’o now-comically tweeted 85 days ago, “Don’t let your dreams stay dreams! Make them a reality!”
In other words, if you’re going to create an imaginary girlfriend, keep it to yourself.