Even though it’s still January, the bar has been set rather high already for the strangest story of 2013, with Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o and his nonexistent leukemia-victim girlfriend. But the story’s novelty aside, the Te’o hoax offers some valuable lessons for both journalists and readers.
The story of Lennay Kekua, the imaginary dead woman Te’o claimed inspired him to have a terrific season, was first broken by Deadspin.com with the help of a tip — months after more-established outlets such as ESPN, Sports Illustrated and the South Bend Tribune swallowed Teo’s tale hook, line and sinker.
Deadspin’s outstanding work deserves no less credit even though the story might not have surfaced without the tip; when a big story presented itself obliquely to Deadspin’s two-editor, two-reporter staff, they diligently uncovered the scoop.
The same can’t be said for ESPN’s Gene Wojciechowski, a veteran writer whose work revealed several glaring holes in the story that warranted further investigation.
“Short of asking to see a death certificate, I’m not sure what most people would do differently in that case. … I remember trying to find an obituary for his girlfriend and could not. And couldn’t find any record of this car accident,” Wojciechowski said on ESPN’s SportsCenter. “But we asked Manti, could we contact Lennay’s family and he said the family would prefer not to be contacted.”
Wojciechowski’s dead-end quandary illustrates why reporters should corroborate stories with more than one source. Te’o claimed to have met Kekua in 2009 after a loss at Stanford University; a simple question to Stanford’s admissions office is all it took for Deadspin to determine that no Stanford student named Lennay Kekua ever existed.
But worse than Wojciechowski’s faults was the fawning hagiography by Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel, who blamed a tight deadline for his stenographer-style treatment of Te’o’s stories. Thamel even contacted Stanford and admitted on the Dan Patrick Show that the university’s lack of Kekua records was a “glaring sign I missed,” but he was “able to write around it.”
Te’o’s too-good-to-be-true story is, unfortunately, the sort of tragic human drama that both journalists and readers have afforded too much prominence. Stories of personal suffering like Te’o described rarely merit more than a few lines in a scouting report or a mention in the play-by-play man’s asides. Those reporters who would make a spectacle of such details need a different focus, as Deadspin editor Tommy Craggs said bluntly to the Poynter Institute.
“Those were dumb, infantilizing stories to begin with, and they were executed poorly and sloppily,” Craggs said. “And if there’s any lesson to be drawn from this, it’s that this kind of simpering (expletive) should be eliminated from the sports pages entirely.”