Ginnie Graham: Trusting reporters dropped ball on Te'o story
BY GINNIE GRAHAM World Staff Writer
Saturday, January 19, 2013
1/19/13 at 4:07 AM
If a reporter is told by a college kid that his dead girlfriend is an inspiration, an independent source is going to be needed.
With so many confusing and sad aspects of the unfolding invisible-relationship drama surrounding Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o, the lack of basic journalism is baffling.
Te'o spun a tale about his cancer-ridden girlfriend so well that national network and print media couldn't help but repeat it.
This tug-at-your-heart story was made for a Lifetime television movie: a star college football player hitting his athletic stride as he remains devoted to his long-distance love as she fades from illness.
When Te'o and his family said Sept. 12 that the girl and his grandmother had died, it was the ultimate heartbreak story.
In all this, none of those sports reporters remembered the fundamental backgrounding tenets of our profession.
No one checked to see if the story was true.
But in the end, it was good, solid journalism that uncovered the fiction and pointed out the inconsistencies.
Uncovering the truth: The unraveling came last week with a story broken online by a largely unknown website called Deadspin.
Reporters Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey have said it started with an anonymous email tip: "Hey, you know, something is fishy about the Te'o girlfriend story, you should check it out."
It's not unusual to get these tips.
Some turn out to be duds. Others are gold mines.
It's the job of journalists to present a full picture with facts from documents and context from interviews.
The Deadspin reporters could not find a death record or college enrollment verification for the girlfriend.
Photos of Te'o's girlfriend matched those of another young woman, found through social media. She never met him and is not sick.
The "girlfriend" has now been verified as a hoax, but it is uncertain whether Te'o is the plot's victim or mastermind.
Proof needed: Journalists are human, and we want to believe the best of people.
We want to think no one would lie or mislead us. Too often, that's not the case.
It's why we demand proof and argue for openness of records and meetings.
It's why we have so many questions.
Consumer tastes have changed, pushing out the desire for investigative reporting for more minute-to-minute coverage.
Marketing of national sports stories portrays athletes and coaches as characters, from villains to good guys.
That's a reflection of audience response.
In practice, it can be difficult to verify something such as a guy's dying girlfriend on deadline.
But the Te'o story went beyond that and into longer feature pieces.
An old editor told me that every reporter is an investigative reporter.
Reporters of those feel-good stories on the Heisman Trophy candidate should have at least Google searched the alleged girlfriend and interviewed her family or friends.
They ignored their instincts and basic reporting skills in favor of what they wanted to believe.
They made a rookie mistake. They ought to own up to it and learn from it.
Credit goes to the journalists who went against the grain and found the truth.
It's an example of why a strong press is important and worth having, which comes with questions and demands for transparency.
Original Print Headline: Trusting reporters drop ball on story