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Te’o saga an indictment on sports journalism

As details of the Manti Te’o girlfriend hoax continue to emerge, it has become clear that sports journalism has been magnificently embarrassed by how many reporters failed to do their job. The Te’o saga is an indictment on sports journalism.

Several media-related conclusions become apparent even as this bizarre story continues to unfold:

  • Basic reporting skills – asking basic questions and performing elementary fact-checking –  have dwindled as traditional news outlets cut back on resources and former print reporters try to compete in this new media age.
  • This story will severely hurt the credibility of traditional news outlets and further blur the lines for readers looking for independent and authoritative journalism online.

As the Manti Te’o hoax broke, I was moderating an online discussion on CoveritLive about collegiate student-athletes and social media. Someone wanted me to ask the panelists how they would handle the Manti Te’o situation.

I responded they likely didn’t know about it, since it had broken after the session started. Also, I wrote, the only report was on Deadspin and we needed to wait and see if it was accurate.

By the end of this week, the reality of sports journalism is that Deadspin can do better traditional reporting than the giant mainstream media outlets.

As Thursday unfolded, it was surreal to watch mainstream media jump on the story and focus on whether Te’o was part of the hoax.

What is clear is the sports media, through its failures, allowed the hoax to continue.

It has become apparent in the past year that as mainstream media and journalists work online and across social media platforms, they have not brought with them the same accountability and transparency they demonstrated when they worked  for newspapers.

ESPN’s Gene Wojciechowski and Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel wrote two of the most in-depth pieces on Te’o – and had one-on-one interviews with him.

As the story unfolded late Wednesday and into Thursday, the two have tweeted about the hoax and appeared on television and radio. And while they have made references to “red flags,” both said they decided to run with their stories.

Wojciechowski said on ESPN that he “found it odd” that he could not find a death certificate for Te’o’s girlfriend or record of the car accident or illness she purported to have.  But ESPN aired the story.

Thamel, appearing on The Dan Patrick Show on Thursday morning, said “there were small red flags,” when he, too, couldn’t find a death certificate for the girlfriend. “But we were able to write around it,” he said.  Write around it?

Wojciechowski was put in an awkward position Thursday when ESPN asked him on camera whether Notre Dame handled the revelation about the hoax the right way.  Wojciechowski said he was hesitant to lay blame on how Notre Dame has handled this.

He and ESPN should first fully address how they failed to fact-check the story when they saw red flags.

One of the outcomes of this Te’o hoax should be an in-depth review of how stories are vetted and a constant standard established for each organization across all platforms. We saw last year that lax standards for Twitter contributed to the false report about former Penn State coach Joe Paterno’s  death.

The other lesson journalists should take from this story is the desperate need for reporters to ask good questions.  There is no other way to say it.

While reporters today are getting high and mighty about not wanting to get too cynical, they are missing the point.  When he was asked what he learned from this episode, Wojciechowski said that he should have asked Te’o for his grandmother’s death certificate.

He doesn’t have to do that.  Death certificates are public records and easily located online.

What he, Thamel and others should have asked are simple questions that would have provided details and facts that could be checked:  When and where did you meet her? When do you get to spend time together? Which family members and friends have met her so we can talk to them?  Where was she buried?

There are countless other, simple questions that were never asked.

As Patrick Hruby wrote on The Atlantic website, “This is a journalistic failure of the highest order, on a systemic scale.”

The result is a magnificent black eye for journalism.  Deadspin reporters are better than a former New York Times reporter (Thamel)? Than an ESPN senior national columnist (Wojciechowski)?

The Slate’s Josh Levin wrote a scathing indictment of the situation under the headline: “Why didn’t sportswriters catch on to Manti Te’o’s phony relationship? Because they didn’t care to look.”

An SB Nation blog pulled together a list of reporters, with links, who wrote about Te’o and his girlfriend and did not check them out.

The South Bend Tribune wrote that Te’o actually met his girlfriend in person (something Notre Dame said Wednesday night never happened).

South Bend Tribune executive editor Tim Harmon issued this statement Wednesday night:  “At The Tribune, we are as stunned by these revelations as everyone else. Indeed, this season we reported the story of this fake girlfriend and her death as details were given to us by Te’o, members of his family and his coaches at Notre Dame. We’re still trying to put together stories that will be posted later tonight and printed in Thursday’s paper that will answer some, but not all, of the questions about today’s astonishing story.”

What is needed is for journalists who wrote about Te’o and his girlfriend to demonstrate transparency and accountability: explain what they did and didn’t do to check this story out. ESPN, Sports Illustrated and the South Bend Tribune need to lead the way.

It is telling that both Wojciechowski and Thamel, who have tweeted thousands of times, have not offered a single tweet to explain how they decided to publish their stories despite their admissions on other platforms that they saw red flags.

Sports journalists need to come clean. Explain. Apologize.

If not, there will be more headlines like the one in The Atlantic: “The Manti Te’o Dead-Girlfriend Hoax: Blame the Media.”

We need answers to these blunt questions raised in that Atlantic post by Jake Simpson:

“How exactly does every major sports media organization in the United States re-package a story that turns out to be wholly false? Budgets are stretched, but do major magazines not even fact-check their cover stories? Were all the top sportswriters in the country so enamored with this tale of woe that they didn’t think to, you know, do their jobs?”

If not, we will continue to see more instances where ESPN and other major news outlets begin a story with those words we heard this week: “As first reported by Deadspin…”

Ronnie Ramos is the web director for the NCAA. Before that, he spent 25 years as a newspaper reporter and editor, splitting his time between news and sports at five newspapers, including The Miami Herald and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The views expressed here are his own and not those of the NCAA. Follow him onTwitter.

UPDATE: Thursday afternoon, Sports Illustrated posted the transcript of the interview conducted by Thamel in September. The lead-in states that Thamel was asked “to give an account of his reporting on the Manti Te’o story.” Leading into the transcript, Thamel recounts some of the fact-checking process and how certain things were omitted when they couldn’t be proven.

It’s a good start. SI editors should elaborate and explain what, if anything, was handled poorly in this case. Explanations from the editors involved would help shed light on SI‘s practices and whether anyone else had reservations about running the story given the lack of independent verification.

The most surprising admission from Thamel: “The only time he didn’t speak with confidence was when I asked how they met. I didn’t press him, as it was clearly something he didn’t want to share. I suspected they may have met online, understood he wouldn’t have wanted that public and moved on.” I would submit that had he asked for more details, he may have stumbled on to an even better story.


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