As a former journalist I appreciate the rigors of fact checking. It’s a tedious and not always satisfying chore however it’s worth every minute to prevent assumptions from creeping into your copy. If you are also tempted to take someone’s word for it you will be caught with your pants down as they say.
This is why I have little sympathy for fellow reporters who skip this vital step either for convenience, to respect the wishes of a source, or to keep a story intact. Case in point: Manti Te’o’s non-existent, dead girlfriend.
The immediate coverage is little more than sensational journalism, rubber-necking and supposition at an embarrassing tale of woe at least or a carefully constructed publicity stunt at most. However, to think that this is the story is to miss the main point driven home by the journalists who originally broke this news on Deadspin.
After watching Timothy Burke, Deadspin’s editor, on Anderson Cooper it was evident that he cared as little for the sideshow attraction of Manti Te’o’s virtual love life as I did. Instead he waited for the fall out from a press corps that was duped by such a tall tale and printed every mistake in detail.
The story of the media’s involvement in promoting the Manti Te’o story is well documented including a piece that supposes the Notre Dame linebacker met his girlfriend in person based on an account from his father.
The response to Deadspin’s article has been widespread including a reporter who decided to fall on his sword and another who denies responsibility since he didn’t want to fulfill his journalistic obligation with an athlete who was suffering.
While this story is sure to continue to unravel over the next few days as interviews are secured and people begin to speak out I can see exactly why this happened — the pull of the story was too much. Is it odd that as this news broke I was watching Charlie Rose discuss Lance Armstrong and how some sports reporters called him a doper from the beginning while others either bought the hype, like most of us, or were bullied into reporting the hype? Of course this is no excuse for false reporting the existence of a person. It’s journalism 101 — speak with the parties involved.
The overcoming of hardships is extremely prevalent in sports journalism since it makes great copy. The rise of the underdog and the comeback kid story arc appear in countless reports. This type of reporting that looks for the unbelievable seems like a soft spot for pushing falsehoods and outlandish claims. That said, it says something when reporters start to build off of previous reports and do not do the leg work themselves. The snowball effect of this story coupled with competing news agencies makes me think it played a large role here.
Reporting news in this fashion is a sure fire way to get yourself in trouble. There is a reason why many reporters look harried or disheveled. When you are out pounding the pavement, spending hours on the phone, and securing meetings with people you tend to overlook basic appearances.
I remember writing a feature that took shape quickly yet wasn’t published for several weeks. It involved embezzlement at a summer camp and was going to potentially lead to a court case involving at least one defendant. As I dug around that story I was greeted with barely veiled threats and any number of reasons to stop investigating. Each day I met with my editor to report progress and how the story could be better buttressed against future attacks of poor research. In the end it ran and was airtight.
Maybe that example lacks the emotional distress of someone suffering from a loss however I’ve also spent countless hours investigating people who lost their homes, family members, and livelihoods. While it may seem crass to an outsider to pose question after question to people who are suffering it also the only way to get at the heart of the story. If you don’t you may find yourself the subject of an investigation led by your colleagues.