Te’o, Thamel and Deadspin: How the Web Outreported the Traditional Media

With the unraveling of one of the strangest sports stories of recent memory still leaving much to be explained, in the wake of Deadspin breaking the story that Notre Dame Fighting Irish All-American linebacker Manti Te’o’s inspirational girlfriend was, in fact, fake, it strikes a few questions on how something like this could go on for so long.

The circus surrounding this issue started just yesterday when Deadspin, an online sports blog that is part of the Gawker Media family, revealed that Te’o’s girlfriend, who passed away of leukemia just six hours after his grandmother had also passed away, has no record of ever existing. Despite being a graduate of Stanford, having been in a serious car accident that hospitalized her, and having been admitted to a (unnamed) California hospital for months for leukemia treatment, and ultimately passing away, Deadspin journalists’ Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey found no paper trail for Lennay Kekua having done any of these things. Or even being an actual person.

Photo by Flickr user JamesChicago. Published under Creative Commons.

Photo by Flickr user JamesChicago. Published under Creative Commons license.

While there has certainly been swirling tidbits of gossip and speculation as to why such a hoax was pulled off, let’s leave that alone and look at how such a story proliferated through the mainstream media for so long.

Remember, this wasn’t just some hoax that didn’t carry any weight outside of the Notre Dame community. No, the death of Kekua garnered national media attention, especially after Te’o spoke of her making him promise to continue playing no matter what happened to her. That same narrative of Te’o overcoming great amounts of grief (some of it real, as a result of his grandmother’s passing, keep in mind) followed him throughout the entire season, on his way to seven major collegiate football awards, and a Heisman nomination. There is no denying Te’o was a skilled player, yet you must still question whether that emotional aspect played into the minds of voters.

So, again, how did such a story receive so much coverage without this information of Kekua’s non-existence coming to light earlier? There are a few significant problems in the reporting of the story that can be looked at here.

Slate’s Josh Levin has a great piece that offers some insight into how such a great oversight could exist, specifically building upon the idea of confirmation bias, which basically argues that people favour information that confirms their beliefs. In the case of Te’o, he had been hyped as a sports hero since really his junior year, not to mention a posterboy for American goodness. A family-oriented former Boy Scout Mormon who was a leader in the dressing room for the most historic college football program in the U.S. In other words, why would you not trust what he’s saying?

This is, of course, a total detour from the foundations of journalistic values, namely the important task of fact-checking. Pete Thamel, a Sports Illustrated senior writer who wrote a cover story on Te’o in October, has written an account of his story of his interview with Te’o, defending some of the oversights by acknowledging he had just two hours after the interview completed to file the story, as well as publishing the transcript of the portion of their interview when they discussed Kekua.

In it, there are some telling parts about how this idea of confirmation bias came in to play. In one portion, where Te’o tells Thamel that Kekua graduated from Stanford with a double major, yet forgetting what the second major was (the first was English), Thamel says, “I can call Stanford and check. They have to have some record or note that she passed.” Obviously, Thamel did not follow through. Furthermore, later in the interview, when discussion of Kekua’s amazing comeback from a coma she suffered from the car accident, which miraculously happened the day she was expected to be taken off of life support, Thamel simply says, “This is unbelievable.” That comment, while maybe just an expression of his excitement to have landed this story, should have been a tip-off to verify some of these facts.

However, that didn’t happen, largely because of the idea of confirmation bias, but also because of convenience. Te’o was giving the facts and all the information Thamel needed to write the piece without going through the motions of dogged reporting and verifying of such facts. He did talk to other sources, one of which a former high school teammate of Te’o’s who spoke personally of Kekua (the only one of Thamel’s other sources to have stated actually knowing her), yet he still had no facts to back it up. Even if not in an investigative sense, it would seem reasonable and expected to call the hospital and university to ensure having the proper dates of her accident, her hospitalization, her graduation, etc. Instead, he took a one-sided account as truth. Now, it’s not fair to blame Thamel solely for this. It’s no secret that time and resources are not as available to journalists as they once were, he was writing on a very short deadline, and the story is not one that we would have considered controversial, or necessary for serious critique (at least, not then). This could be more a reflection of the changing face of journalism, whereby having the exclusive is increasingly valued more than fact-checking. Yet, when even Thamel admits to there being red flags, such as not being able to find an obituary, death notice, or any information on her through a LexisNexis search, he decided to write around it. This is when, from an editorial sense, these things should have been confirmed. Yet, when you know you’ve struck gold, and your simply going through the routines of production, that can apparently take a back seat, which appears to be the case here.

ESPN’s Gene Wojciechowski released a five-minute video telling the story of Te’o and his overcoming of the tragedy of the deaths of his grandmother and girlfriend. He also acknowledged being unable to find documentation of her death or car accident, yet said he did not follow-up to respect the family’s wishes to be left alone, according to the Levin article.

With SI and ESPN considered the leaders in sports reporting, it only logically follows that the story was then re-published in various other mainstream media, and much of information presented in those subsequent stories likely came directly from the SI article. It’s time-consuming and (usually) pointless to recreate original research and reporting that has already been done and published by the leader in sports journalism.

But then there’s Deadspin. As an online blog, the Deadspin journalists aren’t necessarily under the same deadline constraints as those for Sports Illustrated or ESPN, allowing them more time to do this kind of research. They have the freedom to find a story and run with it in ways that other, more traditional publications likely don’t. Furthermore, Deadspin’s often cynical attitude and reporting towards both Sports Illustrated and ESPN make it more likely for an editor there to give the a-ok to pursuing a story that fact-checks whether an in-the-spotlight athlete’s girlfriend actually exists. To imagine a reporter at SI saying to an editor that he or she wants to spend their time doing research into whether one of their cover-page stories actually contained true elements is nearly impossible.

To another point, Deadspin doesn’t have the same investment in the creation of Te’o as the hero archetype the same way ESPN does. Obviously, the story of Te’o has immediate financial implications for ESPN, as they were the national broadcaster for the NCAA championship game, which pitted Te’o’s Notre Dame Fighting Irish against the Alabama Crimson Tide. That hype, emotion, human interest aspect of Te’o can be marketed as a way to draw in audiences. Therefore, it is not in their best interest to seriously pursue a story that outs the star of one of the two teams as a liar. For Sports Illustrated, and really most other mainstream media outlets, the fear of pursuing such a story lays in the assumed wake of doing so, namely the fear of burning one of the best-supported and most important football programs in the United States, and the consequences that come with that. Deadspin on the other hand, doesn’t face the same fear. This, I believe, holds true for much of the development of online, alternative media in opposition of the mainstream media.

Yet, the story doesn’t end there. And I’m not just referring to the overarching story (which has a lot of other pieces, such as the suspicion of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo being Kekua), but in the journalistic sense.

As this story continues to develop, we should expect to hear speculation on just what is happening. Already on various message boards, the speculation is flying, but of interest here is whether Te’o was a victim of a hoax, or if he was in on the act…and more importantly, how the media will report that.

So far, much of the media response has been focused on Te’o and Notre Dame’s position that he was the victim of a hoax perpetrated against him. Te’o released a statement stating he was embarrassed to talk about it, but that he and Kekua had only had an online relationship, and had never met in person.

However, there are some serious questions that still need to be answered there. It has been reported that Te’o and Notre Dame staff became aware of the hoax in early December, yet Te’o gave an interview in the lead up to the championship game on January 3 and did not deny the relationship existed. The CBS Morning Show ran a story about Te’o overcoming grief on the day of the game, January 7. Furthermore, an account in the South Bend Tribune, recently removed from their archives and then reposted, speaks of Te’o and Kelua pleasantly staring at one another and him extending his arm towards her at a 2009 game against Stanford in Palo Alto, Calif.

I will avoid personal speculation here, but it’s important to watch how the media – both mainstream and alternative, online – present this story. Hopefully more dogged journalism will prevail and stories won’t be published on truth claims, yet time will only tell.

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