What the Manti Te’o Story Tells Us About the Media

First published on al.com.  Link to it here.

As the sports world moves on (if that’s possible) from the Manti Te’o case, sports journalists still need to stop, take a breath, and reflect on what we have learned from this.

To be honest, journalists are poor practitioners of self-reflection.  We tend to move on to the next story, promising to do better next time and looking for an article to paste over our previous mistakes.  But we need to wrench the gut a little here.

Witness the eagerness to sweep everything under the rug based on Te’o’s interview with Jeremy Schaap.  Whatever you feel about Te’o, however, does not relate how the sports media handled the story.  Or, to paraphrase Lee Corso, “Not so fast, my friend.”

Much of the debate has centered on the reporting by Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated and Gene Wojciechowski of ESPN, the highest-profile of the many who reported this story.  Both admitted to noticing the red flags in September, when Te’o spoke of his “girlfriend’s” death and how it affected his play in the Irish’s big win against Michigan State.

So now, the debate is, to what extent should Thamel, Wojciechowski and others have double-checked on this.  Thamel pleaded a tight deadline in his defense.  Would SI have delayed the article for a few unconfirmed facts?  Based on this experience, the answer would be different now.  But back then?  We don’t know, because Thamel apparently did not ask.

One troubling aspect of all this is the extent to which everyone, Thamel and Wojciechowski included, seems to be engaging in shoulder-shrugging more than serious reflection.

For example, Peter King of SI tweeted, “And for those crucifying @SIPeteThamel, crucify me too. He’s tremendous. I back him unequivocally.”

King can be excused for rushing to support a colleague, which is understandable, but his statement represents a rhetorical “straw man” that distracts from the real issue.  No one is out to crucify Pete Thamel.  His article and reporting, like the others is another matter.

In journalism, we separate the product from the writer once it is written.  We put our heart and soul into what we write, then step back and let it be cut to pieces by editors, to improve it.  Let’s follow the same principle here.

Good reporting is good reporting because it informs and engages the reader with facts, many of which were not previously known.  It’s not good reporting because a good reporter writes it — although good reporters earn their reputation through their work.

The converse is true.  Pete Thamel and Gene Wojciechowski are not bad reporters.  But this was bad reporting.

So where do we go from here?  So many supporters seem to be throwing up their hands, as if such situations are inevitable.  ”What are we supposed to do?” they ask.  ”Demand to see the body?”

No, but neither are we supposed to give up and accept that factual errors are inevitable.  David Griner, writing for the Poynter Institute, uses the response from “This American Life” and Ira Glass, when a story about injuries and abuse at an Apple factory in Africa turned out to be false.

What we have seen instead falls far short, and we need to strive to be better than that.  Journalists are supposed to skeptical, not cynical.  We are supposed to have our B.S. meter fully engaged, regardless of the source.

And that is one factor here: The desire of all involved to believe the best about Te’o.  That was one of the most scathing indictments of Thamel, by Josh Levin of Slate.  Many more in the media are guilty of wanting to believe the best about Te’o, so that they unfairly dial down their B.S. meter.  The word for that is “bias.”  Would they have been so trusting toward an SEC football player?

My hope as we move on from this is that all sports journalists, from Sports Illustrated and ESPN down to the local weekly, will learn from this.  If a fact cannot be confirmed, stop and confirm.  As this story demonstrates (and it is not a once-in-a-lifetime disaster), it’s worth it.

Imagine if Thamel or Wojciechowski had asked their superiors for a delay to double-check a couple of red flags.  Imagine the article that would have resulted — a well-intentioned but naive college football player hoaxed by a fake girlfriend, culminating with her supposed death before a big game.  Imagine the heartache and missteps this would have saved Teo and his family.

What if one journalist had done his or her homework?

Talk about a hero.

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