The old adage in journalism is that if your mother says she loves you, check it out.
I’ve never known a journalist to call a second source to see if Mom’s adoration is true. But the idea is for journalists to check and double-check every fact, even the obvious ones. Most journalists are, by nature, a questioning lot. Cite a statistic, or place an accomplishment on a resume and it’s a sure bet that journalists will be checking databases and university records to make sure it’s accurate.
Which adds to the questions on the Mantei Te’o story. Te’o, in case you’ve been absent from the galaxy for a few weeks, is a former Notre Dame football player who told the media a story about his grandmother and girlfriend dying in the same week. The grandmother was real, the girlfriend wasn’t. It appears, although it’s not certain, that Te’o was an innocent victim of an elaborate hoax.
There has been plenty written about the hoax and how it happened. But very little has been said about the journalists who accepted Te’o’s story at face value.
The story appeared at roughly the same time on both ESPN and in Sports Illustrated, two pillars in the sports media world. It was reported by many other media outlets. And it was a good story. Te’o had one of his best games after the death of his grandmother and what he believed was the death of his girlfriend. The girlfriend — the hoax included pictures — was supposedly in a car accident and then died of leukemia. Te’o said the couple spent hours on the phone each night and that she made him promise when she died that he would not miss a football game. It was a great story, one that proved too good to be true.
No one in the media checked out the girlfriend story. No one called her family, because Te’o had already said they didn’t want to talk. No one checked death records where the girlfriend allegedly lived. No one checked to see if there was a report of the supposed car accident. Reporters, and editors, simply bought the story and ran with it.
In fact, the truth didn’t emerge until the sports blog Deadspin did the digging. They found out there were no death records and there was no record of a girlfriend ever existing. Deadspin, which was founded by Mattoon native Will Leitch, uncovered the hoax.
One can see how the sports journalists got taken in. The story was a good one, and why would a star athlete lie about a deceased girlfriend? As it turns out, Te’o wasn’t lying initially because he didn’t know the truth. In addition, one of the drawbacks of 24/7 news cycle is that news is reported so quickly. The pressure to report news almost immediately — especially an intriguing one like the Te’o story — is greater than ever. When speed is the goal, shortcuts can happen.
But there’s a good lesson here for all of us. It often amazes me how many people — journalists and non-journalists — will repeat facts they have heard or read without doing some basic checking. My email inbox receives at least one mass email a week about a story “that you won’t see in the mass media.” You don’t see it, because it’s not true. There also are plenty of ads that promise unbelievably easy weight loss or muscle gain. The products don’t work, but someone must buy them.
Our lack of fact-checking allows us to be easily misled.
Journalists should be the first line of defense against such things, but the public also needs to be a bit skeptical about any piece of information.
You can assume your Mom loves you. Beyond that, it’s best to check things out.