The strange story of the fictitious girlfriend and the football star, featuring Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o, exited pop culture's center stage as quickly as it entered, but in journalistic circles there remains an uncomfortable reminder that no source, no matter how seemingly solid, should be considered sacrosanct.
The story broke fast and furious in January when it was discovered that Te'o, the celebrated heart and soul of Notre Dame's defense, didn't have a girlfriend who died of leukemia midway through the season. He didn't have a girlfriend, period. The sports website Deadspin broke the news, and Te'o, after telling reporters all season long about playing his heart out despite the heartbreak of losing the love of his life, now spun a different tale: He had been the victim of a cruel, Internet-fueled hoax.
It turned out the girlfriend whose memory gave him grief and then inspiration to soldier on never actually existed. A male acquaintance in California had been behind the whole thing.
As bad as the news was for Te'o, it wasn't any better for the media. For months, as Notre Dame piled up win after win and the popular Te'o wound up second in voting for the Heisman Trophy, reporters played and re-played the emotional story. The problem was, the 21-year-old college football player was virtually their only source. Month after month, not one mainstream reporter bothered to check any details of his story. No one, from Sports Illustrated to ESPN to CBS to the South Bend Tribune and dozens of other outlets, bothered to verify whether Lennay Kekua, Te'o's supposed girlfriend, ever lived or ever died. In the end, Te'o wasn't the only one to be duped.
Joe Mathewson, a distinguished professor at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism in Chicago, agreed to talk to the Deseret News about values in the media as they apply to the Te'o case. In a varied and rich career as a working journalist, Mathewson, who has a law degree from the University of Chicago, has covered business news, Capitol Hill and the Supreme Court for the Wall Street Journal and has been a reporter for WBBM-TV in Chicago. He is the author of two books, "Up Against Daley" and the recently released "The Supreme Court and the Press."
DN: Thank you for talking with us. What have you told your journalism students about the lessons to be learned from the Te'o story?
JM: Make sure of your sources. It's that simple. It's an admonition that's summed up nicely in a quotation that hangs on the wall in the offices of the old Chicago city bureau where we hold our downtown classes: If Your Mother Says She Loves You, Check it Out.
DN: Ouch. That's harsh but it does get right to the point.
JM: It's a good reminder that sports journalists, like all journalists, should always check as carefully as they can that what they're writing can be substantiated. Obviously, in this case nobody did that. The press bit hook, line and sinker. Hindsight is of course always 20-20, but looking back this story would have been very easy to check. His love was supposed to be a Stanford student. That would have been the simplest kind of verification. Just call the Stanford press office and ask, "Is this person enrolled there?" Nobody did that.
DN: But this was such a sympathetic story and the source, Manti Te'o, believed completely that he was telling the truth.
JM: It's true that as a reporter covering the Notre Dame football team, checking out every story you hear isn't the kind of thing you normally do, but this wasn't a normal kind of story, either. This was a candidate for the Heisman Trophy; he may have wanted to draw attention to himself. That doesn't appear to be the case, but it still called out for more scrutiny. I think I can say fairly that if you're going to write such an unusual story then you should check it out. It seems that so many of the national stories all picked up on statements (by Te'o) that were first reported in the South Bend paper. I don't see any evidence that the national publications did much of their own interviewing. You really need to follow the old Washington Post rule: Get certainty because you're going to write it as certainty.
DN: Should sports reporting be treated any differently than any other branch of journalism?
JM: A number of my students are sports nuts and they want to be sports journalists and no one ever suggested that sports journalists legitimately enjoy a more lenient code of ethics or standards than the rest of journalism. Journalism is journalism.
DN: What is the best way for a reporter to get close enough to a source to gain mutual trust and yet still keep enough of a distance to ensure that whatever is said isn't taken at face value and doesn't go unquestioned?
JM: That's a very important question because every journalist is going to encounter that challenge. No matter what the beat, whether it's the football team, the city council, Congress, whatever, you're going to cultivate sources and a certain amount of trust, both ways, needs to be involved. I've covered Congress. I've been a source myself. I've been on both sides. So yeah, it's a great question. As a journalist, how do you straddle that trust line? I don't think there's a firm answer to it; it's part of the skill you need to develop. But it is a question that every journalist should be constantly aware of. Am I getting too close to this person, this source? Am I in any way clouding my judgment? Am I maintaining the right distance to stay objective?
DN: In your opinion, how much damage was done to the media's image?4 comments on this story
JM: Well, I think it's embarrassing. In this business, credibility sells. The press strives to be truthful and accurate and here the press wasn't. Anything that shows the press was negligent or careless is harmful, and here it was both.
DN: How is the best way for the media to recover?
JM: That's really tough, isn't it? The damage is done. You can't really go back. You're always going to wear that egg on your face to a certain extent. All you can do is aim to do better the next time. Journalists should be aware that people will use the press and abuse the press, even if it's unintended. Maybe that's what the Manti Te'o story stands for and how it can be a help to journalists and improve journalism: A reminder that if you're not careful this is something that can happen to anybody, anytime, and particularly to good reporters who really mine a beat.