About Utah: Manti Te'o wasn't the only one duped in strange saga

Published: Thursday, Feb. 28 2013 4:05 p.m. MST

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?

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.

email: benson@desnews.com

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