On Manti Te’o, the Power of Narrative, and the Need for Fact-Checking

January 17, 2013 § 4 Comments


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An exceptionally odd story, but also a reminder of the power of narrative.  We just had a brief discussion with Lee Gutkind on one of the other social media platforms, where he aptly pointed out: “All this while traditional journalists criticize creative nonfiction writers for alleged liberties.”

Lee also promised free copies of his new book You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction–from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between to “all sports reporters who promise to read the chapters about fact checking.”

Here’s the latest from Slate, on why the story spread:

As Deadspin laid out in brutal detail on Wednesday, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o’s dead girlfriend is neither dead nor Manti Te’o’s girlfriend nor a corporeal being. Te’o and Lennay Kekua never met on the field at Stanford, never hung out together in Hawaii, and didn’t talk on the phone each night as she lay dying of leukemia. As we wait to learn more details of this amazing hoax, it’s worth examining the second-biggest mystery of the Manti Te’o fake girlfriend saga: How did the sports media come to spread this phony story?

The writer who did the most to popularize Te’o’s tale of triumph over tragedy was Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel. In late September, Thamel wrote that the Notre Dame star “played remarkably well under the most depressing of circumstances—the death of his girlfriend and grandmother within [a] 24-hour span before the Irish’s game against Michigan State.” (The part about his grandmother’s death is true.) In the Oct. 1 edition of the magazine, which placed Te’o on the cover and noted that the linebacker “has restored the shine to the Golden Dome,” Thamel reported the precise date of Lennay Kekua’s supposedly almost-deadly car accident (April 28) and stated that her “relatives told [Te’o] that at her lowest points, as she fought to emerge from a coma, her breathing rate would increase at the sound of his voice.” And in a Dec. 20 piece, Thamel explained that Kekua wrote Te’o a series of inspirational notes before her passing, and that her brother Kainoa and sister U’ilani “would read the letters to Manti” to help soothe his pain. “It’s given me a sense of strength and perseverance,” the Heisman Trophy finalist told the Sports Illustrated writer.

If Thamel or anyone else at SI had used Nexis or Google, they would’ve discovered that Lennay Kekua (not to mention her brother and sister) didn’t exist. A reporter doesn’t expect to learn that his subject’s dead girlfriend is nothing but a fake Twitter avatar. But a reporter, especially at a fact-checked magazine like SI, also doesn’t generally put someone’s name into print and say that she smashed up her car on April 28 without confirming the spelling and the wreckage. That assumption of basic competence filters down to everyone else in the sports media ecosystem: If Manti Te’o’s story of woe is inSports Illustrated, then it must be true.

So why didn’t Thamel and his cohorts at ESPN and elsewhere figure out they were all on a Catfish-ing exhibition? Because they fell victim to confirmation bias. Even before his great 2012 season, Te’o’s golden-as-the-dome image had been cemented. He was a humble leader, a Boy Scout, a religious fellow who put family first, a player who returned to Notre Dame for his senior season because, in the words of his father, “he was led there to do something.”

Manti Te’o was a sports hero, and his standout play this year demanded the details to flesh out that storyline. There’s a journalistic cliché: If your mother says she loves you, check it out. For sports hagiographers, it’s more like: If he makes a lot of tackles, don’t you dare check anything. Stardom demands that feature writers color in the lines with off-field greatness. And Te’o’s character, it seemed, was unimpeachable. After all, there had been all these stories about how humble and religious he was, and how he’d been led to Notre Dame to do something.

Read More Here

 

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§ 4 Responses to On Manti Te’o, the Power of Narrative, and the Need for Fact-Checking

  • As an ND fan since birth (my dad is an alum and I am, too), I am, of course, sick to death over this. However, with all due respect to those who are shaming the complicit journalists, fans, and administrators, how many literary journals that publish nonfiction have full-time fact-checkers on the payroll? My sense is that lit journals and small presses do not have the resources to provide the level of fact-checking that, say, a New Yorker, Paris Review, Believer, etc. has, where there is a team of hungry (literally) fresh-out-of-college kids looking into the smallest details. I’m speaking from my experience publishing in lit journals and with an indie press (in my case Soft Skull, one of the indie darlings, that runs on a very, very, very small shop (or at least used to before being bought up). I’m not defending Te’o or the sports journalists, but how certain can the editors of lit journals and small presses be that the nonfiction work they are publishing is 100% factual? Look at what happen to the venerable Ira Glass and This American Life. They were completely blind-sided, and some would say that it was due in part to the fact that they so wanted to believe the story that Mike Daisey was telling them; it was such a good story. It seems the same thing has happened/is happening here. The difference is the stakes are way higher. Notre Dame is a multi-million dollar brand, and sports news outlets, like SI and ESPN are part of multi-million dollar conglomerates that make money off of issues sold and ratings. Do you know how much trouble I went to to find a copy of the Sports Illustrated issue that had Te’o on the cover? My point is that we need to take care of our house first.

  • Like Dave, I’m a lifelong ND fan and grad, with father and two brothers all alumni, too, plus I’m a Mormon, so I’ve been following this story closely, wondering how it’ll all shake out. I’ve shifted my belief a few times, but given some new links after Jack Swarbrick’s press conference (and some astute Twitter-investigating by a few folks that turned up people joking about the hoax over a month ago), I’m leaning toward believing that Te’o was victim as were all the reporters who bought into the hoax and pumped it up. Re: fact-checking, I don’t see how fact-checking would help these media outlets with their bottom line. Think of all the mileage they got out of the original story, and now think of all the further mileage they’re getting out of the hoax blowup! It doesn’t pay to fact-check. If they do, then they miss all these views and reads and click-throughs to advertisers. They’re complicit in the problem because the problem pays them handsomely. Especially in a case like this, where they can cash the checks twice.

  • Sport journalists are still journalists. Right?

  • sarahemc2 says:

    Since this story broke, I’ve been pondering this: can it be true that Te’o experienced the death of his girlfriend right before the big game and also that Te’o’s girlfriend never existed? If we give this young man the benefit of the doubt and accept, while we are have no proof otherwise, that he believed this woman to be real and that he felt for her as he has said he did, I think the answer is yes. What do you think?

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