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.

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