Journalistic Accountability in the Manti Te’o Scandal

Posted by Abbey Barrow

In the wake of the now infamous Manti Te’o fake girlfriend scandal, The Associated Press has issued a comprehensive correction this week, admitting that a series of AP Stories about Te’o contained inaccurate reporting.

But the AP was not the only news organization guilty of publishing false information. In fact, beginning in September, the story of Lennay Kekua’s death spread across all media platforms, despite the fact that she never existed.

Manti Te'o

Thus, a story was universally accepted, reported, and proliferated through the media industry even though there were no facts or evidence to back it up. How did this happen? How is that four months went by without a single writer or editor double-checking the existence of Kekua before publishing a story about her?

Sports Illustrated writer Pete Thamel shed a little light on the reporting errors that led to his publication of an SI Cover Story on Te’o back in September. In a post on the magazine’s website, Thamel discusses the lengthy reporting he went through to get the story including six hours of recorded interviews from five days spent at Notre Dame.

Yet, none of this reporting was enough to ensure Thamel was getting the whole truth. In a conversation with Te’o himself, Thamel relates how he failed to ask a seemingly unnecessary question that could have revealed the truth. “He never specified that he’d met her in person, and I didn’t ask. Why would you ask someone if he’d actually met his girlfriend who recently died?” he states.

While common sense would dictate that Te’o personally met his girlfriend, it is a journalist’s job to take nothing for granted and an editor’s job to ensure a reporter has asked all the right questions and gathered all the necessary information.

When Thamel couldn’t find Kekua in the Stanford directory (where she supposedly went to school) and found no other articles relating to her car crash or obituary notices, Thamel, his fact-checker, and his editors made the ultimate mistake. Instead of questioning why none of this information was available and digging for evidence, they simply left the information out of the story.

As reporters and editors, we all crave moving stories like the Te’o saga that will connect with readers. Thamel, like most of us would have, got wrapped up in the power of the story without solidifying his base of information. So for reporters and editors, it must always be facts first to avoid another Te’o scandal.

Photo via Neon Tommy

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4 responses to “Journalistic Accountability in the Manti Te’o Scandal

  1. Abbey,

    I really like how you addressed this recent news story in your blog post. The errors made by journalists in this instance are very relatable to our course discussion. I also liked the tone of your commentary on the AP correction and journalistic inaccuracy.

    At Drake journalism students we are taught media ethics by Blachford. One of the corner stones of J66 is that students learn to “seek the truth and report it.” From your assessment of this situation Thamel could not find the truth so he decided to report around it. He must have skipped class during that class when he was in college!

    • Thanks, Monica. You bring up some really good points about how the story relates to the basics of journalism we are learning now in school. You’re right because Thamel’s problem is a relatable one. We all have moments where inconvenient facts or questions come in before a deadline, leaving us with a difficult decision. But I also agree with you that the truth must always come first in reporting. Reporting around the facts may work momentarily, but will undoubtedly hurt you in the long run.

  2. I’m kind of obsessed with this Manti Te’o story, so I’m glad someone wrote about it! Has anyone seen his interview on Katie Couric’s show? I can’t fathom the fact that he was really that naive. During the whole interview he seemed very suspicious, like there was still things he wasn’t telling. Didn’t any of the journalists that were interviewing him back in September see that there was something really suspicious about his story? As journalists we are suppose to ask the hard hitting questions and I just can’t believe that no one did their research and was brave enough to ask Te’o more about his very interesting situation. Thanks for this post!

    • I agree, Steph! It really is a fascinating story and I am so puzzled by how journalists let it get this out of control. The Katie Couric interview definitely did raise some questions and even Thamel himself mentioned how some of Te’o’s comments raised red flags. I think you’re right on track when you say that journalists need to pick up on these discrepancies and ask the hard questions. Although it may be difficult or uncomfortable for writers and editors to raise such blunt, personal questions, it’s the only way to find the truth and make sure a story is accurately reported so that this does’t happen again.

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