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.
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