Notre Dame Manti Te’o hoax raises serious journalistic questions

Manti Te'o Photo: US Presswire

Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o (Photo: US Presswire)

It’s the dangerous side of sloppy journalism and poor independent fact checking.  Often, the size of the news organization has no bearing on who gets facts right, or in this case, gets it wrong. And some news organizations wonder why the public’s perception of their credibility keeps slipping.

It happened this week with the surprising revelation by Deadspin.com that Manti Te’o, Heisman Trophy finalist from Notre Dame University, was tied to a hoax. The hoax was that Te’o’s girlfriend died from leukemia. It was a false story amplified by news organizations who accepted fantasy as fact. The fake story played on the sympathetic emotions of millions of people.

Deadspin.com reported that it could find no record of the existence of Te’o’s alleged girlfriend Lennay Kekua.  Te’o claimed she had died Sept. 12 of complications from leukemia.

What’s unclear at this point is if Te’o was part of the hoax or victim of it.

Despite conflicting information in Manti Te'o's story, Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick stands by him. Photo: US Presswire

Despite conflicting information in Manti Te’o’s story, Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick stands by him. (Photo: US Presswire)

Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick told the news media Wednesday that Te’o was a victim of the hoax. Swarbrick said Te’o only had phone or online conversations with Kekua but had never met her in person. There’s some confusion here, at least according to an article written by South Bend Tribune reporter Eric Hansen last October.

In the article, Hansen described Te’o’s first face-to-face meeting with Kekua  after the 2009 Notre Dame- USC football game.

Wrote Hansen:

“Their stares got pleasantly tangled, then Manti Te’o extended his hand to the stranger with a warm smile and soulful eyes. They could have just as easily brushed past each other and into separate sunsets. Te’o had plenty to preoccupy himself that November weekend in Palo Alto, Calif., back in 2009.” 

My question to Hansen: @hansenNDInsider Did you independently verify dead girlfriend claims when you wrote the Oct. 12 story?  I’ll let you know if I get an answer.

CBS also displayed this photo of the ficticious Kekua several times throughout the Morning Show report.

CBS also displayed this photo of the fictitious Kekua several times throughout the CBS This Morning show report. (From: Deadspin.com)

The myth wasn’t only perpetuated by the South Bend Tribune, the newspaper closest to the Notre Dame hoax story. The fake story was also given national life by Sports Illustrated, CBS, Fox Sports, ESPN, the Associated Press and Los Angeles Times.

As Deadspin reported: “Te’o’s story moved beyond the world of sports. On the day of the BCS championship game between Notre Dame and Alabama, CBS This Morning ran a three-minute story that featured a direct quote from Lennay Kekua:

“Babe, if anything happens to me, you promise that you’ll stay there and you’ll play and you’ll honor me through the way you play.””

See CBS report on Te’o

Today, CBS reporter Chip Reid appeared on CBS’ This Morning again with a story explaining the latest in the hoax story. “It turns out we were all duped,” said Reid. He didn’t explain if he had ever independently fact checked the story before originally reporting it.  (The report has since been pulled from the Internet by CBS.) 

Who knew what, when?
According to Swarbrick, Te’o told Notre Dame on Dec. 26th that he had recently learned Kekua never existed. Notre Dame sat on the news until after Notre Dame’s loss to Alabama in the Jan. 7th BCS National Championship Game. Swarbrick said the university did so to independently investigate Teo’s’ claims. Swarbrick added that a motive for the hoax was unclear.

What is clear is that, until the Deadspin report, news outlets didn’t fact check the story. If they had made a few phones calls the hoax would have been revealed immediately.  

The news media would have discovered:

  • Lennay Kekua was a fictitious name
  • She never dated Manti Te’o

According to the Deadspin article:

  • Lennay Kekua never existed
  • She was never in a car accident
  • She never battled leukemia and never died
  • She wasn’t a Stanford student and Cardinal football fan when she and Te’o, according to the South Bend Tribune, “exchanged glances, handshakes and phone numbers that fateful weekend three seasons ago.”

A story as popular and widely reported as this, and no news organization flagged the inconsistencies in it until Deadspin reporters Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey started asking questions.  Their answers, with solid attribution, told them the Lennay Kekua story was false.

What Burke and Dickey did was admirable. It was also basic, solid journalism. That’s what journalists are supposed to do every day. Burke and Dickey kept digging though. I suspect they’re still digging hard today to find out the motive for the hoax. For this Burke, Dickey and Deadspin.com deserve praise for excellence in journalism.

By the way- Wednesday night it appeared the South Bend Tribune had pulled Eric Hansen’s October 12th story about Manti Te’o from its online archives. It’s been restored now and you can see it here. 

  • Or you can read Hansen’s story which also appeared in the Irish Sports Report.
  • Or you can see the full version of his story that I captured below complete with my mark-ups raising questions about Hansen’s missing source attribution or information in conflict with Te’o’s present claim that he never met Lennay Kekua in person.

What Dreams May Come Manti Te'o Article

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About Bernard McCoy

My views are my own and not a reflection of my employer. I'm an associate professor of Journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I've also been a working journalist for the past 29 years. I have covered news stories in war zones, reported on human and natural disasters, presidential conventions, a presidential inauguration and the September 11th, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. My career experiences include work as an award-winning documentary producer, television news reporter, photographer, producer, and anchor. I worked at WIBW-TV, Topeka, KS., KCTV, Kansas City, MO, WKBD-TV, Detroit, MI., WILX-TV, Lansing, MI. and WBNS-TV, Columbus, OH. I have also worked as a contributing reporter for The Columbus Dispatch, Associated Press, CBS, CNN, the Ohio News Network and lecture at the Kosovo Institute of Journalism and Communications. I have a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and a master’s degree in telecommunications management from Michigan State University.
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