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Really? If you were the reporter, do you ask to see the death certificate?

All sorts of reaction this morning to the most incredible story I can recall. Many are blaming reporters like Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel and ESPN’s Gene Wojciechowski, who did big high-profile reports on Manti Te’o, for not confirming that the girlfriend actually existed and that she actually died.

Writes Josh Levin at Slate:

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 in Sports Illustrated, then it must be true.

Later, Levin writes:

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.

Regarding Wojciechowski, he said he did try to find an obituary for the dead girlfriend and a newspaper account of her accident. However, I’m sure he did it to try to learn more details about the girl in effort to personalize the story. He wasn’t trying to confirm that she actually existed.

Wojciechowski also said he asked Te’o for a picture of the girl. Te’o responded that the family wanted to remain private. Wojciechowski decided to respect that privacy.

I’ve known Wojciechowski for more than 20 years. He is at the top of his class when it comes to being a thorough and diligent reporter.

Really, who among us out there wouldn’t have done the same thing? Name me a reporter who says, “Sorry to hear about your loss, Manti. Can I see a copy of the death certificate?”

Michael Rosenberg on SI.com writes:

The question is: Who got duped?

Well, most of media, for one. This includes Sports Illustrated – we put Te’o on our cover in October, and the story includes Te’o talking about his girlfriend dying. I didn’t write the story, but I’m going to be honest here and say I could have written the story.

Other media outlets had already written about Te’o's girlfriend dying, and Te’o talked about it … I mean, we’re all supposed to have b.s. detectors in this business, but mine would not have gone off there. Evidently, I’m not alone, because dozens of media outlets mentioned the girlfriend without wondering if she existed. In that situation, a reporter tries to talk to her family, other people who knew her — you fill in the edges of the story. But if you don’t get a hold of those people, would you really think “Hey, this is probably just a hoax, and this girlfriend doesn’t exist”? Be honest.

Exactly.

In this new world, if a player’s grandma dies, he/she better have a death certificate handy. Right? And a picture too.

Otherwise, we’re not running the story. Is that what it is going to come to?

My goodness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

10 thoughts on “Really? If you were the reporter, do you ask to see the death certificate?

  1. I think you’re over-simplifying things, with all due respect, by focusing on those original stories. Since they were published, the legend kept getting reprinted by lots and lots of different reporters, and sooner or later, you’d think _someone_ should have checked legacy.com for a death notice or talked to the “family” or their neighbors, if only to get new details on what a great guy Te’o was. And really, SI’s checkers should have done SOMETHING to verify the existence of the girlfriend — even if was just to check the spelling of her name. It doesn’t have to come to “I’m sorry your girlfriend died — can I see a death certificate?”, but basic journalism in the course of learning more about the player for human-interest puff pieces should have turned up something about this long before now.

  2. Maybe you don’t ask the bereaved boyfriend for a death certificate, but you could go on the Internet to conduct modest fact checking: try to confirm the crash, the funeral or that she in fact attended Stanford

  3. I’m not saying a reporter needs a death certificate before reporting this story, but wouldn’t he/she want to confirm some details? Maybe look for an obituary, news story on the crash, contact next of kin, something? Or is everything that is said/texted/tweeted/facebooked to be taken as fact?

  4. This is a bogus argument. No one needs to carry a death certificate of a loved one because its a public record that should be easily available on any number of databases (Lexus Nexus, for instance). That’s exactly what the writers of the original Deadspin article did to confirm his “girlfriend” didn’t exist.
    I think its understandable that Wojciechowski would take what Te’o was saying at face value, so its hard to fault him in this case, but let’s not pretend that this isn’t a teachable moment. If something seems odd, like not being able to find an obituary, maybe some more digging is required. We have the ability to investigate and verify claims without directly challenging people that make them.

  5. Well, no, you don’t ask Te’o for the death certificate, and you don’t show up at the funeral and pry open the casket. But somewhere during the process of editing and vetting, isn’t there a journalistic responsibility to fact-check? It’s pretty standard stuff, or at least it should be.

  6. As someone who is in the business, Ed makes some valid points.

    My only contribution to the discussion is the fact that Pete Thamel has been called out and shown to have altered facts, reworked direct quotes and inferred material in past stories. (The web sites, Deadspin and Kentucky Sports Radio have brought these incidents up in the past)

    To me his credibility is in question and he has to know that, he has to have seen the stories about him, some of which had those he supposedly interviewed outright denying he even spoke with them.

    With that as a background if I was in his situation, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to actually check ever fact I could get my hands on given the subject involved, the story itself, its impact and lastly the reporter who wrote it. Just to protect myself. (Again if I was him and with the questions being brought up about the stories I had done from as far back as when I worked for the New York Times.)

    Mark Liptak

  7. “Name me a reporter who says, “Sorry to hear about your loss, Manti. Can I see a copy of the death certificate?”

    Don’t be silly, asking that would have been tactless and cruel. The truth is nobody had to ask T’eo for a death certificate, they are public record and easily obtainable. If this perfunctory level of fact-checking (not much more time-consuming than a spell-check in the internet age) is considered too strenuous, then perhaps journalism really is dead.

    “In this new world, if a player’s grandma dies, he/she better have a death certificate handy. Right? And a picture too. Otherwise, we’re not running the story. Is that what it is going to come to?”

    I think the answer is, and should always have been, yes. Yes, a story should be verified before you run with it. Journalists like to hold themselves and their profession in high regard, but when they fail to display even a shred of the intellectual integrity necessary to the pursuit of truth, and act with the unquestioning credulity of the proverbial choir member, things like this, which make the entire profession seem indistinguishable from the much-maligned, amateur blogosphere, are bound to occur.

    Because no one at SI, ESPN, or any other outlet felt it necessary to scratch beneath the surface of a good story, the entire media is now being forced to absorb yet another black eye to its already battered reputation.

  8. Not one reporter thought to contact the Stanford sports information director’s office on the outside chance of getting an interview with the “girlfriend’s” roommate, parents, a teacher, SOMEBODY, anybody that knew her personally?

    Doing so more than likely would’ve revealed that the girl DIDN’T GO TO STANFORD! After which it likely would’ve been determined that SHE DIDN’T EXIST!

    Might not be a bad idea for sportswriters to work the police and/or political beats for awhile before they migrate into the toy department. That way, they might be able to tell more easily when someone’s story sounds fishy.

    And yet, the lie was so big and so outlandish, why wouldn’t you believe it?

  9. There’s an old journalism bromide: Too much research can ruin a great “story.” And this was a “story” everyone loved. But it’s not a fact until you check it, and verify it. Of course you don’t ask a victim for a death certificate, that’s a red herring. But this “story” had many aspects that cried out for verification. Journalists need to practice journalism to serve their readers/viewers/listeners. Good reporting takes time and research; otherwise it’s speculation that’s being delivered. “Here’s what we heard happened” “Here’s what could have happened.” “Maybe.” “But we’re not really sure because we never bother to check.”

  10. Haven’t we heard reporters say over and over, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out”? Then why is it too much to expect them to have used some shoe leather (another journalistic cliche) here? I usually agree with you, but not this time.

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