The lessons of Manti Te'o: Making sure the great story is a true story

COMMENTARY — A columnist who has made a career out of chronicling stories of athletes overcoming adversity reflects on the basic truth of the Manti Te'o hoax.
by Jenni Carlson Published: January 18, 2013

The Manti Te'o story hit our sports department with all the force of a blindside blitz.

For the better part of half an hour Wednesday afternoon, you could've heard a pin drop in our office, which you know is rare if you've ever been around any of our loud mouths. Everyone in the office hunkered down and read the Deadspin story about Te'o having a fake girlfriend. Then, we tried to process it.

We're still working on that last part.

Where did this story go off the rails?

How is it that so many were misled?

Where did the sports media go wrong?

I'm not entirely sure. Some of the best-known and well-respected media outlets in our business perpetuated the story about the Notre Dame linebacker's girlfriend, the one who survived a car accident, learned she had leukemia, was on the mend, then died. It was a story told by everyone from the South Bend Tribune to Sports Illustrated, The New York Times and ESPN.com.

As we know now, the girlfriend never existed.

It's a wake-up call — those of us in the sports media have to do better.

Around most newsrooms, sports is known as the fun-and-games department. We cover games for a living, so that's understandable.

Still, even the most hard-nosed newsies have to admit that some of the best writing in journalism comes from sports. There are compelling stories. There are interesting narratives.

But none of that matters when you don't get the facts right. And right now, with this Te'o mess, the integrity of everyone in the sports media is in question.

That's how big this hoax story is.

I'll be the first to admit that the thread about Te'o playing for his girlfriend who lost her battle with cancer is the kind of story to which I'm drawn.

Why?

For starters, such stories humanize sports figures. So often, it feels like athletes and coaches are completely different from the rest of us. They jump higher. They run faster. They enjoy fame. They have bigger bank accounts.

But they are still people. They have fears and joys and inspirations just like the rest of us. If we write stories about universal themes such as love, loss, family and friendship, that helps you — the reader and the fan — connect to those sports figures in a whole new way.

Take a column that I wrote the same day that news broke about Teo's fake girlfriend. It was about Thunder reserve Kevin Martin and the connection he has to his hometown of Zanesville, Ohio. He has given tens of thousands of dollars to people in need there because, as he said, the citizens of the town pull for each other.

The feedback that I received on that story was overwhelmingly positive. Readers loved the fact that story went beyond the stats and the scouting reports and told them something more about Martin and the kind of person that he is.

I loved it for those reasons, too.

I've loved many stories over my career for those reasons.

But after the Te'o story, I wonder if I've ever been duped by someone at the heart of one of those stories. To my knowledge, I haven't been fooled, but all of us in the sports media are wondering that now. Did we get so swept up in the emotion of the story that we forgot to check the facts? Did we blindly believe someone because, well, we just really, really liked them?

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by Jenni Carlson
Columnist
Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football...
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