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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

I have a feeling that's what happened with this Te'o story. The guy is so charismatic, so easy to like. When he said he met his girlfriend after a game at Stanford, people believed him. When he said they talked for hours on the phone at night while she was sick, people believed him. And when he balked at putting reporters in touch with members of his girlfriend's family after she died — they were grieving, of course — people didn't push him.

An astute Oklahoman reader named Derek Davis points out that the girlfriend story could've been red flagged had anyone poked around Stanford. The school where Te'o's girlfriend was supposed to have attended is relatively small, and Derek suggests that had one of its students had a car accident, then been battling leukemia, everyone would've known about her.

There were many opportunities for someone to catch this hoax, but no one did.

Truth is, we could've easily fallen into the trap. Notre Dame came to town this past season, of course, so our sports department had every reason to write about the face of the Fighting Irish.

But we didn't. Too many other good stories kept falling into our laps. Had it not been for that, we would be doing the walk of shame with every other outlet that fell for this story.

Thing is, everyone in sports media is dirtied by this.

We need to check our “good story bias” at the door. Instead of looking only for signs that something is a good story, we need to follow up on clues that it isn't. Conflict doesn't derail stories. It enriches them.

We have to go back to basics, too. Every journalist has heard the credo, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” Now, we have to live by that. Check birth certificates and death notices. Call an extra source. Ask an uncomfortable question. Do another Google search.

Will we learn those lessons? The evidence isn't hopeful.

On Friday, ESPN reported a possible admission from the man who has been identified as the person behind the girlfriend hoax. Its main source — an unnamed woman who was identified as a church friend of the man.

Everyone in the sports media needs to make a commitment to be better. This hoax hasn't just hurt the reputation of Grantland and The Sporting News and ESPN anyone else who told the story. It has hurts the reputation of the entire sports media.

We've already processed this part of the story — we screwed up, and we must do better.

Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at (405) 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.

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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