By now, we’ve all read the story. We’ve seen the interviews and heard the voicemails. Some believe Manti Te’o is the naïve victim of an incredibly elaborate hoax. Others firmly hold he helped to create the scheme to quell questions about his personal life or to gain Heisman votes.
Regardless of Te’o’s level of involvement, a closer examination of the situation outlines the failings of Notre Dame and the national media – and how getting caught up in the emotion of the story allowed it to spin out of control.
Keeping it Simple
Notre Dame held a press conference mere hours after the hoax became breaking news. The school’s athletic director indicated the school had conducted an exhaustive investigation into the claims. USAToday later reported that the investigation did not include interviewing Te’o or his family, nor did it examine phone records. The investigation included a search of social media sites that uncovered public Twitter posts alluding to a scheme, leading to the conclusion that Te’o was a victim.
The AD not only stood behind the linebacker, but openly wept about the “tragedy” and the “victim.”
Our own Carol Cookerly is famous for saying: “Sometimes the best interview is the one you don’t give.” In today’s media world, it’s easy to think that an elaborate response is required. In some situations, especially those with a lot of unanswered questions and pending investigations, it’s better to keep things simple.
Notre Dame has been no stranger to real tragedy. In 2010, a student was killed filming football practice when high winds toppled the film tower he was using. During the press conference, the same AD methodically described the accident and the school’s reaction, but shed no tears. That same year, a student at nearby St. Mary’s College committed suicide after accusing a Notre Dame football player of sexual assault. The university has been accused of a cover up and lack of investigation, marring the school’s image.
Te’o is not returning to Notre Dame, and there was no alleged misconduct by the school. Since the press conference, Te’o has admitted lying about the existence of the girlfriend to some degree. If it comes to light that he was a willing participant in the hoax – or worse – it would be yet another blow to the storied university’s reputation. Notre Dame would have been well served to issue a brief statement acknowledging the report, indicating the facts were still being investigated and the school was working to assist the Te’o family in this manner.
The Deadspin article, which first brought the story to light, never had to happen. For months, a lie was perpetrated in the national media because most journalists covering the Manti Te’o story accepted information at face value and never questioned or investigated the veracity of statements made about his tale. Te’o’s story was Sports Illustrated’s October 1 cover story. The article was heartbreaking and inspiring, cementing Te’o as the tragic hero.
After the news of the hoax broke, author Pete Thamel admitted he could not find any references to the girlfriend in Lexis Nexis when fact-checking Te’o’s story. There was no obituary. There were no news articles about the supposed car crash.
Thamel wrote the story anyway, failing at the most basic function of his job: to obtain the truth. Thamel wasn’t alone. Numerous news outlets and reporters continued to tell the story, apparently with little or no effort to seek information beyond what was widely published.
Whatever the truth is, it’s a sad story. And, it’s one that will have lasting effects – not just for Te’o. Notre Dame and the reporter who highlighted Te’o’s story will serve as a reminder to all of us in communications to be careful, to be thoughtful and above all, to seek and tell the truth.
Image Credit: Neon Tommy