The inspirational story of an American football player at the University of Notre Dame, who seemingly overcame heartbreak and tragedy to excel on the football field, took a rather strange and shocking turn this past week as it was revealed that most of the “tragedy” had been completely fabricated. While the facts surrounding the story and actual people involved are still being uncovered, there are several important lessons for teachers, students, parents and journalists to take from the developing story.
Manti Te’o’s story, one in which he experienced the death of his grandmother and his girlfriend within a few hours only to go on to have personal best games has been building and growing in popularity over the past few months. He was first featured in the local newspaper of South Bend, Indiana, where the University of Notre Dame is located, and then profiled on the national stage, most notably by Sports Illustrated magazine and by ESPN, the most popular sports multimedia outlet in the United States, with a growing international audience. Stories about Te’o also appeared in The New York Times and on CBS This Morning. The story goes that Te’o’s girlfriend had been in a car accident and was diagnosed with leukemia shortly thereafter. In September 2012, he received word of his grandmother’s death and within six hours he learned his girlfriend had also died; a few days later, he went on to post some of his most impressive stats on the football field. It was the type of human interest, triumph over tragedy story that audiences love to read and hear about. And many media outlets obliged as Te’o started to reach national hero status.
The only problem is, as Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey of deadspin.com proved in their revealing investigative piece published on 16 January, there are questions as to whether Te’o’s girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, who he claimed he met in 2009, ever actually existed. Though there is evidence of their interactions through social media sites, who was actually behind the usernames proclaiming to belong to her is unknown at this point. And whether or not Manti Te’o was involved in what appears to be a hoax set up to bolster his profile is also unclear.
Undoubtedly our students will be aware of this story given the coverage it has received from various national and international news outlets over the past week and its growing popularity in the social media realm. For those of us responsible for the care of young people – whether as parents or in a professional sense as educators – using this as a teachable moment seems like the most logical next step. From the outset, elements of the story serve as yet another reminder to educate them about being aware of exactly who they are communicating with online. Though this has been an ongoing issue for many years, it appears it is not going away any time soon and may, in fact, be on the rise. The 2010 movie Catfish, which documents one young man’s deception by a woman via Facebook, illustrates just one example; the popularity of the movie has led to a new MTV show (premiering in the UK this week) in which the deceived, Nev, helps others, chosen from the hundreds who have emailed him, discover whether or not they have been “catfished” by their online love interests. Many have commented that Te’o himself has been “catfished” as he maintains that he was not involved in the hoax and fell for someone he has now admitted he never actually met in person.
It’s one thing for young (and not-so-young) people looking for love to be duped into believing in the existence of someone they have only “met” online – but what of the journalists, many from reputable and respected news organizations, who were responsible for reporting the “facts” of Manti Te’o’s story? How did they miss the surmounting evidence? It seems they simply did not do an essential part of their job – check, and double check, their facts. Had they done that sooner, rather than get swept up in the emotional triumph-over-tragedy story that will sell newspapers and magazines, and gain viewers and website visits, perhaps the truth would have been revealed sooner.
How can this translate into our work with journalism students? One idea is to take one of the early stories on Te’o and have students highlight the facts that they would need to check in order to run the story. They could then list the various sources and resources they would use to verify each fact and start checking the facts to see what they can find. If you are not already doing this with your students, the next step could be to have students go through the same procedure with a recent piece of work from one of their peers.
It’s a good lesson for scholastic journalism students – and their teachers – to ensure their facts have been verified and their work is truly ready for publication.
It’s a good lesson for all that, in this day and age especially, transcends the work of journalists. Don’t always believe what you read or hear or who you meet online. Check the facts.
And then check them again.