In the past week, one story has dominated both major sporting and news outlets: Notre Dame Manti Te’o and his deceased dead girlfriend.
As a series of media outlets reported, Fighting Irish linebacker Te’o learned of the deaths of both his grandmother, Annette Santiago, and girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, within the same day.
And instead of folding up, Te’o led his team to a 20-3 upset of Michigan State, racking up 12 tackles in the process.
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly even awarded the game ball to Kekua in a heartfelt display of recognition.
And media outlets like ESPN, Sports Illustrated and the New York Times bit hook, line and sinker, touting the story as a rare inspirational tale.
But Deadspin broke the real story earlier this week, reporting that Lennay was a fictional character that only existed in a series of social media sites.
In the report, Deadspin wrote: “The Stanford registrar’s office has no record that a Lennay Kekua ever enrolled. There is no record of her birth in the news. Outside of a few Twitter and Instagram accounts, there’s no online evidence that Lennay Kekua ever existed.”
Notre Dame confirmed the article just hours later, and Te’o put out a statement declaring that he’d met a woman online and began a relationship through frequent phone calls and online conversations, but later found he’d been part of one big elaborate dupe.
Although Lennay was proven nonexistent, Manti Te’o’s grandmother did pass away on Sept. 11, 2012, according to Social Security Administration records.
Now the entire nation seems preoccupied with determining if Te’o staged one of the biggest hoaxes in college football history, or if he was simply duped online by sick pranksters.
As far as news stories go, it was the perfect storm of shock and disbelief.
But the story is alarming for a few reasons. For one, it demonstrates how common it is to become a victim of online scams and harassment (that’s assuming Te’o is telling the truth).
But what’s really unsettling is the way the media completely failed to accurately reported the initial story.
At least ten print sources reported she was a Stanford student, and the South Bend Tribune and the New York Times stated she was an alumna.
And there were several differing accounts of when Lennay Kekua and Te’o’s grandmother passed away. The New York Post reported they were three days apart, while ESPN said four. The South Bend Tribune reported that Te’o’s grandma died shortly after Kekua, then a month later switched the order.
The Associated Press reported that Lennay’s funeral took place in Carson City, and the Palm Beach Post said her funeral took place in Hawaii.
Everyone was so hungry to break the story first that no one did a background check or followed up with Lennay’s mysteriously absent records.
So while the Te’o’s story is still in progress, the ordeal reminds us all to question the reporting methods from our media outlets (even this one).
Typo’s happen, and misspellings rear their ugly head from time to time. But there’s no excuse for consistently reporting on a person that doesn’t exist.
Delivering an interesting story for your readers is always a top priority, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of verification.