HARPER: Journalism undermined by Te’o ruse

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

It might be time for a serious gut check for sports journalism — and maybe for other journalists, too. The revelation by an online publication, Deadspin, about how numerous journalists helped spread a tragic and false story of the death of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o’s “girlfriend” demands that gut check.

Deadspin called out CBS, ESPN, Fox Sports, Sports Illustrated and others for taking the story at face value when, in fact, it turned out the tale of Lennay Kekua was a hoax played out on the Internet. (Click here to see the Deadspin article.)

It is unclear whether Te'o or Notre Dame, which promoted the story and that of the actual death of Te'o’s grandmother the same day, was complicit in the false account. Nevertheless, news organizations, with the exception of Deadspin, did not check out the facts.

How is this possible? Sports and politics often deal in analysis and speculation, with a few facts: wins and losses, and election results. In between final scores and actual votes, political and sports analysts have to chew on scenarios. Therefore, it came as a surprise to most sports fans in Philadelphia that Charles “Chip” Kelly, who had reportedly said he planned to stay as the coach at the University of Oregon, accepted the head coaching job of the Philadelphia Eagles. Similarly, many political analysts were nonplussed when President Obama won the election because that’s not what many flawed polls were saying.

But political and sports journalists are not alone. Reporters at the massacre in Newtown, Conn., got the following wrong: the identity of the gunman, the gun used in the shootings, the role his mother had (or did not) at the school.

Each example here undermines the credibility of all journalists. That’s about the only significant aspect for a journalist’s reputation. And the public ranks journalists as among the least credible people in the U.S.

That distrust starts with the failure to check facts. It can be said that the 24/7 news cycle places a greater burden on reporters than any other time. That may be true, but I worked almost 40 years ago for one of the first 24/7 news operations in the world: The Associated Press. I remember the guidance my editor gave me: Get it first, but it better be right.

Some other critical aspects of journalism seem to have been neglected for speed. Journalists need to remember that speed kills. I had to have at least two sources for facts when I worked for Newsweek and ABC News. No individual, anonymous sources were accepted. We need to return to that standard even it is means we have to wait for the actual result of the U.S. Supreme Court decision on Obamacare. You might recall that CNN and Fox got that one wrong too.

Journalism is the first rough draft of history, so mistakes will be made. But the failure to analyze the credibility of the Te’o story is unconscionable, particularly so many months after the initial report. Thank you, Deadspin and your reporters, for bringing us the actual truth.

A sage editor from the City News Bureau in Chicago said, “If your mother says she loves you, check it.” That’s our mantra at Temple University, where we are trying to provide the next generation of journalists. I hope that mantra returns to newsrooms throughout the country about how all journalists should gather facts about Te'o or any other story. It really is gut-check time.

Christopher Harper is a professor of journalism at Temple University. He worked for the Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and “20/20” for more than 20 years.

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