The Manti Te’o Hoax: What the Hell Were Thousands of Media Professionals Thinking?

manti-teo-notre-dameMy first job out of college, at a quarterly magazine, was a quaint little thing called “fact checking.” (Also, to be fair, copy editing, web content, and even the occasional bit of writing — it was a pretty good gig, as far as those first jobs go. But the key part of it for today’s purposes is the fact checking.)

Fact checking is not a particularly sophisticated art. It involves going through the rough draft of a story and making a little mark in red next to every statement of checkable fact. So if the lede is something like “Dr. John Dongley Thompson, an erectile dysfunction specialist at Sweet Mother of God Hospital in downtown Chicago, is having a hard time keeping up with demand for his services,” the fact checker goes through and makes a little dash or something above “Dr.,” above the name, above the specialization, and above the hospital name and location.

Then he/she hastens to yon internet and double-checks that all those things are, in fact, true — that this guy exists and has a doctorate from somewhere, that his name is spelled right, that he does indeed practice the kind of medicine the story says he practices, and that he is in fact employed by the hospital named and that it is still in business and located where the article says it is.

It’s not a very glamorous job. But it is an important one, and at the risk of self-aggrandizement, I’m going to go ahead and say that having done it for a summer more than qualifies me to ask: where the hell were everybody’s fact-checkers when they were running their heartwarming Manti Te’o stories?


If you’re like me, “Manti Te’o” was not a name you’d heard before this week. He is apparently a bit of a somebody in college football? But this year he was especially somebody because he not only played football well, he also had a heartwarming story about a sick girlfriend and, eventually, a dead girlfriend, along with a dead grandmother or something like that.

And like many people this week, I found out about this whole precious story because Deadspin blew it out of the water. I’d never heard of Manti Te’o, much less his girlfriend and her tragic battle with cancer or whatever, until Deadspin (Deadspin! Fucking Deadspin!) ran a blockbuster “scoop” pointing out that Manti Te’o doesn’t have a dead girlfriend. So maybe it’s a little too easy for me to pass judgement.

But seriously? From the Deadspin article:

Manti Te’o did lose his grandmother this past fall. Annette Santiago died on Sept. 11, 2012, at the age of 72, according to Social Security Administration records in Nexis. But there is no SSA record there of the death of Lennay Marie Kekua, that day or any other. Her passing, recounted so many times in the national media, produces no obituary or funeral announcement in Nexis, and no mention in the Stanford student newspaper.

Nor is there any report of a severe auto accident involving a Lennay Kekua. Background checks turn up nothing. 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.

The photographs identified as Kekua—in online tributes and on TV news reports—are pictures from the social-media accounts of a 22-year-old California woman who is not named Lennay Kekua. She is not a Stanford graduate; she has not been in a severe car accident; and she does not have leukemia. And she has never met Manti Te’o.

This would not be a big story if every major news source in the country hadn’t run something or other, at some point, about all of those untrue claims the Deadspin article just listed.

ESPN talked about his inspiring story. Sports Illustrated talked about it. The South Bend Tribune wouldn’t shut up about it, ever. And they were all printing something completely unsupported by the simplest and most checkable of facts, and then other news sources picked it up and ran the same, bogus story, without ever checking it on their watch.

newspaper-reporter-typewriterThe sad part is that Deadspin finally figuring their shit out (and even they got an anonymous tip that got them moving; it’s not like they started doing basic journalism on their own either) is being treated like a serious investigative scoop, when all they did was what everyone that ever touched this story should have done: check the goddamn facts.

Did the guy tell you his girlfriend went to Stanford? Brilliant! Check their student registries. He talks about a car crash? Look up the accident report! She’s in the hospital? Maybe think about calling around and seeing if anyone has a patient by that name.

These things are thirty second jobs, maybe a minute, tops, for a $12-an-hour summer intern fresh out of undergrad. There’s no excuse for The New York Times to be running a story that refers to a made-up woman as a “Stanford alumnus” — but the Times did. And the list of top-tier media sources that made the same basic error goes on and on; the Deadspin article quite gleefully — and quite correctly — calls them out on it one by one.

Sports writers are going to be making a lot of hay out of who knew what when, and whether Manti Te’o was in on the scam and if so how deep, and so on, but that’s all a bunch of barn-door closing. The real story here is that, for at least a year, sports media have been making front page news out of a bogus story, and not even a very good one. Five minutes of fact-checking could have spiked any one of the dozens of headline Manti Te’o/Lennay Kekua articles that ran in 2012.

Good job, guys.

Deadspin (fucking Deadspin; seriously now) sums it all up bluntly:

There was no Lennay Kekua. Lennay Kekua did not meet Manti Te’o after the Stanford game in 2009. Lennay Kekua did not attend Stanford. Lennay Kekua never visited Manti Te’o in Hawaii. Lennay Kekua was not in a car accident. Lennay Kekua did not talk to Manti Te’o every night on the telephone. She was not diagnosed with cancer, did not spend time in the hospital, did not engage in a lengthy battle with leukemia. She never had a bone marrow transplant. She was not released from the hospital on Sept. 10, nor did Brian Te’o congratulate her for this over the telephone. She did not insist that Manti Te’o play in the Michigan State or Michigan games, and did not request he send white flowers to her funeral. Her favorite color was not white. Her brother, Koa, did not inform Manti Te’o that she was dead. Koa did not exist. Her funeral did not take place in Carson, Calif., and her casket was not closed at 9 a.m. exactly. She was not laid to rest.

Lennay Kekua’s last words to Manti Te’o were not “I love you.”

And that’s the real story here.

If your mother says she loves you, check it out.

    • High-Class Called Girl
    • January 18th, 2013

    I have called my mother to confirm that she, in fact, loves me. I am trying to call my father to get verification from a third party but he isn’t answering his phone. All of my attempts at getting verification from unbiased third parties have been unsuccessful because there aren’t any in this matter.
    I guess I’ll never know now.

  1. Speaking of tawdry fictional love stories, are you still thinking of a romantic writing contest for St. Valentine’s Day?

    • Well, I am now.

        • still a secret
        • January 18th, 2013

        I may actually submit to that, depending on how tawdry… and how anonymous I can be.

        Also, yeah, in case the screaming heads on t.v. weren’t an indication, news media are pretty much giving up on the actual journalism thing. The reporters even said things during the recent election like “well, guess the fact checkers will have fun with that”. As though that were somehow not their job nor the job of their news station! It’s… pretty depressing.

        • You know, you bring up a point that hadn’t occurred to me as I was writing this, but should have — the last couple years did see the rise of “fact checker” organizations like PolitiFact, with the inherent implication that it’s not the job of TV stations or newspapers to “fact check” anymore.

          Not an ideal trend in any circumstances, and particularly alarming given how bad most of those sites are at their purported mission, huh?

          As far as story contests go I can keep submissions as anonymous as the authors want, though I generally encourage people to claim their due credit and a link to their website for traffic purposes. You can flip back through the late October 2012 posts to see how some of the scary story ones got attributed, as per the various author’s requests.

          I’ll see if I can’t have some details for a romance story contest posted on Monday!

        • Mmmm, when is a story not a story, well when everyone thinks it’s a story. And so with all the other news conspiracies out there.

  2. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed! It looks like we are neighbors here on Freshly Pressed – you and me together against mainstream journalism as we know it ;) Nicely done!

    • I daresay yours shows a bit more time and thought than mine, but the last time I got Freshly Pressed was for adorable cat pictures, so who knows what they’re thinking over there. Hello neighbor!

      • Haha last time I was Freshly Pressed was for photos too! New board of editors perhaps?

    • Amen

  3. Reblogged this on Grand Outlet and commented:
    I do not understand why this story is so important. I am still confused.

    • I though the collective ball-dropping by pretty much every media outlet that touched the story was worth comment…the football side of things, not so much. Like a lot of people, I think Manti Te’o only ever came to my attention because of this hoax.

      • I agree that it should be a big story because of what it reveals to us about traditional journalism, and the fact that this guy was a big name football player at a big time school is a secondary aspect of this story. Guys have been lying about girlfriends FOREVER, but they only reason this became more than some dude BSing was because the media didn’t let facts get in the way of a good story. That’s a very big problem for a country that relies on journalism as the fourth estate to protect us against the over reach of government and institutions.

  4. Brilliant post. I am so sick and tired of the race for the story. Quick report this now! Who cares if it’s true!. Yuk. I don’t report anymore but I did for a community news chain back in the day. I remember nearly getting my ass kicked for using “is said to be” about a Board of Education member’s involvement in some organization. In my only defense, I was a newbie. NEVER made that mistake again. Great post.

    • Ha. Said by WHOM? Source it or strike it!

      Not that there was a shortage of named sources making claims about Te’o’s girlfriend. They were just claims that could have stood some checking.

  5. Lucky for me I just write a dopey blog – no fact checking needed!

    It’s kind of ironic that the media is swarming over this story like flies on dootie – since the underlying message is: “Hey! We screwed up and reported some make-believe crap! Aren’t we the irresponsible ones!”

    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed.

    • I admit there’s some hypocrisy inherent in knocking news sources for their lack of fact-checking when it’s something I don’t need to do very often myself…but hey, that’s why they make the big bucks. Or it’s supposed to be why they make the big bucks, anyway.

      • I wasn’t referring to you not checking facts, but to myself.

        On the bright side, it’s idiocy like the Manti Te’o story which provides me with endless fodder.

  6. I think I know what happened. Someone who did not check their facts broke the story. Subsequently, everyone checked their facts via that source, which was incorrect. The internet is an interesting place. Very few sources are ever cited, or at least not accurately, and there is a great deal of out-and-out plagiarism. A lot of sources that appear to be separate are, in fact, slightly altered versions of one another and these are not always drawn from a correct original. Journalists should know this, but I fear they have become much like everyone else–unable to distinguish between plagiarism and the real thing, and unable to tell nonsense from a reliable source. I don’t really entirely believe anyone.

    • kthorpe
    • January 21st, 2013

    Confirms the pathetic state of journalism at present: “if it sounds good, print it.”

  7. My blog doesn’t need much in the way of fact checking because it’s mainly about me and mine. Otherwise, I don’t see why bloggers should be exempt from fact checking as some of the responses to this article seem to imply. Good post.

  8. While not a semi-famous athlete, my filmmaker husband just had his name misspelled and his educational status misstated—both elements that could have been corrected with a 20 second Google search. Kinda drove me bonkers.

    I also read about how facts were widely bungled by major news outlets in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting. Do journalists not care any more? Or is the demand for speedy content and the short attention span of the public making bad reporting acceptable? Either way…kinda sucks.

  9. I started out as a fact-checker, too, and share your disgust in the media’s interest in swallowing this story without checking out the details. Of course, the media loved Lance Armstrong, too. Most of us are guilty of wanting to believe a good story, but those getting paid to report should take care to do their jobs.

  10. . I remember thinking what are the odds the guy’s Grandma and young girlfriend would die at the same time. But I didn’t give it much thought. That kind of mindless following of crap as if it was truth is not just in the media. The news should be more on the ball in fact checking, for sure. But look at the art world if you want to see real conman bulls–t taking big bucks in grant money with alarming frequency. And no one questions anything there either.

    • Jessie Lea Pingle
    • January 21st, 2013

    This just reminded me of the beginning of Runaway Bride, where Richard Gere’s character got fired for doing exactly what thousands of “journalists” now do daily… not check the facts! Hahaha.

  11. Congrats on being freshly pressed (me too!). I guess we kind of talk about the same issue, although mine is focusing on how the Internet is being blamed.

    I’m not American so I had never even heard of this story until I heard about it via Twitter. I don’t know how sports celebrity works in the States, but if anyone who played for a major sporting team (we don’t have a college league, but many of our high-grade footballers, for instance, are around the age of college students) confessed to having an online love, there would be people fact checking. The media wouldn’t even need to do it! People would be questioning why the player & the love interest hadn’t met, and questioning whether she really existed at all.

    This whole incident seems like a total shambles. I feel sorry for the guy, but hopefully he’s learned a good lesson about trust, and about privacy.

    • JDoubleU
    • January 21st, 2013

    What I find odd about this the most is not one journalist ever asked to speak to or quoted the fictitious dead girl. In the few articles I’ve read, they isn’t even a story about them together. So to me, it’s not necessarily that there wasn’t any fact-checking in its purest form. It’s just that the entire story was hearsay or 2nd person narrative. Granted, Te’o is the public figure but still. Take for instance, Ray Allen’s alignment with juvenile diabetes research. In the commercials, you see commercials of him AND his wife and son; not just him talking about it or presenting a disingenuous sob story like this 1 was. Maybe not the best comparison, but hope my point wasn’t lost in translation.

    Congrats on being FP

  12. I’m sorry, but what was this so-called “quarterly magazine” you claim to have worked at? And you say “out of college”—did you actually graduate or just drop “out of college”? And you say you made marks in “red”; is that some sort of subtle wink at your communist cohorts of American journalism? Well, Mr. “Cubbage,” I fear we’re going to have to look into a few things regarding your post—oh wait, we just got a Kim Kardashian pregnancy update. Sorry, gotta go. After all, you’re probably trustworthy I’ve got some real work to deal with, so congrats on being freshly pressed.

  13. You make a good point. I too have done my fair share of fact-checking. Perhaps, like too many Americans, even the news is too quick to place sports and other stars on pedestals. Too quick even to ensure that their stories are all right. Manti, I suppose, was counting on this…

    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  14. Great post. Thanks for the clarity re journalistic process, which I’ve always found interesting.
    Congrats on being FP!

    • lentaylor99
    • January 21st, 2013

    Perhaps an AP style book refresher… Assume Nothing. This is rampant across journalism, regardless of media and method. Too much focus on Now and not enough on Right…

  15. Because of previous jobs that required my fact checking, I do it without asking now. I don’t want to be the one who missed something. It’s amazing no one ever tried to get a quote from Kekua or her family along the way anyway. Good post!

  16. Reblogged this on Media Psychology and commented:
    What an entertaining ride for the fans! This has to run a full psychological gamut from reactions of sympathy and admiration for his performance in support of his “dead girlfriend” to betrayal, not only his allegedly by Tuiasosopo, but by the media who did not do their job. It’s interesting as well that this “story” continues to hold the fan’s attention. It’s just another soap opera with a sports twist. Standby for Katie Couric’s interview on the 24th.

  17. Having done the EXACT same kind of work, it makes me cringe that SI and ESPN (and others) didn’t do the most basic of research. Though in a way, that’s not so surprising. The Nation has been quietly mentioning the fact that an undergrad was raped at ND, and when she was sent threatening texts after reporting it, she killed herself. Then there’s the cameraman that the head football coach sent up a tower the day after the hurricane, to film practice. He died when the tower collapsed. But those stories don’t get told (yes, The Nation … covers sports.) Instead, we get heartwarming but fictional stories about piteous but fictitious girlfriends. Because Notre Dame, and its eager co-conspirators at ESPN and SI.

  18. I’ve been around on teh int4rw3bz for a long time, long enough to have gotten interviewed by multiple news sources when the papers finally realized that this Internet thing was indeed a thing, and they wanted to start talking to some of the denizens.

    There were four major articles in major newspapers/magazines for which I was interviewed. FOUR. We’re talking major papers, Newsweek, etc.

    NOT ONE of them was accurate in any way, shape, or form. Not one. Every stinking one was wrong.

    It’s more than a matter of not fact-checking. They went into those stories with their narrative already written, and all they wanted were pull quotes. This particular story of the dead girlfriend is a massive failure of fact-checking, but this fish has stunk from the head long before it got so far downstream. Ever since the invention of news, I think.

  19. There are more news outlets now than ever. Every one’s private life is an open book. Info is available for free or cheap. Am I wrong or is news getting worse than ever. Is the American press the new Tass of the Soviet era?

  20. Having worked at newspapers I can tell you that nobody even pays for fact-checking anymore. Reporters are being asked to do so much more, the pressure for the big stories is always on, and fewer editors are on staff to check their work. Reporters do their best to be accurate and check things out, but mistakes inevitably happen…and forget about having “another set of eyes” look at the story before it’s printed or posted.

    • i think you’ve hit the nail on the head. as a former community news reporter currently working in PR, i’ve learned from sad firsthand experience that reporters often just don’t have the time to do basic fact-checking much less basic reporting in many instances. it’s vwey commonplace for reporters to use quotes and info from other outlets or rip them straight from press releases without bothering to try to get anything firsthand. and don’t get me started on a reporter from one major news outlet emailing my spokesman “ok, now give me some quote material”… i died a little inside that day.

  21. This baffled me as well that no one ever checked any facts when the original stories came out. That’s the first damn thing I would have done is Google the broad and I just write stupid little articles for community magazines. lol

  22. Reblogged this on Bored American Tribune. and commented:
    — J.W.

    • aschmid3
    • January 23rd, 2013

    I first read Te’o’s story in Sports Illustrated back in October, and I remember reading the part about the grandmother and the cancer-stricken girlfriend dying within hours of each other and thinking “This sounds made up! But it’s Sports Illustrated. They would have checked it, and this is very easy stuff to fact check.” I guess not.

    I’m hoping my husband gets this week’s Sports Illustrated in the mail tonight. I can’t wait to see what they wrote in response to this front page story being proven totally bogus by what you correctly pointed out to be very basic journalism.

  23. You mean she didn’t really die from leukemia?

  24. Yeah, unfortunately, the news seems to move too fast these days for fact-checking. Media outlets use each other to “verify” information, rather than going to the actual source. I was caught up in a bogus media story that appeared on Dr. Phil twice, once when everybody thought it was real, and again when everyone found out it was fake. Dr. Phil’s reaction? “Why didn’t you tell us” that the whole thing was a scam?

  25. It seems that op-eds are replacing actual objective journalism. I’ve recently seen a few stories that were posted on major new websites, with no author attributed, and no sources cited. The comment posters didn’t seem to notice this, and took everything in the op-ed for fact, getting outraged. It was deplorable.

  26. the manatee hoax. no, they are real, i’ve seen them.
    strange creatures.

  27. But facts are…difficult

  28. In the Deep South/football country, stories spun like Te’o’s are used as rallying points for teams’ entire seasons and as such, as fact. Sports journalism tends toward hero building rather than fact checking–it sells papers to the fan base and sells tickets.

  29. The issue lies in our American need for immediacy. Once someone had taken the time to fact check, the story would have been old had. The early bird need not be bothered to verify the authenticity of the worm.

  30. congratulations on featured in Freshly pressed.

  31. People will believe anything they want to believe. That’s why P.T. Barnum died a millionaire.

  32. I don’t understand how this report is going to affect my appeal toward football, but I do know I’ll be tuned in to see all the crazy shit Manteo does when he gets all that money.


  33. 1This is exactly how I felt!! Hear hear!!

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