Mainstream media forgets basic journalistic principles in Manti Te’o girlfriend story

Ryan Spoehr, Copy Editor

One might think the return of the NHL after their lockout and the NFL Playoffs would dominate sports headlines right now. However, that’s not exactly the case.

Those stories have taken a back seat in sports news to the scandal involving Manti Te’o, a football standout at Notre Dame. After having a friendship with a woman named Lennay Kekua, the two started dating, according to Te’o’s story.

After the alleged relationship began, Kekua was diagnosed with leukemia following a tragic car accident last year. She died as a result in September.

There was one problem, however. She didn’t exist.

In the Oct. 1 issue of Sports Illustrated, a story was published about Te’o’s alleged relationship. Then, on Jan. 16, Deadspin released that they could not find any record of Kekua at Stanford or even in a simple Google search, except for the articles that had been published about the relationship.

Whether Te’o was a victim or played a part in an elaborate hoax, this story is riddled with question marks and alarming red flags that journalists should have picked up on.

On Jan. 17, SI.com released the transcript of Pete Thamel’s interview from this past September for the cover story of the Oct. 1 edition of SI. If you look at just that, there are several red flags that Thamel admits. Thamel said he ran a background check through the website Lexis Nexis, but couldn’t find anything. He also said he contacted Mike Eubanks, Stanford assistant athletic director because Te’o couldn’t recall Kekua’s graduation year, which should be a red flag in itself. Eubanks looked up Kekua in the Stanford alumni database, but couldn’t find her.

However, there’s more. Te’o couldn’t recall what Kekua’s major was either. When Thamel asked him what her major was, Te’o said, “Her major was in English and something. I’ll double check.”

This should have been a red flag because, according to the transcript of the interview, Te’o told Thamel that he dated Kekua for a year and had met her four years prior to her death through his cousin.

“We met just, ummm, just she knew my cousin. And kind of saw me there so. Just kind of regular,” Te’o told Thamel.

This isn’t an indictment of Te’o. He is a young man who went through an embarrassing ordeal either way. Te’o is soft-spoken, but reporters need to remain cynical because the truth is the most important facet of journalism. It’s their responsibility to bring the truth, not regurgitate lies. Reporters at SI or CBS This Morning or ESPN should have done basic things like check the coroner’s office and followed through on a background check.

It is ironic that some of the most recognizable entities in journalism obviously forgot the most recognizable rule of journalism: fact checking.