Ohio Journalist

Hoax

By Lindsay Friedman | Photos by Eli Hiller

(December 1, 2015) — A football star, a pretty woman and a tragedy make for a perfect story in the media world. At least until it unravels. Then it becomes something else.

We can thank Timothy Burke, deadspin. com editor and Ohio University alumnus, for showing readers exactly what that looks like.

With the help of an anonymous tip, the journalist and his colleague Jack Dickey discovered that “the most heartbreaking and inspirational story of the college football season” wasn’t real.

“It changed the way I do my reporting,” Burke said. “I’m just trying to get the facts.”

According to Sports Illustrated, Notre Dame’s star player, Manti Te’o, had faced a year full of peril after the death of his grandmother and longtime girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, in a span of six hours.

Immediately following the traumatic events, the linebacker went on to victory by helping Notre Dame defeat Michigan State, racking up 12 tackles.

But who, exactly, was Lennay Kekua?

“We couldn’t find a trace of this character existing before she died,” Burke said. “I think there’s a thrill in the chase in trying to solve a puzzle, and this was a puzzle.”

Unable to locate any record of the mystery girl, Burke and Dickey questioned the credibility of one of the most read sports publications in the country.

“Credibility is everything. I teach a [Scripps] ethics class, and that’s the baseline,” said Andy Alexander, former ombudsman for The Washington Post and a visiting professional in the school. “Whether it’s a tweet or a video, we still have the same obligation to make sure that it’s accurate, that it’s fair. That it’s telling readers something they need to know.”

Evidence supporting the tipster’s claims piled up as the photo of Te’o’s alleged girlfriend was located and witnesses along with records came forward.

“Ethics tell you which way to go,” Burke said. “The path was very straightforward once we gathered most of the details. It would have been unethical as a journalist to not try and get the truth out … Once people read the story [of Te’o’s hoax], they realized it was completely backed up.”

Deadspin revealed the most elaborate hoax of the 2012–13 football season, but Burke and Dickey also uncovered another similarly pressing problem, this time in the journalism world rather than the sports world.

“I think we’ve gotten so interested in telling a good story we’ve gotten out of practice of making sure those stories are true,” Burke said. “For some, cheap journalism is better. You can either spend time on [the story] or try to get it out first.”

The mentality is plagued with the idea that being the first is more important than being correct or, as Alexander said, “not wrong for long.”

“It’s the notion that we can put [the story] out there, and if it’s wrong, we’ll just correct it later,” he said. “That’s not good enough. You’ve got to get it right the first time because even if it’s online for a nanosecond it’s already going around the world.”

Having a chance to take a look at Sports Illustrated’s story file, Burke was able to pinpoint the problem. The story was turned in with only three hours to edit and fact check before deadline. Though some facts were omitted because they couldn’t be confirmed, others were left in because of their importance to the story.

“[It’s] kind of absurd,” he said.

While Alexander said journalists are “dealing with all sorts of new ethical dilemmas we could never have foreseen” and are facing a “new demand” from readers, Burke has a different explanation for the neglect of ethical values.

“We’re not teaching ethics or logic anymore,” Burke said. “I taught higher education journalism for 10 years and, at OU, we were required to take a logic and ethics class. Now, some come into the workforce that were never taught to ask questions and find its truthfulness. That’s why we’re so fortunate at OU.”

As a visiting professional, Alexander said the goal of an ethics class is to give students the critical thinking skills to make their own decisions, so when they face ethical dilemmas, 99 percent of the time they’ll get it right.

“In journalism we can make an effort to improve conditions and we can do that by exposing things or suggesting things,” Alexander said. “We can right wrongs and we can inspire people.”

Burke said that in almost every circumstance “it shouldn’t take a long time to think about… You should already know right from wrong.

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