‘Reportedly’ is your friend for unverified imaginary girlfriends

At Scholars & Rogues, Brian Moritz takes a smart journalistic look at the much-repeated, too-long unexamined story of Manti Te’o’s imaginary girlfriend:

Verifying facts doesn’t necessarily mean being confrontational. It doesn’t mean asking Te’o “Yeah, I want to make sure your grandma and girlfriend really died.” Because yeah, you’d look like a terrible person if you did that. It also doesn’t mean harboring doubts about what you’re being told. It’s doing your diligence. If you’re doing a feature story about a player whose inspiration is his dying girlfriend, it seems obvious that you’d want her voice in the story somehow. That would mean trying to find out about her. What was she like? What happened to her? Maybe you call Stanford, where she went to school. Maybe you request the police report for the accident, which is public record. The player said her family wants privacy. Which is fine and understandable. But one of the things I always tried to do as a journalist was this: If someone didn’t want to talk to me, fine. But they had to tell me no comment. Not someone on their behalf.

This is where it gets interesting. If you’re a reporter, and you start to see questions arise – not doubts, but just questions like “Huh, I can’t find her online at all aside from this one little profile … and there’s no accident report? … and I can’t talk to the family because they want privacy … huh … this is … odd.” What do you do? When you’ve got deadlines coming, you’ve got three beats to cover and your editor is hounding you for the story … what do you do?

I don’t have a good answer to this question.

(If you need the background to this very strange tale, here’s the Deadspin story by Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey, “Manti Te’o's Dead Girlfriend, the Most Heartbreaking and Inspirational Story of the College Football Season, Is a Hoax.”)

The old saying for reporters is, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” But that’s from a bygone era, when journalists were permitted to do that — back when budgets and bosses expected and allowed reporters to verify the facts they were reporting.

Reporters aren’t allowed to do that any more. When I first started working as a copy editor at a daily newspaper, we had time to double-check facts, to make phone calls, to follow up and to check it out. In my final year at the paper, after the second or third round of layoffs, we were reading 30 or more stories an hour — or just parts of those stories — and then slapping on headlines we could only hope were accurate. Newspapers being run by skeleton crews don’t allow anyone to “check it out.”

Do you really think she’ll pull through?

I suppose readers get one benefit from that — the thrill that comes from knowing you may be the first person ever to read a story all the way to the end. But that’s not a good trade-off for realizing you can no longer be confident that anything in that story has been verified, fact-checked and double-checked.

So here’s my best answer for Moritz’s question: “Reportedly.”

The word “reportedly” is the best friend of any copy-editor or reporter who does not have time, or is not allowed to make time, to confirm what is being reported to them before passing it on. If you’ve checked it out, then go ahead and print an unqualified declarative sentence: Mr. Jones went to the mall Thursday. But if checking it out isn’t possible or permitted, then tell readers that. Print: Mr. Jones reportedly went to the mall Thursday.

It doesn’t have to be that exact word, of course, but some such indicator has to be included so that readers know what they’re reading. They need to be told the truth about whether they’re being told This Is What Happened or they’re being told This Is What We’ve Heard Happened, which is not at all the same thing.

This isn’t a magic solution to the problem of abdicating the journalist’s responsibility to check it out — to verify the truth before reporting it. It won’t guarantee that you get the story right, but it safeguards against some ways of getting the story completely wrong, which may be the best one can hope for given the constraints of time and resources.

This is a lesson I learned from the Jessica Lynch story, which was presented to reporters by the Pentagon with no way for those reporters to verify or double-check what the Pentagon was telling them.

My copy chief and I didn’t buy it, since the official story didn’t have any witnesses to allow it to be known. The only conscious, living witnesses to what this story detailed were members of Saddam’s Republican Guard, who weren’t cited by the Pentagon as the source for the story, and who seemed an unlikely source for its heroic account.

Our boss overruled us, saying that if it was good enough for the Times and the Post, it was good enough for us, and insisting that the story run on the front page of our paper just as it was running on their front pages.

That’s the same “everybody else is running this story, so it must be true” thinking that left the Te’o story unexamined for so long.

We did what we were told and published the story, but we qualified every assertion with a “reportedly” or a “the Pentagon says” or an “according to military spokespeople.”

What did that change? Not a great deal — we can’t say we got the story right. But even though we still wound up running the same bogus pack of hooey that every other paper ran, at least we had attributed that hooey to its proper source. The AP and the other papers ran a story that said, This Is What Happened when it was not at all what happened. We ran a story that said This Is What the Pentagon Says Happened — and that part, at least, was true. The AP ran a story that said, This Hooey Is True. We ran a story that said, Here Is Some Hooey From The Pentagon.

Kind of a fine distinction, but maybe an important one. And maybe the best any honest reporter or editor can hope for when their paper, their craft, and their entire reason for existing is being slowly choked to death by ignorant beancounters.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Reporters aren’t allowed to do that any more. When I first started
    working as a copy editor at a daily newspaper, we had time to
    double-check facts, to make phone calls, to follow up and to check it
    out. In my final year at the paper, after the second or third round of
    layoffs, we were reading 30 or more stories an hour

    One of the reasons for this, ironically, is due to the general ‘speed-up’ of society since the 1980s as a result of increasing levels of access to virtually instantaneous sources of new information, as well as instant access to relatively reliable bodies of human knowledge.

  • http://deird1.dreamwidth.org Deird

    You know, a decade ago I got almost all my news from newspapers.

    Now, I get almost all my news from bloggers who used to work for newspapers…

  • Foreigner

    Claim is the one most used here, (so far as I can tell … not a big reader of papers these days). S long as you say Lord X claimed to have done something, rather than Lord X did Y,  you’re covered. 

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    Unfortunately, I fear that many news sources these days used “reportedly” as a crutch, something that they can just slap on as an excuse for reporting hooey that covers their asses if they get called on it.  The bosses justify it as, “Why hire more reporters to investigate everything when we can just have a few repeating what other sources say before they move onto the next story?  As long as we only claim the source said it, our credibility will remain intact.”  

    I would not be surprised if many of those bosses suffer from Manager’s Elbow.  

  • http://www.facebook.com/ericrboersma Eric Boersma

    I read basically the whole second half of this post in Jeff Daniels’s voice.

  • Cathy W

    Sometimes not a crutch, but a club. I’m reminded of the tempest-in-a-teacup story about President Obama reportedly spending an absurd amount of money on an official visit to India. It was first reported by an Indian newspaper, and was outright wrong – I don’t know if they were misinformed, if they flubbed the conversion from rupees to dollars, if they were just pulling things out of the air, or what, but the sum they were talking about was more than the entire war in Afghanistan cost on a daily basis. Fox and a few other right-leaning news sources picked that story up, knowing that they could have “OBAMA SPENDS $$$ ON TRIP” as the headline, gin up some good old-fashioned outrage about wasteful spending, and figure nobody would read the “…reports low-credibility source that we haven’t double-checked” part for a couple days….

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    Now, I get almost all my news from bloggers who used to work for newspapers…

    This is exactly how I get my news now. Not because I’m anti-newspaper, but because I have seen newspapers get it wrong too many times. When the editor of the New York Times asked readers if they wanted the NYT to fact-check, readers responded with, “wtf YES!!!”, and he whined that it wasn’t that simple, I finally gave up on newspapers.

    If traditional media wants their circulation back, they have to go back to doing their jobs. You have to have a good product if you want to sell — unless you want to do what Faux News does and become cultish. Though even Faux News is relying on people who will be dead relatively soon. It’s not that younger people want something “hip” and “edgy”, it’s that we want stuff that’s actually true.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    If traditional media wants their circulation back, they have to go back to doing their jobs. You have to have a good product if you want to sell — unless you want to do what Faux News does and become cultish. Though even Faux News is relying on people who will be dead relatively soon. It’s not that younger people want something “hip” and “edgy”, it’s that we want stuff that’s actually true.

    What happened is that Fox found an easy set of marks to sell their all-natural, “all-patriotic” snake oil to, and those marks gobble it up ravenously and Fox rakes in money hand over fist by doing so.  So the rest of the old media sees this and thinks, “Oh crap, their going to out-compete us!  We better get on this gravy train before it leaves the station or we’ll be left behind!”  

    The invisible hand of the market does not necessarily profit the one who makes the best product…

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    But Fox is competing for a different audience than the other media outlets are. They have that audience sewn up, but they were never going to get anyone outside it to watch them. The audience that’s left — which is most Americans — is what everyone else is competing for. That audience wants stuff that’s fact-based, and it wants journalists to do their jobs. 

    If traditional media is looking to be like Fox, then it’s sort of like all the clothing companies noticing that this one purveyor of yarmulkes is doing really great business. So they proceed to attempt to sell yarmulkes to everyone, thinking that’s what everyone wants, replacing their jean section with yarmulkes, advertising their yarmulkes everywhere, shaping their entire business strategy around yarmulkes. Then when they start losing customers, they lay people off, rather than bringing back the jeans, and wring their hands over how they can’t figure out what kids these days want.

  • Darkrose

    Well played with the Smiths cover, Fred.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    But Fox is competing for a different audience than the other media outlets are. They have that audience sewn up, but they were never going to get anyone outside it to watch them. The audience that’s left — which is most Americans — is what everyone else is competing for. That audience wants stuff that’s fact-based, and it wants journalists to do their jobs. 

    Oh I agree, but the rest of the media does not necessarily know that.  To quote Axel Oxenstierna, “Do you not know, my son, with how little wisdom the world is governed?”

  • LL

    Yuck … I really didn’t think I’d see the day when advertising (my current vocation) is more ethical than journalism. 

    People think advertisers can say anything they want, but that’s not true. They are limited in their claims by FTC and  FDA regulations, as well as others. They don’t have to have advertising approved by the govt. (that’s the “no prior restraint” part of the First Amendment), but if advertisers make untrue claims, they either have to prove the claims (usually in response to complaints submitted to the FDA or FTC) or stop running the advertising. Most TV networks (including cable) also have their own restrictions as to what claims are allowed on their channels, esp. for advertising during children’s programming. When you see advertising, listen or read carefully and usually, you’ll see that ads often include weaselly words like “may” or “can” (these are words we were often required to add to our toy ads for broadcast on various channels – Nickelodeon, Disney, etc.). The system isn’t perfect, but it isn’t completely unregulated in regards to content, unlike news, both on TV and in print. (Note: I’m not saying we should have prior restraint of journalism, just saying those who disseminate news should take that responsibility seriously.)

    So now advertising is held to a higher standard of truthfulness than news. Tragic. 

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_FRDTPMBW7IBKWIU3763AI6FYOM Steve

    Yes, but of course, the invisible hand of the market will rescue them.  For when no one sells anything but yarmulkes, then sales of them will rise, for there is nothing else to buy.  And this will prove their wisdom and forward-thinkingness.

  • Turcano

     Apropos of the topic, here’s a post from Brad Hicks:

    So, About That News Diet

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    The thing that kind of makes me wonder is how Fox News evolved into a Senior Citizen-catering “news” agency.

    I had the distinct impression in the late 1990s and early 2000s that they had a large overlap with Republicans of all ages; I anecdotally know of a man in his mid-30s who praised all the major Fox people and was an unabashed die-hard Republican who delighted in painting Democrats as milquetoasty liberals.

    It was this broad appeal that made me seriously worry that young people would grow up being almost permanently predisposed to a right-wing philosophy, ignorant of history when their grandparents endorsed collectivist social remedies and when taxes were structured very differently.

    But that doesn’t seem to have happened and I can’t quite put my finger on why.

  • Matri

    Fox and a few other right-leaning news sources picked that story up,
    knowing that they could have “OBAMA SPENDS $$$ ON TRIP” as the headline,
    gin up some good old-fashioned outrage about wasteful spending, and
    figure nobody would read the “…reports low-credibility source that we
    haven’t double-checked” part for a couple days….

    It honestly peeves me that nobody calls them out on this. The proper word for Fox’s so-called reporting is not “news”.

    The proper word is “propaganda”.

  • R_Tam

    I think Bush happened, plain and simple. In the late 90s Fox was not *quite* as known for its bias as it is now – not that they weren’t biased but people didn’t laugh at the notion of them being “fair and balanced”. Now everyone knows that Fox presents a highly caricatured view of reality which prevents it from being seen as normal. That they kept cheerleading for Bush even as the average American’s opinion for the man took a skydive, as the economy started crumbling and as it finally dawned on everyone that the wars were *lost*…well, it lost them all their credibility.

    It kind of started a viscious cycle, I think. More moderate conservatives were put off by the reality-denial which caused Fox to fixate on the people who would believe them no matter what they said – which led to more outrageous lies and the caricature of a news network we have today.

  • Parisienne

    Tangent / ‘Girlfriend in a coma’ brings up weird associations for me ever since its use on I’m Sorry I haven’t a Clue in the ‘One song to the tune of another’ game. The minute I see it mentioned, I immediately hear it in my head being sung by Barry Cryer (I think) to the tune of ‘Tiptoe through the Tulips’. Which is not quite the same. /Tangent

  • http://twitter.com/bmk bmk

    To quote Number 1.0 from Futurama, “Bureaucrat Conrad, you are technically correct — the best kind of correct.” Is that really the standard by which we want to measure journalism?

    Remember Bush’s 16 Words? “The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” Sure, it turns out that was based on fraudulent, forged documents. But Bush was *technically correct*, in that the British intelligence agencies had, indeed, reported that.Isn’t using “reportedly” just shifting the responsibility in the same way?And is this different than *gossip* in any meaningful way? (Between Proverbs and the letters of Paul, I think that there’s an interesting exploration of the Bible, Christian ethics, and journalism to be done.)

  • rizzo

    The newspapers that my company owns actually get many ‘facts’ from Facebook.  It makes me sad:(

  • Cathy W

    “Gossip” is about the best word I can think of to sum up the “I’m not reporting that it’s true, I’m reporting that other people are saying it” approach to journalism.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Charity-Brighton/100002974813787 Charity Brighton

    Yeah, but most people don’t get mad when you don’t pay them a subscription fee for their gossip. 

  • EllieMurasaki

    (And yet another comment five days after it ought to have been! The fuck is UP with you, Disqus? I KNOW my emails are getting through, a lot of them are getting replies, so how come some aren’t?)

    Which is why schools do not–can not–teach kids
    how to recognize propaganda, especially when it’s directed at them, even
    though that’s one of the skills that no one ought to escape middle
    school without having at least a basic grasp of.


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