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.”
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.
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.