Saturday, January 19, 2013

Te’o story is a breach of ethics and responsibility

image This will be the last post on the Manti Te’o girlfriend hoax curiosity. Fully expecting the story to develop in even stranger ways, we haven’t been disappointed. In an episode that produced no criminal violations, no apparent NCAA violations and no real harm done to any living person, all we really have is a football player in the middle of a silly controversy. But it is a controversy that has exposed a serious flaw in how the media covers sympathetic public figures.

This is a story that any serious journalist covering it should have gotten right. It wasn’t really a breaking story, and the need to make deadline shouldn’t have resulted in a failure to check basic facts and make sure that what was published was truthful and accurate.

It was a glaring example of a disturbing trend in media coverage, and a serious breach of journalistic ethics and responsibility.

In our own Blogger Code of Ethics—featured prominently at the top of every page at IBCR—we commit to the following:

  • Be able to answer the following question in the affirmative: “Have I gotten all of the information I need to be confident that what I am about to publish is truthful?”
  • Be able to answer the following question in the negative: “Is there anything I have missed,  misinterpreted or should have known about that would cause me to spike the story?

In the aftermath of Deadspin’s exposé showing that the whole story about Te’o’s girfriends tragic death to be an elaborate hoax, numerous reporters who wrote or covered the story admitted to not checking the facts as provided by Te’o.

Why would they abandon a code of professionalism and ethics that was drilled into their heads from the opening lectures in Journalism 101? The answer is simple: The media believed Te’o’s story because they wanted it to be true. It was enticing, dramatic and plausible. It was a story of almost Shakespearean tragedy involving star-crossed lovers. But most disturbingly, it fit the narrative they wanted to go with.

Factual accuracy be damned.

This should sound eerily familiar, because in the run-up to the 2008 Presidential Election, numerous news outlets were shown to have either ignored basic facts or simply made them up in order to advance an agenda. In that disgusting foray into advocacy journalism, the media’s agenda was to paint then Senator Barack Obama as the historic, transformative messianic figure they all wanted him to be.

In the Te’o story, the agenda was to paint the Notre Dame linebacker as an inspirational figure who had overcome much personal tragedy to be at the absolute top of the game. The agenda was to get this young man as much personal attention as possible; to hype him, build him up and possibly win him a Heisman Trophy.

While the consequences for this country couldn’t be more different between these two stories, the root cause of both is still the same—journalists failed to do their jobs and America was sold a bill of goods.

There is an old saying in journalism—if your mother tells you that she loves you, it’s Ok to believe her but you’d better check it out. No one checked it out.

Beginning with Jeremy Schaap’s late night, off-camera interview with Te’o, the media is going to do everything it can to protect their six o’clock. The narrative now will be that since Te’o was the victim of a hoax, they were too. Since Te’o believed the Kekua death story, they were Ok in believing it and they’re not really at fault for allowing the public to be duped.

Who’s accountable?

Accountability isn’t about finding someone to blame. It’s about making sure that everything that needs to be done actually gets done, and that someone or some process exists to ensure that it does get done. If “Accountability” means finding a head to roll after something didn’t get done—like basic fact checking—then there is no accountability.

That’s a serious problem, sports fans. And it’s a problem that doesn’t seem to be getting much better.

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Photo credit: Reuters