By Matt Walks, Sports editor, Emerald Media Group and APSE student member
DETROIT — Deadspin editor Tim Burke was out picking citrus with his wife when the biggest story in the publication’s history landed in his inbox.
The rumor around the island, the email read, was that the dead Hawaiian girlfriend of Notre Dame Heisman candidate Manti Te'o didn’t exist.
The resulting story unveiled a surreal tale of lies, confusion, faith and lost love worthy of a Raymond Chandler novel, and begged one serious question about the industry: How did traditional news publications miss what essentially became a standard missing persons story?
Like the “life” of Lennay Kekua, the reasons are complex and often conflicting.
During a Friday afternoon session at the 2013 APSE Conference, Burke and fellow panelists discussed the genesis of the Te’o story and offered a reexamination of industry methods in the digital age.
When Deadspin published the story, just five days after receiving the tip in January, the story was almost written off entirely.
“For 45 minutes, the story was seen as a hoax, as an early April Fool’s joke,” Burke said. “Some thought it was a masterful and lengthy piece of satire.”
But even a cursory Google search warranted discrepancies that supported Deadspin’s story. The only reporting about Kekua, the girlfriend of one of the most popular players in college football, covered her death and its impact on Te’o. Nothing on her life, who she was, how she lived. Her appearance differed wildly in the rare photos of her.
Burke and his co-author, then-college student Jack Dickey, set up a Google Doc full of unanswered questions and set to work tracking Kekua down with online tools. Topsy uncovered deleted tweets. Facebook tips got the two in touch with the Tuiasasopo family, eventually revealed to be the hoax’s progenitors. A reverse image search revealed maybe the most damning piece of evidence: A photo of “Lennay Kekua” was actually of a woman named Diana, who lived in central California and knew the Tuiasasopos.
Their research methods underscore technology’s power in reporting and prove that even vigilant reporters like the South Bend Tribune’s Brian Hamilton and Chicago Times’ Eric Hansen can, over time, rely more on the words of their sources than the black-and-white facts available to anyone online.
“This story should not have taken a tip to break,” Burke said. “When the girl died, all it took was a call to the Stanford Daily to see the story they wrote about their student that died of leukemia.”
Instead, national media relied on quotes from Te’o, Te’o’s father Brian, and Notre Dame officials, all of whom corroborated a fairy-tale romance cut short by cancer. The story seemed too good to be true — yet still never warranted a closer look by some of the best journalists in the country.
“We never had any suggestion that there was something missing,” said Bill Bilinski, sports editor of the South Bend (Ind.) Tribune. “I didn’t get a sense from the community that there was a desire to hear more about (Kekua). My feeling was that the community was ‘Teo’d out.’ ”
To be fair, Kekua’s “death” seems almost comically ill-reported in hindsight. At the time, even Teo’s bishop was fooled. But it’s a journalist’s responsibility to challenge everything, to ask the questions that may seem silly or tactless or redundant if it leads to a greater truth. It’s not a matter of wasting resources if the extra time it takes to call a university and ask for a transcript is fundamental to reporting a college superstar’s dead loved one.
Paul Skrbina of the Chicago Tribune conceded even more.
“As journalists, we’ve fallen in love with the idea that we pretend to know people,” Skrbina said. “Really, we only know what they’re like when they’re with us.”
That may be the biggest lesson of all.
Everyone in the industry wants to get to the truth. Reporters — the good ones, at least — want to believe they can accurately portray a player or coach with limited access. Sometimes, though, we have to just settle for the facts and hope it’s enough.
“We only know what someone’s like when they’re with us,” Burke said. “If an individual isn’t interesting enough to write a story based on what it was like to be with them in that limited time, maybe there isn’t a story there.”
Or, as in The Case of the Fictional Dead Girlfriend, sometimes the story’s there — it’s the subject that isn’t.