Friday, January 18, 2013

Just another (incredibly bizarre) data point

I dislike posts and op-eds that use the latest big news story as an excuse to mount a favorite hobby horse, but I can't pass this one up.

One of the recurring themes here has been the decline in journalistic standards, particularly regarding accuracy and fact-checking. This brings us to the incredibly strange case of Manti Te'o and the imaginary dead girlfriend. It was one of the year's most widely covered stories. Everybody from Sports Illustrated to CBS to the New York Times  ("He has personified hope after more than a decade of mediocrity. He has lived the university’s core values at a place where that matters, said Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick.") had carried moving accounts of Te'o's story, but it wasn't until a few days ago that the sports site Deadspin actually dug into the details.
Notre Dame's Manti Te'o, the stories said, played this season under a terrible burden. A Mormon linebacker who led his Catholic school's football program back to glory, Te'o was whipsawed between personal tragedies along the way. In the span of six hours in September, as Sports Illustrated told it, Te'o learned first of the death of his grandmother, Annette Santiago, and then of the death of his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua.

Kekua, 22 years old, had been in a serious car accident in California, and then had been diagnosed with leukemia. SI's Pete Thamel described how Te'o would phone her in her hospital room and stay on the line with her as he slept through the night. "Her relatives told him that at her lowest points, as she fought to emerge from a coma, her breathing rate would increase at the sound of his voice," Thamel wrote.

Upon receiving the news of the two deaths, Te'o went out and led the Fighting Irish to a 20-3 upset of Michigan State, racking up 12 tackles. It was heartbreaking and inspirational. Te'o would appear on ESPN's College GameDay to talk about the letters Kekua had written him during her illness. He would send a heartfelt letter to the parents of a sick child, discussing his experience with disease and grief. The South Bend Tribune wrote an article describing the young couple's fairytale meeting—she, a Stanford student; he, a Notre Dame star—after a football game outside Palo Alto.

Did you enjoy the uplifiting story, the tale of a man who responded to adversity by becoming one of the top players of the game? If so, stop reading. Manti Te'o did lose his grandmother this past fall. Annette Santiago died on Sept. 11, 2012, at the age of 72, according to Social Security Administration records in Nexis. But there is no SSA record there of the death of Lennay Marie Kekua, that day or any other. Her passing, recounted so many times in the national media, produces no obituary or funeral announcement in Nexis, and no mention in the Stanford student newspaper.

Nor is there any report of a severe auto accident involving a Lennay Kekua. Background checks turn up nothing. The Stanford registrar's office has no record that a Lennay Kekua ever enrolled. There is no record of her birth in the news. Outside of a few Twitter and Instagram accounts, there's no online evidence that Lennay Kekua ever existed.

The photographs identified as Kekua—in online tributes and on TV news reports—are pictures from the social-media accounts of a 22-year-old California woman who is not named Lennay Kekua. She is not a Stanford graduate; she has not been in a severe car accident; and she does not have leukemia. And she has never met Manti Te'o.
It has since come out that some journalists had checked some facts and noticed something was wrong but not wrong enough to keep them from running this incredibly dramatic but completely untrue story.

For a reporter looking for a touching human interest story, this was too good to be true and many of the nation's biggest and (sadly) best news organizations ran it without bothering to determine if it was true. That's  troubling.

But unfortunately no longer all that surprising.                                                                                              

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