3 takeaways from Gawker’s “Manti’s T’eo’s girlfriend was fake” story

Tremendous journalism went into this piece: Deadspin once wrote on its Web site something to the effect of “we may accidentally commit acts of journalism.” Well, this was no accident. Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey, along with the other reporters who contributed to this story, did tremendous work here. It’s clear a ton of legwork went into digging up the girl whose picture was used as T’eo’s girlfriend, and in talking to the family and friends of alleged hoaxer Ronaiah Tuiasosopo. The story is over 3,000 words long and well presented.

There are still a lot of people at more mainstream outlets that dismiss places like Deadspin as serious journalists (ESPN VP John Walsh once told a group of students that “Deadspin has never broken any news.”) There are still plenty of silly stories on Deadspin and articles based entirely on single Tweets, but the journalism world at large should be on alert that the Gawker family of Web sites and their ilk are capable of well-written, well-sourced longform journalism. And as Gawker staffer Emma Carmichael noted, one of these journalists, who just embarrassed basically everyone in the mainstream sports media, is about to start his final semester as an undergrad.

A tremendous lack of cynicism has been exposed: Sports journalists get knocked about for sometimes being fans first, too concerned about access to ask tough questions. This story does a lot to reinforce that notion. Some people have even taken to compiling lists of all the outlets that reported the story without even doing the most basic fact checking, including Sports Illustrated, ESPN and CBS (the video clips in the Deadspin piece are cringe-inducing considering what we know now.) It’s sometimes said that the one true bias of journalists is for the Story, and reporters will sometimes have a blind spot for facts that don’t fit the narrative or that might call a compelling angle into question.

Sports stories especially can be dry, and if there’s anyway to fit a narrative – like say, an athlete rising above personal heartache to win a football game – into a game story, writers will jump all over it. My guess is that’s what happened here. College sports journalism especially feels like it lacks a lot of the built-in cynicism a good journalist should always have, ignoring the negative aspects of the beat like rampant rule-breaking and egomaniacal coaches. Have to wonder how much that played into a reluctance to dig deeper into a college kid who maintained a long-distance relationship with a girl he claims to have never met in person.

I’m not one of those people who thinks Gawker-type journalism is the answer to all things, or that more mainstream outlets have become irrelevant. I actually think there’s room for both, there’s sports reporting that Deadspin will never do, sports reporting that is necessary and that people want. But they will catch stories like these that fall through the cracks, and news consumers are better for it.

The story shows the power social media: I’m only guessing here, but it seems like the Deadspin reporters didn’t travel for the story, doing most of the work through the phones, social media and Google/Lexis-Nexis searches. Part of the story here, the part that should have more established outlets doing some earnest soul searching, is that a simple Google search would have raised red flags. (There supposedly was no obituary, nor any news stories about the car crash.) It looks like Burke and Dickey tracked down a lot of their sources through Facebook and Twitter, and they used the related image function on Google to track down the woman whose picture was used to fake Lennay Kekua’s social media profiles. I got a memo from an executive at my company a few days ago talking about how we need to start paying attention to this Twitter thing, and that he personally was going to try to tweet twice a day. Time for people to stop looking at social media as a cute trend we should probably be getting on board with, and look at it as a powerful reporting tool.

(Sorry for the big gap between this and my last post, hoping to start posting more regularly.)

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About justingraeber

PR pro and media geek. Sucker for new technology, gadgets, social media, etc. Dad. Red Sox fan. Remembers way too many MST3K quotes.
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