Much to learn from tale of Te’o

By · Saturday, January 26th, 2013

It’s the perfect time to post about Manti Te’o, the Notre Dame football player.

You probably think I’m kidding. Aren’t most of us too sick of it to even think about it? We were duped by a once-in-a-lifetime story; let’s just learn our lesson and move on. But it’s not once in a lifetime, really. Every month there are “mini Mantis” we could learn from, but don’t. We’re not suggesting that we should strive to be — or even could be — infallible. We’re all taken at some point, by an overblown sales pitch or an unreliable news source. But we are taken in too often, and some reflection now might save us some pain the next time. And by the way, not all hoaxers are out specifically to play us and have some fun. Many actually believe the lies or fantasies that they are telling us. Or, they have told so many fictions for so long that truth and fantasy aren’t even concepts anymore.

Reid MacCluggage, a veteran and now-retired editor who began his career at the Hartford Courant, shared with us a list of ways that editors can develop a healthy
skeptical habit:

  • Challenge conventional wisdom.
  • Distrust unanimity. When everyone else is nodding and applauding, step back and think. Ask, “Why is everyone so certain?”
  • When there’s a push to get stories into the paper right away, slow down and take a second look.
  • Resist the urge to size up a subject or a story quickly. Assume you don’t know the full story. Never assume you do.
  • If a story bothers you, stop and think about why it bothers you. Don’t let it be published until you feel right about it. Your gut instinct often gives you the best advice. Take it.
  • Look for what’s not in the story. What’s missing?
  • Question stories you can’t check out in time for deadline.
  • Question stories everyone in the newsroom thinks are terrific.
  • Question the herd instinct in the editing process.

So, why talk Te’o now? Because enough time has passed to reflect on it, reasonably, and to draw conclusions about what we might learn rather than simply trade our “gut feelings” about this story with one another. We have a few facts, the timeline is becoming more focused, and Te’o has unburdened himself twice, to Jeremy Schaap and Katie Couric (view video excerpt, below).

The big take-away seems fairly clear. We fell in love with the story and suspended our skepticism. The old saying holds so true: The story that seems too good to be true may well be too good to be true. As Manti told his story, a few follow-up questions by mildly curious journalists undoubtedly would have prompted either outright evasions from him or answers that didn’t ring true. And that would have led to even more questions. Why didn’t we ask them — besides our “love” for this perfect story that blinded us?

Ranking as the No. 2 reason: It felt unseemly to ask, to probe, when Manti demurred on the basics — not providing a picture of his girlfriend, or an obituary notice when she died, or the names of her parents … not providing anything, really. A couple of reporters have acknowledged “it just seemed weird,” but they didn’t want to press a man in mourning.

Finally, as the website convincingly argues, sometimes other “noise” can get in the way of just pushing for news and the truth. Did access — and fear of losing it — trump everything? Did big media fear angering such a star, losing access to a potential Heisman trophy winner? (Eventually he finished second in the balloting.) Right up to the end, reports, other factors than journalism ruled ESPN’S approach, even when it was onto the news: “The worldwide leader” held off on going with its story, and lost a scoop to a four-person news operation at Deadspin, because it wanted Te’o on camera, on its national air, so it could get the biggest “pop” out of a story that it – and others – had missed for many months. Odd.

The concept of “skeptical editing” — asking questions about a story — can be practiced at any time, but it works best on big projects and on big, continuing stories like this one. It can save us from ourselves, and from others.

I emailed Reid MacCluggage, whose tips for skeptical editors are in our breakout box with this post, and asked him for his takeaway. The former publisher of the New London Day who was once APME director, was succinct:

Here we go again. What can I say that hasn’t already been said a hundred times?  Check it out.  Check it out not to debunk Te’o’s story necessarily, but to make the story better. Why not find out more about the girlfriend? Wouldn’t that have made a better story? In doing so, questions would have been raised about her existence and maybe a skeptical reporter would have paused and looked deeper. Journalism is self-correcting. Eventually, some enterprising reporter will check it out  . . .  and come up with a story at least as good as the original. So why not do it right from the get-go?

The concept of skeptical editing is treated as one of the 50 strategies in our book, “Think Like an Editor.” The second edition is now available. You can buy the Skeptical Editing strategy as an e-chapter if you wish, to guide a group discussion or supplement your own reflection. It’s Strategy 18: Skeptical Editing: Ask Key Questions Graph by Graph, echapter Section 3, Assessing the Story. Or simply collect a few pieces of the Manti trail and then identify for yourself the many warning signs journalists ignored. What were they? Why did we miss them? How can we “get it” next time?

Regardless, to reflect on Manti Te’o costs nothing but time – time well-spent.




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