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Will Sports Journalists Endure Longest Embarrassment Over Te’o Story?

By T.C. Cameron
Was Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o a willing participant in his tale of a deceased girlfriend who proved to be non-existent or an unwitting victim of a “catfishing” fraud?
Te’o claims he wasn’t a perpetrator, but admits tailoring accounts of meeting the faux woman. However, it doesn’t matter. The bigger story is how hundreds of sports journalists ran with the original story in September 2012 without checking sources or following up on dates, times or places. The hoax, revealed by Deadspin, sullied the reputation of many an individual reporter or writer, not to mention countless publications and broadcast networks.
Nevertheless, the institution of sports journalism has suffered the greatest damage.
Long regarded as the spot for fan boys to masquerade as journalists, the Te’o storyline serves as an example of lazy journalism and the overzealous pursuit to be first to publish the new, hot story without being factually correct.
“Something like that should naturally raise a reporter’s instincts because when there’s some kind of tragedy like a person dying of leukemia, there’s a record of it,” Annapolis Capital sports editor Gerry Jackson said. “There are death certificates, there are obituaries, there’s a paper trail.”
Jackson, who manages a fulltime Naval Academy beat writer, two copywriters, a prep sports editor and 12 stringers, says cutbacks in print journalism is no excuse to ignore the trade’s basic tenants.
“Reporters and editors are under incredible time crunches these days because staffs have been cut back so much,” Jackson said. “But it’s just a warning and an example that on stories like that, you’ve got to do your legwork and due diligence.”
This week, several MDDC publications, notably the Baltimore Sun, are covering the biggest sports event in a non-Olympic year, the Super Bowl. The nation’s sports media corps are busy scavenging over as much unfettered information as they can find about the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers.
To many sports editors, the Super Bowl represents another chance to perpetuate the sports journalism reputation. As such, the aggressive nature of the week is muted by the Te’o debacle.
Ron Fritz, who heads the Sun’s sports department, did not pass on the opportunity to warn his staff of such pratfalls.
“Yes, cover the basics. Run a name through the case search, and do whatever you can to check up on the people you’re writing about,” Fritz said. “I think the Te’o story was a wake-up call for everybody.”
Fritz says Baltimore’s flagship daily remains vigilant.
“It wouldn’t matter if the Ravens were or were not in the Super Bowl,” Fritz said. “We would be doing these things anyway. Regardless of the Super Bowl, all of our editors are making sure our reporters are doing their due diligence.”
While Navy plays an annual football game with Notre Dame, sports at the Annapolis, Md., academy are rarely exposed to a national platform like the one Notre Dame football enjoys on a daily basis. However, when stories of athletes being separated from the academy for violations like drug use, cheating or other transgressions arise, Jackson credits Capital beat writer Bill Wagner for leaving no stone unturned.
“He’s one of those people who do his homework — the biggest trouble you can get in is the single-source story,” Jackson said. “When Wags does a profile on someone, he goes back and talks to the high school coach, both parents, even the player’s former friends.”
Jackson said these lessons apply to all sports stories, not just those reaching the level of nationwide interest.
“It just shows that even the most minor story,” Jackson said, “you’ve got to use your journalism fundamentals – making sure the who, what, where, when and why’s are all in a line.”

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