By now surely you have heard about Manti Te’o's fake girlfriend. We have all had a hearty Twitter lol or two or three at this point, so now I think it’s time to talk about the seismic shift that is afoot in not only sports media, but American media in general.
Journalists have long prided themselves in being our nation’s “Fourth Estate.” The first three estates being the church/religion, government and regular folks – the fourth one, journalism, is meant to keep an ever-watchful eye on the other three. As evidenced by Deadspin’s bombshell story, we evidently need a fifth estate to watch over the fourth as well. Good thing everybody and their brother has a sports blog.
Here’s a list of 21 media outlets that didn’t bother to look into anything related to Lennay Kekua at all. The list is full of traditional outlets, with SB Nation (the publishers of the list) and Bleacher Report thrown in for good measure. Now, I find it hard to fault a reporter for failing to check funeral and hospital records when somebody tells them their girlfriend has died. There’s a certain expectation of decorum in that situation, so you can’t exactly respond with “prove it, jerk face.”
What you can do, though, is attempt to do a little enterprise reporting to find out something, anything at all about the dead girl in question. She went to Stanford, so maybe you can find a friend, roommate, professor, academic adviser or sorority sister – literally anybody who might have known her – who can shed some light on what kind of person she was. You know what? If she had been real, then she probably even had some parents or even a whole family. Typically you would check that out to make sure they’re all aware of her being dead and stuff before you put her story ON THE COVER OF SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. Maybe the timeline for that story was such that there was a reasonable expectation that the family should know by now. Still, you don’t bother talking to her parents at all? Not even a “yo, heads-up your dead daughter is featured in this story about a Notre Dame linebacker?” Inexcusable.
Good thing we have Deadspin with guys like Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey, a former Jacksonville-area school teacher and college senior, respectively, who have internet access and a tenacity to chase real facts. Well, actually they didn’t find any facts, which is what makes this story so bizarre. Burke and Dickey didn’t prove anything, but that’s not the point. The point is that Sports Illustrated, ESPN, The South Bend Tribune, the Chicago Sun Times, The Sporting News, CBS Sports, and on and on and on didn’t – couldn’t have – found any facts either. And yet they ran with the story anyway.
Did Te’o know? Personally, I find it incredibly hard to believe that he didn’t know considering the details surrounding the courtship that he has invented. I mean, I guess it was him who was making it up? Who else were the reporters working on this story even talking to? But whether Te’o was getting hoaxed or hoaxing us is a moot point. It’s a journalist’s job to sort that kind of thing out before parroting it to the consumer.
Increasingly universities are closing practices and limiting access to even traditional media while guys like Spencer Hall still can’t even get a game day credential. Take a close look at the stories coming out of Gainesville, for example, this spring. Count the number of sentences that don’t begin with “Muschamp says” or “coaches say.” There won’t be many, because all the folks on the beat have to go on is what coaches say in a press conference.
If that kind of thing is going on at the University of Florida, you can bet it’s going on at the Florida State House, Governor’s Mansion and even the White House. These institutions used to need the media to help them get their message out because only so many people owned printing presses and there were something like 4 television channels. Now everybody has a Web site, blog or YouTube channel. It’s easier than ever to get your own message out into the public space, which makes it a breeze to craft it and twist it into whatever you want it to be. “Choked out an assistant coach in the locker room” becomes “high ankle sprain” pretty quickly. I’ll leave it open for you to speculate on the messages coming from our elected officials.
As consumers of media, we have to be smart and consider our sources. You can’t just completely discount NBC or Fox News because they lean this way or that. You should probably watch both and make an informed decision on your own. Or you could watch neither and attempt to get your information from primary sources, but that would be more work than even supposed journalists are willing to do these days – and they get paid to do it. That is really the root of the problem.
You can’t just read the Gainesville Sun and Gatorzone.com, because all you’re getting there is sunshine and rainbows – unless it’s an arrest, in which case there’s a public record available and there’s no covering it up. Trust your bloggers (not me, because I know nothing) and your message boarders and your tweeters. Pretty soon you’ll catch onto who’s right most of the time, who’s making stuff up almost all of the time and who’s just there to make jokes.
More information is out there for everyone to see than ever before. Find out who knows best how to mine that information and don’t discount them just because they don’t have a byline on a sheet of newsprint somewhere.