Friday, January 18, 2013

The Manti Te’o Hoax From the Eyes of a Journalist

Posted By on Fri, Jan 18, 2013 at 4:30 PM

Although the certainty of this Manti Te’o hoax news is unclear, it is sure to bring about more annoying puns and terms that will stick around much longer than the news of the story will.

“Te’oing,” a play on words from “Tebowing,” is already circuiting the Twitter and social media world as a term for making up a fake girlfriend.

For any of you who haven’t heard about the Te’o debacle, sports blog Deadspin reported yesterday that the Notre Dame football star had a fake girlfriend, who supposedly passed away in September. Maybe he created her and killed her off for the publicity to help him win the Heisman trophy this year (which didn't help; he finished second in the Heisman running). Or possibly, he was caught up in a Catfish-like, online dating scandal.

Manti Te’o had the public eating out of the palm of his hand with his heartbreaking story of how his girlfriend Lennay Kekua, died of leukemia. On top of the death of the love of his life, his grandma also passed away on the same day (terrible, right?).

Wrong. Turns out, this “girlfriend” never existed. Still terrible and real however, Annette Santiago, his grandma, died on Sept. 11, 2012, at the age of 72, according to Social Security Administration records in Nexis.

To read the entirety of this lengthy article that examines the different angles of the story, first released by Deadspin, click here.

The gist of the story is that Te’o told many accounts to several different media outlets of his girlfriend and how much he loved her. He talked about how he met Kekua, a Stanford student, after a game Notre Dame played there. From then on, their budding friendship turned into a deep, romantic love.

According to Te’o, Kekua had been in a serious car accident in California and was then diagnosed with leukemia. He chatted with her on his Twitter page and on the phone during her illness, as well as spoke highly of her on Twitter after her death.

Come to find out, the picture Kekua’s Twitter page was actually of another woman. There was no record of Kekua anywhere. There was no SSA record of her death. There was never any obituary or funeral announcement in Nexis. There was nothing about her enrollment at Stanford, or of the car accident in the Stanford student newspaper.

Whether or not Te’o was involved in the hoax or he truly did just talk to her online and believed she was real, this looks to me to be shady journalism.

According to an article in South Bend Tribune on Sept. 22, Santiago died less than 24 hours after the death of Kekua. But wait; In an article they published on Oct. 12, Santiago dies first, early enough for Kekua to express her sadness about the death of her boyfriend’s grandma.

According to the Deadspin article, New York Post said Kekua died three days after Santiago’s death. ESPN and CBS said she died four days after.

Sports Illustrated published Te’o learned of his grandma’s passing on Sept. 11, and Kekua’s passing by her older brother on Sept. 12.

There are several other twists and turns to this story, including who could have possible set Te’o up, if you read the detailed account by Deadspin. But what I can't wrap my head around is how all these prominent media outlets didn’t cross reference their “facts” with the other news outlets that had already published stories about it.

As journalists, we are told our first priority above everything else is to seek truth and report it, according to the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics. All of these publications did the reporting, but did they seek the actual truth in every possible way they could? Or just publish what they heard to be true or were told by Te’o?

Who knows what Te’o's involvement was in the whole debacle, but it will be interesting to see how this all unravels.

Te’o’s statement in the article about the incident is as follows (reformatted for clarity):

“This is incredibly embarrassing to talk about, but over an extended period of time, I developed an emotional relationship with a woman I met online. We maintained what I thought to be an authentic relationship by communicating frequently online and on the phone, and I grew to care deeply about her.

To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone's sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating. It further pains me that the grief I felt and the sympathies expressed to me at the time of my grandmother's death in September were in any way deepened by what I believed to be another significant loss in my life.

I am enormously grateful for the support of my family, friends and Notre Dame fans throughout this year. To think that I shared with them my happiness about my relationship and details that I thought to be true about her just makes me sick. I hope that people can understand how trying and confusing this whole experience has been. In retrospect, I obviously should have been much more cautious.

If anything good comes of this, I hope it is that others will be far more guarded when they engage with people online than I was. Fortunately, I have many wonderful things in my life, and I'm looking forward to putting this painful experience behind me as I focus on preparing for the NFL Draft.”

David Brown, the spokesman at Notre Dame, said this about the incident in the article:

“On Dec. 26, Notre Dame coaches were informed by Manti Te'o and his parents that Manti had been the victim of what appears to be a hoax in which someone using the fictitious name Lennay Kekua apparently ingratiated herself with Manti and then conspired with others to lead him to believe she had tragically died of leukemia. The University immediately initiated an investigation to assist Manti and his family in discovering the motive for and nature of this hoax. While the proper authorities will continue to investigate this troubling matter, this appears to be, at a minimum, a sad and very cruel deception to entertain its perpetrators.”

What do you think? Was Te'o involved in the hoax to gain publicity, or was he played like so many others in the online world?

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