A lot of people hate the media, equating them to soulless ghouls who prey on human misery or to lawyers, who simply profit off human misery. Either way, the once respected craft of journalism has fallen by the wayside in the 24-hour news cycle, which in itself deserves a great share of the blame. When the media beast has to be fed all the time for all those humans needing an extra news or entertainment fix for their HD TV’s, laptops, tablets and smartphones, well, you have to have news happening all the time.
Thus is the case with Notre Dame player Manti T’eo, the good-looking Samoan Mormon football star who is now one of the most decorated college athletes of all time. The 6’2 linebacker has helped Notre Dame to its undefeated regular season, #1 ranking in college football and to the BCS Championship Game. (They lost to eventual champion Alabama.)
By all accounts, T’eo was a success story. To make his tale even more heartfelt, there was his tragic girlfriend, they lyrically named Lennay Kekua, the gorgeous love of T’eo’s life who had leukemia and then got into a horrific car accident that eventually took her life. The Notre Dame faithful mourned with T’eo. Sports reporters from “Sports Illustrated” to ESPN fell all over themselves telling the story of how brave T’eo was to play on through this tragedy because Kekua would have wanted him to.
Problem is, none of it was true. Well, T’eo is a college football star but the rest is murky. Notre Dame says he was the victim of a scam, but wouldn’t someone know whether or not he had a girlfriend? But the bigger problem is that the media never fact-checked this story. And that is as much of a travesty as the fake girlfriend, given the fact that a magazine like “Sports Illustrated” and a network like ESPN who both ran accounts of this story have personnel strictly devoted to research and fact-checking.
How this happens is that in this world of get it fast/get it first news reporting is that everyone wants to fill up their increasingly endangered newspapers, magazines and TV shows with stories that will reach the most eyeballs. It’s not longer a fabulously written story that gets attention; it’s the ones that make people share and comment, the ones that get “liked” on Facebook and the ones that people talk about over the water cooler at work. A tragic dead girlfriend and a talented football player are one of those kinds of stories.
The rush to judgment and to viral relevancy works both ways – the way social media embraced a story like Trayvon Martin’s is one way it works for the good. But in a case like this, it backfires on those who are supposed to guard against this kind of foolishness. Journalists should trust no story that they can’t get confirmation for but in these times of microwave journalism, they can’t wait to do so while someone else runs with it.
In sports, as in most mainstream media, there is also bias. LeBron James wants to change teams and he’s an immature brat who didn’t respect the town that made him. (But sports is a business and had he not kept up his stellar play, that same owner would have traded him in a heartbeat.) Black players with rough upbringings who excel at sports (often the help of some nice white people) are a staple of sports journalism. So are the stories of guys like squeaky-clean Tim Tebow, who are religious and aboveboard and make for good narratives as well.
While we figure out just what happened with T’eo, we need to demand that our media tell us the truth and do some real reporting in the first place, not just repeat things from other media or go with the accepted story. Getting the story first and fast often means forgetting the actual truth that should be brought to light, not just printing what sounds like it could be the truth.
“Sports Illustrated” and ESPN are stalwarts in sports and we expect them to check their stories. But they are far from the only culprits. You may not like journalism or the media but there are cases when they bring things to the surface that need to uncovered. We as their audience need to ensure that what surfaces is real, not just more sensational content for our already too busy brains to consume. Truth in journalism is the very least we should expect from those who are paid to find it.