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Trust But Verify Is Looking Pretty Good Right Now

Jonathan Daniel

By now, unless you had your head in the sand, you know all about Notre Dame star linebacker Manti Te'o and the shocking Deadspin report which revealed his tragically dead girlfriend is actually a tragically dead fake girlfriend. As it presently stands, Notre Dame has said it was a hoax perpetrated against Te'o by certain individuals for reasons yet unclear and Te'o was not involved. Te'o himself has yet to publicly answer the many, many questions that surround this story. Either Te'o is complicit and a reprehensible person or he was scammed and therefore the biggest idiot on planet earth right now. Te'o's role may or may not be fully known and honestly that is not nearly as interesting as the fallout for the media at large. The bizarre nature of this story and how it has played out is revelatory about the current state of the new media and how we as consumers intake what the media presents.

Content, content, content

There was once a time where we simply watched players play games and all we really knew about them is what they did on the field. Sure there were other random "life" details that were sprinkled into the game broadcast like where he was from, a like or dislike and maybe even a favorite hobby. Largely the focus was on the game. As sports broadcasting has expanded with pregame shows, sideline reporters and the need to fill every second of the game with someone talking, the need for content has increased. Couple that with the explosion of the internet and the need to fill up blogs, Twitter feeds and other online media outlets, there is an insatiable thirst for content.

As a result, simply talking about the game is no longer enough. Simply discussing what a player does on the field is insufficient. ESPN's Game Day has hours to fill and there is only so much you can squeeze out of the match-ups of the day. So how does it get filled? Features galore. What is a day in the life of Player A like? Did you know Player B's father did time in Attica and is trying to make amends with his son? Player C has a sister who doesn't have her kidneys so he used to take her to dialysis everyday and read War and Peace to her. The list of feel good stories goes on and on and on. And there is nothing wrong with those stories. The reason they get shown is because people love them and the intention is to reach a broader audience. However they also lead journalists into an area where trust is assumed and respect for the circumstances might prevent a deeper examination of the facts. That's a dangerous place but a risk that is willingly taken in an effort to produce more of that much sought after "content."

Trust but verify

Shortly after the Te'o story broke Wednesday afternoon, ESPN college football writer Gene Wojciechowski appeared on ESPN Radio and basically admitted his attempts to be respectful to Te'o and fake girlfriend Lennay Kekua's non-existent family prevented him from digging deeper into the story. Wojciechowski said he attempted to find an obituary for Kekua but could not locate one which he said was odd but not unprecedented. He then said he asked Te'o for permissions to contact Kekua's parents and if he could get a photo of her. Te'o rather quickly shut it down saying the parents did not want to be contacted and would not provide a photo.

The nature of subject matter here ties Wojciechowski's hands. He has no reason not to believe Te'o because what kind of person would knowingly lie about having a girlfriend who tragically died of leukemia?(Which incidentally is the question that damns Te'o because either way he is lying about the details.) Trust is implied in this sort of relationship between college football player and journalist. Common decency also comes into play because it would be pretty crass of Wojciechowski to badger Te'o in an effort to contact Kekua's parents. Striking out on his own to do so would have been equally crass although it would have brought the truth to light much sooner.

On one hand, the media gets a small pass since they have no reason to doubt the story. On the other hand, it is the job of the media to ensure everything they place in the public record be as accurate as possible. Why? Because we are well past a point where a simple retraction the next day kills a story. A story from one journalist spreads through the world very quickly. It is also used as the building block of whatever narrative is ultimately constructed. The media outlets all built their respective Te'o work off what others had done before them.

Fruit of the poisonous tree

The nature of the new media means there is always a lot of good and bad information about the same topic flying around. All of that information gets digested to form the narrative or "truth" we accept about something. The new flow of information has developed to a point where we know, with reasonable certainly, which media practitioners are providers of good information and which ones we should dismiss. The legitimate journalists are the ones who work for media organizations with official access. In general these are ESPN, CBS, NBC, Fox, Sports Illustrated and the myriad of regional and local news outlets like TV, radio and newspapers. Within those outlets there are reporters, most of whom have anything they write accepted as factually true. Anyone outside these organizations must have their information verified by someone within these organizations for it to be deemed "true." There are exceptions to this but mostly this is the way things work. If I were to talk to a UNC basketball player and he told me he was going to the NBA and I published it, the acceptance would be low. If someone from WRAL, the N&O or ESPN then talked to the player and published it, the information would be deemed true. Obviously I would gain some credibility from it and for most of the "good" journalists, the consistency of reporting factual information is what gives them credibility along with the name of their employer.

So what happens someone considered to be a good source unknowingly publishes bad information? That bad information is taken as gospel truth and it spreads from there. That is some of what happened in Te'o's case. As soon as the first legitimate journalist wrote a story on Te'o's girlfriend, that story became a source used by other journalists to produce additional stories. Once the tree was poisoned all the fruit from that tree was except no one knew it at the time. Now that we do, we find out there was a lot of bad fruit and chopping the tree down is incredibly messy.

Honor among journalists

A similar pattern can be found with Dan Kane's articles about UNC's academic issues. Not that Kane necessarily published wrong information. What Kane published was factual but also at times incomplete. He did not have all the information and what he did have he presented with heavy insinuation and sexy headlines that would pique people's attention. It was always interesting to watch Twitter when Kane would release a piece. There was one instance where Kane published a piece on the Saturday night Stanford played Oregon. The article pertained to Kane's alleged "whistleblower" and in true Kane fashion included tons insinuation and a very incomplete picture. The link hit Twitter and over the next hour it spread up the food chain to the national media. In orderly succession one writer would retweet it followed by another and then another with all of them dropping a comment like "wow" or "things get worse for UNC" or "more trouble"

The question is did any of them actually read the piece before commenting? The answer is not bloody likely because I have done the same. We can also reasonably conclude this because this piece hit the internet while a major football game was happening. I am hard pressed to think a national writer took his attention away from Stanford upsetting Oregon to give Kane's piece a thorough read. So why would they comment on something they haven't read? For one, honor among journalists. They scratch each others back and assume anyone who has previously been declared a "good" source of information will always be one. The other is they probably had read Kane's other pieces and while I have plenty of criticisms of Kane, his work wasn't entirely garbage. He did get after and pull out some damaging items. The problem for him is it wasn't as damaging as he or the NC State fan base thought it was.

In short, they trusted Kane and promoted him even if they had not read it. And most of the time, that's fine because most of the time what we retweet is good. Speaking for myself, I retweet articles all the time without reading them because I trust the people who write them. However with Te'o it went beyond even that. It is likely people read what was written about Te'o, accepted then promoted it as "good" information. The trust both in Te'o and in a fellow journalist would have clouded any questions a person might have about the story. The source of the information was considered validation enough.

A more cautious approach

Ultimately what the Te'o situation will teach us is more caution might be required in handling topics that previously were handled with trust and respect to the point of naivete. Then again we live in a world where a large percentage of the population readily accepts what they see on reality TV as actually happening. We live in the world where people are more than willing to accept the picture journalists paint of an athlete even if the details are fudged a little to do it. That is probably the least talked about factor here is that as much as journalists trust each other, the general public is even more believing of the subject and the media that presents him or her. In light of this scandal maybe we should actually read something before we promote it. Maybe journalists should hold each other accountable and ask hard questions of their peers' work. And maybe we should all slow down, quit leading with our emotions and seriously think about the information that's presented to us or that we promote via a retweet.

In addition to simply being more mindful of what we read and how we read it maybe we should, as fellow SB Nation writer Michael Bird points out, focus on the games themselves. What happens on the field or court is the only place we can truly evaluate a player. There is no filter. We see the athlete make or not make plays and we can make our own judgment about him/her as a player. As Bird points out, the rest of it is just noise and those Tom Rinaldi features are "hearsay" when it comes to constructing a case of whether a player is good or not. We have developed a thirst for the back story when the back story had no bearing on 4th and 3 with the game on the line except to be trumpeted if they win and forgotten if they lose.

The bottom line is the more we focus on the actual competition and less on whatever back story the media is trying to feed us, the better off we all will be in the future. The more we take the time to use our brains and think about the information we ingest, the more informed we will be as people and less likely to be duped again.