How The Manti Te’o Story Changed Journalism


TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Now that the Manti Te’o saga is finally playing itself out and the true facts of the matter are starting to emerge, it’s (hopefully) time to put this story to bed.

This weird, twisted narrative enthralled the public for nearly two weeks, but a greater good can come out of all of this beyond exposing the sick, demented people who ‘catfish’ others.

Tim Layden of Sports Illustrated wrote a fantastic and eye-opening piece on how the Te’o hoax will alter the landscape of sportswriting for years to come.

In the story Layden not only questions the matter of the Te’o story, but he also questions his own work – examining past stories and wondering if he too fell under the guise of deception that Te’o executed so perfectly in telling his “story”

In recent days I began looking back — very randomly — through some of my own work.

In a 2004 story I wrote about Villanova’s NCAA basketball victory over Georgetown 19 years earlier, there is a dense paragraph about Gary McLain, Villanova’s point guard in that game. The paragraph contains 15 facts about McLain, who had not been interviewed by anybody for many years. Of those 15, many were confirmable and confirmed — that McLain “works for a company that places doctors in temporary positions,” and that his daughter was 11 years old. Other facts were more slippery — “He says he has lapsed into drug and alcohol uses “a couple of times,” and that he is currently not using — and almost impossible to nail down solidly. (The qualifier “He says,” is a great and useful crutch in these situations, as in “The quarterback says he has a 3.79 GPA.” But I can’t help but wonder if the reader flies over the qualifier and accepts the information as fact.).

In a 2011 feature on Packers’ quarterback Aaron Rodgers, I wrote that Rodgers “took his 1,310 SAT to Butte [college],” because Rodgers told me he scored 1,310 on the SAT. I never saw Rodgers’s test results; it seems unlikely he still has them. I was confident that Rodgers was telling the truth, but the reality is that I can’t know for sure. Is that detail necessary to establish that a clearly smart guy is quantifiably smart?

Even an award-winning journalist like Layden, who has the respect of his his peers and his audience, can’t help but wonder if he was led to believe one thing, when in fact it wasn’t the exact truth.

This doesn’t just apply strictly to sports either.

The trust a journalist puts in those they interview has to be complete, or else stories would never get finished due to endless fact-checking. But at the same time, one must apply due diligence and make sure their story is 100% accurate.

Otherwise, all the story does then is perpetuate a lie.


One thought on “How The Manti Te’o Story Changed Journalism

  1. Richard,
    Thanks for sharing this particular post from Sports Illustrated. I’d love to know more about what you think and how you would have approached this as a beat writer on the job. Are there implications for how we teach journalism students who want to be sports writers?

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