A little more than a year ago, the sports journalism world was "rocked" by the Manti Te'o scandal. The revelation by Deadspin that the girlfriend then-Notre Dame star football player didn't really exist allegedly exposed the fatal flaws and sins of sports journalism. One observer even called it "an embarrassment to sports journalism." OK, that was me. I put rocked in quotation marks in the first paragraph, because a year later, it seems like one of those stories that blows up, gets everybody talking, and then ... disappears. Think about it: Every now and then, you'll hear Manti Te'o's name during a Chargers game. You may make a Manti Te'o's girlfriend joke every now and then. But that's it. And the critiques, criticisms and calls for reform in sports journalism have ... well, they haven't yielded anything.
That's one of the findings my colleague Carol Lielber and I discovered in our study of the reaction to the Te'o story. We found that the proposed solutions to the problems that caused the Te'o story were, in essence, journalism-school bromides. Reporters should have followed up. They should have looked for the girlfriend. If your mother says she loves you, check it out. And so on.
And on one level, these critiques are absolutely correct. Reporters should have dug deeper. They should have looked for the girlfriend. They should not have reported fiction as fact. But they never answered the next question: What next?
If you're a reporter and you find out that the girlfriend doesn't exist ... what do you do then? Is this Do you write around it? Do you just ignore the girlfriend altogether, even after she's become a part of his story? Do you get in touch with Te'o and confront him? (Really? In the moment, do you do that? Do you confront a guy over his allegedly dead girlfriend not existing?). Do you include the questions in your story? Is Te'o lying?
To me, the story disappeared because the narrative changed. When Deadspin broke the story, it was hinted at or thought that this was a fraud. That Te'o was in on it that he had duped the media. But as the story came out, Te'o claimed he had been catfished, and that became the narrative.
That change changes our reaction to the story - and, in a way, to the journalism that enabled it. If Te'o was involved in the fraud - if he tricked reporters into thinking he had a beloved dead girlfriend to make himself look better - then it's easy to criticize the journalists for not finding the story. Then the critiques are absolutely correct. The story is an embarrassment to sports journalism.
But if Te'o didn't know - and for the purpose of this post, let's assume he didn't - then it becomes more complicated. Then you're asking reporters why they didn't dig up the truth on something that even the subject of their stories didn't know. And if you really want to, you can go down an epistemological rat hole and debate the nature of actual vs. relative truth (if the story is true to Te'o at the time he's telling it, is that the truth even if the girl doesn't exist? This is what grad school does to you.)
And it builds to the question: If you do what you're supposed to do on this story, and find that the girl doesn't exist ... what do you do? Do you tell Te'o that the girl he believes he loves isn't real? Is that your job? What do you owe your sources and your readers?
(In a way, this is what happened with the Caleb Hannan/Dr. V story on Grantland, with very tragic results - although it's not a huge stretch to see how this could potentially have happened with Te'o. Maybe not to the tragic extent it did here, but it's possible to think out the steps where this hoax is exposed not on Deadspin but as a reporter found out and started questioning Te'o.)
In the end, this story became a curiosity, an interesting footnote. Once the story turned into Te'o being tricked, it felt like it became less important, less of a big deal. It hasn't led to any great changes in the way sports journalism is practiced or consumed. It's easy to point to it as an isolated failure - hey, the guy was tricked, we just reported what he said - rather than as a symptom of anything greater.
Which is a missed opportunity. The Te'o story could and should have been a chance for the sports journalism community to really stop and pause. To look at our routines and practices, to see if we are too reliant on the word of our sources, if harsh deadlines lead good reporters into bad situations. To look our story selection processes, to see if we fall too fast and too hard for easy, predetermined narratives. It could have been a chance not for revolution, but for reflection on what we do and the best way to do that.
But the story changed, the world moved on, and an important conversation was never had.