Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Writing & Reporting on Manti Te'o

It's now been a week since Deadspin published "Manti Te’o’s Dead Girlfriend, The Most Heartbreaking And Inspirational Story Of The College Football Season, Is A Hoax" and just as interesting to me as the story reported and written by Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey has been the subsequent writing around how the Te'o dead girlfriend myth was reported as fact.

To this end, "Manti Te'o in his own words" by Pete Thamel for the Sports Illustrated website a day after the Deadspin feature was by the writer of an Oct 1 SI cover story on Te'o. In this piece from a week ago, Thamel writes about the reporting process he went through and posts transcripts from interviews conducted with Te'o as well as multiple teammates, coaches and Notre Dame staff. Reading Thamel's thoughts looking back as well as the interview transcripts (and this story shows just how important verbatim transcripts are), it's understandable that a reporter wouldn't doubt the story even if it couldn't all be verified.

A day after the Thamel piece went online (and now two days after Deadspin broke the story), there was an excellent SI web column "Manti Te'o hoax should spark thirst for answers, not retribution" by Stewart Mandel. The title certainly gets at the content, but as facts were starting to become more clear (and pointed towards Te'o first being duped and then perpetuating the myth), Mandel wrote of just how overboard were the people vilifying the 21 year old. From his column was "Te'o didn't cheat his way to seven Tour De France titles. He didn't allow a child molester to roam a school's locker room. He didn't have an affair with his biographer while overseeing a national military operation."

Later that day ESPN got the first post-Deadspin piece interview with Te'o as respected reporter Jeremy Schaap interviewed him off camera for 2 1/2 hours. An interesting and fairly brief Q&A with Schaap about the interview was done by Ed Sherman for his sports media site Sherman Report and ESPN published an edited for clarity transcript of the Te'o-Schaap interview as well as a story "Manti Te'o denies being part of hoax" for the ESPN site.

Taking the bit longer view of the reporting on Te'o (if 4-5 days after the Deadspin report can be considered a long view) were two interesting pieces published on the Sports Illustrated site. Senior writer Tim Layden provided the column "For better or worse, Te'o hoax will alter sportswriting" and made a point around how writers may be forced to no longer include description that provides great color to a piece, is almost certainly true, but also not able to be 100% verified as factual. Additionally, SI writer Richard Deitsch (who frequently writes on the topic of sports media and coverage) posted "Pulitzer Prize-winners discuss Manti Te'o" with Ken Armstrong of the Seattle Times and Amy Nutt of the Newark Star-Ledger. There's a number of interesting thoughts from Armstrong and Nutt both, but two that stand out are the bigger picture danger of mythologizing and practical view danger of single-source stories.

It's been a fascinating story and will be I'm sure much more to come around both Te'o himself and the process of reporting and writing what's supposed to be non-fiction.