Skip to main content

Te'o story, big fail for sportswriters

By Roxanne Jones, Special to CNN
updated 3:53 PM EST, Thu January 24, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Roxanne Jones: Sports reporters missed the big stories: Te'o, Sandusky, Armstrong
  • Jones: Sports journalists failed to do their job, which is to report, not just entertain fans
  • Jones: Just routine fact-checking on the Te'o story could have sniffed out falsehoods
  • She says sports reporters must first be reporters, and remember public trust matters

Editor's note: Roxanne Jones is a founding editor of ESPN The Magazine and a former vice president at ESPN. She is a national lecturer on sports, entertainment and women's topics and a recipient of the 2010 Woman of the Year award from Women in Sports and Events. She is the co-author of "Say It Loud: An Illustrated History of the Black Athlete" (Random House) and CEO of Push Media Strategies. She's working on her second book.

(CNN) -- A colleague of mine cringes every time he's introduced as a sports journalist. "Please, just call me a journalist," he said the other day. "I don't want anyone to think I'm a sloppy sports reporter. I check my facts."

You see, he wants no association with the fantastical Manti Te'o soap opera.

And after working as a sports journalist myself for nearly 15 years, I feel his pain.

Roxanne Jones
Roxanne Jones

It hasn't been the best year for sportswriters, who've been caught unaware and downright out-hustled on some of the biggest sports stories: The sex abuse case of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky sat untouched for years by sportswriters until it was uncovered by a dogged, young crime reporter, Sara Ganim (who works for CNN now).

Lance Armstrong, one of the biggest names in sports, was able to silence writers around him who whispered throughout his seven consecutive Tour de France wins that he was racing dirty. When he was finally caught by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency after the evidence and witnesses grew too loud to deny, he gave his widely watched confession to Oprah Winfrey, who is not exactly a sports insider.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



And now, it's Katie Couric to the rescue, delivering the first on-camera interview with Te'o since his fake love story was exposed by the sports blog Deadspin.

Maybe Couric can explain how media giants as savvy as Sports Illustrated and ESPN were conned about the Notre Dame star linebacker's tragic tale of a beautiful girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, who slipped into a coma after a terrible car crash and later died of leukemia on the eve of one of the biggest games of the season. Despite his grief, Te'o helped lead the Fighting Irish to a 20-3 victory over Michigan State.

Sounds like a perfect script for a Hallmark movie, and just as make-believe. It was not true. The girl didn't exist. According to Te'o, he'd been catfished -- tricked by friends who played an online prank against him and made up the girl he met online and fell in love with, though they'd never met in person.

Sports journalists failed here. Failed to do their job, which is not simply to entertain fans and promote the games we love, but to inform, illuminate and deliver factual information.

Call me old-school, but I think journalists owe it to readers and viewers to make certain, to the best of our ability, that the news we deliver is accurate. Doesn't the public trust still matter, or, is our work just all for entertainment these days?

"We got, got," said Garry D. Howard, award-winning editor and chief of The Sporting News. "This is a wake-up call for us to remember not to take shortcuts. We always have to ask tough questions and confirm all the facts ourselves, even if they've already been reported by other media."

Te'o speaks out about fake girlfriend

Howard is no lightweight. He's mentored hundreds of sports journalists, some of the best in the business. When he was my editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer, he was constantly on my case. "Jones, get in here," he'd bark at me from his office door if he found even one comma out of place in a story I'd edited, or a fact that didn't quite add up.

People lie to reporters all the time. We're a nosy bunch, often asking questions others think are none of our business. Sometimes the questions are personal, oftentimes they are painful. I'm sure it can get annoying.

But our job is to probe. We know that politicians sometimes lie. Nice people lie. Criminals rarely admit they've done the crime. And, yes, even star athletes have been known to exaggerate the facts. So in these multitasking times that require reporters and editors to blog, tweet, write and rush to break stories on-air, it's also necessary to be a skeptic and remember the basics. Check everything.

Working in sports is a dream job most days. We meet fascinating people, mingle with superstars, travel the world and go to games for free. And most of us actually like the people we write about, but there's a danger in getting so close to our sources that we shy away from pushing them on the facts for fear we'll lose a story. Asking a tough question or verifying the information through independent sources is not insulting, or insensitive, it's our job.

Just a few simple questions in the Te'o story could have sniffed out the falsehoods.

There was no obituary or death certificate for Lennay. No record of any car crash. No reporter had ever met her or spoken with anyone in her family. And Stanford University had no record of her ever attending school and playing on the volleyball team, as Te'o had told reporters. Following up on these alleged facts would not have been investigative journalism, just routine fact-checking on a story that seemed innocent on the surface.

I just hope Couric can help to put an end to Te'o-gate for us all. It's time to move on to more important news. I've got Super Bowl picks to make: I'll take the Baltimore Ravens by 13. Forget the facts, who cares that San Francisco 49ers are favored by 3.5 points? That's my fantasy and I'm going with it.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Roxanne Jones.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:18 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Frida Ghitis says as violence claims three U.S. doctors, the temptation is to despair, but aid to Afghanistan has made it a much better place
updated 2:33 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says in California, Asian-Americans are against the use of racial criteria in public colleges.
updated 2:44 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Heidi Schlumpf says if the Pope did tell an Argentinian woman married to a divorced man that she could take Communion, it may signify a softening of church rules on the divorced and sacraments
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Norcross, Georgia, Chief of Police Warren Summers says the new law that allows guns in bars, churches and schools will have unintended dangerous consequences.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Mel Robbins says social media is often ruled by haters, and people can be brutally honest.
updated 12:44 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Mike Downey says the golf purists can take a hike; the game needs radical changes to win back fans and players.
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
updated 8:29 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
updated 7:04 AM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT