Was it too good to check?
Reporters from the South Bend Tribune to CBS to Sports Illustrated all repeated the story about the heartbreaking death of a young woman and her alleged romantic links to a Notre Dame football hero.
One problem: It appears not to be true. As the sports website Deadspin.com reported Wednesday, the woman — identified in TV, print and Web stories for months as Lennay Kekua — never existed. Her reported death and relationship with University of Notre Dame star linebacker Manti Te'o seem to have been an elaborate hoax.
Although it's still not clear who created and perpetrated the apparent deception, the media took Te'o's word for it without inquiring further.
In a statement released by Notre Dame after the Deadspin report broke Wednesday, Te'o said that he believed that his "girlfriend" existed, at least online. He said he, like the news media, was duped into believing that Kekua died of leukemia in September.
"This is incredibly embarrassing to talk about, but over an extended period of time, I developed an emotional relationship with a woman I met online," he said. "We maintained what I thought to be an authentic relationship by communicating frequently online and on the phone, and I grew to care deeply about her. To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone's sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating."
Reporters perpetuated and built upon the questionable story of the doomed relationship, taking for granted that previously reported facts were true, said Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based organization that studies the news business.
He likened the Te'o story to widespread media reports of rampant looting and killings in New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, including tales of dead bodies stacked in police freezers. Those stories — which were given especially prominent play in foreign news outlets — seemed to confirm a narrative of a violent underclass unleashed on a city in which authority had broken down. Virtually all of the most lurid stories turned out to be false.
Reporters, he said, tend to "push forward" on a story, assuming that what has already been reported is established fact. But errors can result from such assumptions.
"It comes from journalists not checking things for themselves," Rosenstiel said. "The lesson here is 'look inside the freezer.' Journalists shouldn't be taking [a source's] word if there is some way to verify it for themselves."
ESPN reporter Gene Wojciechowski said in an interview with the network Wednesday that certain elements of the Te'o-Kekua story troubled him when he interviewed the player in early October. He said that he could not find any record of an obituary for Kekua and that Te'o had told him her family did not want to be contacted when Wojciechowski asked for photographs of her.
"In retrospect, you can see where some of those things weren't adding up to make sense," he said. "It's easy to say now, but at the time it never enters your mind that somebody was involved in that kind of hoax. We wanted to believe it so much."
Dozens of news outlets reported, often in great detail, about Kekua and Te'o, particularly the coincidental tragedy of her death occurring on the same day that Te'o's grandmother died of cancer. But Deadspin reported that it could not confirm details of her existence, such as her death notice or her alleged graduation from Stanford University.
Te'o's role is unclear. At one point in October, he told ESPN that Kekua was "the most beautiful girl I've ever met," though "met" could have referred to an online-only relationship.
Among other news outlets, Sports Illustrated described how Te'o would speak on the phone with Kekua as she lay in her hospital bed and how she would perk up at the sound of his voice. The conversations went on for so long, the magazine reported, that Te'o would often wake up in the morning with Kekua asleep on the other end of the line.
The author of the Sports Illustrated piece, Pete Thamel, could not be reached for comment Wednesday. But he said in a tweet: "The big question here is whether Te'o was involved or not. Notre Dame is staking a loud claim that he got duped and had no involvement."
On the eve of Notre Dame's national championship football game with Alabama this month, CBS picked up the story and reported that Te'o had endured "unimaginable anguish" during the football season over the deaths of his grandmother and girlfriend. The network declined Wednesday to discuss its reporting, saying in a statement: "Like many other news outlets, we are now aware of the circumstances." The network said it would address the story later.
Unwittingly or not, Te'o fed the media narrative of tragedy and heartbreak, too. He repeatedly referred to Kekua's death in interviews before the championship game, saying at one point, "I appreciate all the love and support that everybody's given my family and my girlfriend's family."