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Te'o story, big fail for sportswriters

By Roxanne Jones, Special to CNN
January 24, 2013 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
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.

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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.

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

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