Te’o case reminds reporters to always dig deeper

Executive editorJanuary 20, 2013 

Editors everywhere are getting less sleep this week after revelations that the amazing love story of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o was a hoax.

Whether Te’o was in on it or not, a number of news organizations perpetuated the story without digging deep enough to discover that no girlfriend existed.

We’d like to think we’d have handled it better, dug deeper, but we also see how it could happen.

Our reporters interview people every day. Our job is to be skeptical, but for the most part, we believe what people tell us.

Some stories and some sources prompt greater skepticism. Hard news stories, people in power and those at the center of investigations prompt more interviews, more questions and more fact-checking.

When a football player tells us a story about his girlfriend, we tend to take him at his word. If we stopped to check the credentials of every person mentioned in every feature story, we’d never get a daily paper out.

On Thursday, Sports Illustrated reporter Pete Thamel offered a look back at how convincing the Te’o interviews seemed at the time. (You can read it online at sportsillustrated.cnn.com/college-football/news/20130117/manti-teo-girlfriend-hoax-quotes.) Thamel quotes coaches, friends, family members and chaplains laying out in great detail their stories of Lennay Kekua. They overheard phone calls between the fictitious Kekua and Te’o, said they talked to her themselves and helped him overcome his obvious grief at her death.

“Why would you ask someone if he’d actually met his girlfriend who recently died?” Thamel asked.

Yet, he admits in retrospect to red flags.

The Te’o story proves that a person intent on perpetuating a hoax can pull one off. It also reminds us as journalists to chase down red flags, to keep our radar up. When a story becomes too good to be true, we must ask more questions. When it becomes central to the reason a person receives national acclaim, we must go deeper.

This is the job of editors, as well as reporters.

The Te’o story has all of us repeating the old journalism adage: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

TNT AUDIENCE IS GROWING

The News Tribune came out on a list last week of the top 25 “audience gainers” among U.S. newspapers.

The Alliance for Audited Media reported that our net combined audience (the number of people who read the TNT in the previous seven days in print or the previous 30 days online) grew by almost 6 percent from Sept. 30, 2011 to Sept. 30, 2012. That put us at No. 17 on the list. The AAM, which traditionally measured only print newspaper circulation, now combines it with local readership on websites, blogs and mobile apps.

Audience gainers included newspapers as big as the Chicago Tribune and Fort Worth Star-Telegram and smaller organizations such as The Modesto Bee.

Many are in the same position we are, with print readership dropping slightly, but online readership more than making up for it.

A slightly different measurement by Ian Swenson, our digital editor, showed the TNT’s average daily local visitors were up 12 percent, or more than 4,000 readers a day, from 2011 to 2012.

Swenson attributes some of the gain to last year’s big breaking news stories – the Mount Rainier ranger shooting, the January ice storm and the Josh Powell house explosion – and to a spike in readership on our Seahawks coverage. We’re also seeing big increases in readership on Facebook and Twitter, on smart phones and tablets.

Contrary to what many people believe, the Internet is not killing the newspaper business. It’s bringing us more readers.

However, that gradual reader shift from print to digital makes it critical that we stop giving away our content online. If more readers go online to avoid paying for a subscription, eventually we will lose that revenue stream and risk the viability of our business.

In addition, publishing a digital news report is more expensive than publishing a newspaper alone. Online publishing requires website editors, app vendors and enough reporters to cover breaking news around the clock.

That’s what led us and newspapers across the country to begin charging customers for news however they prefer to get it – in print, on a website or mobile app.

If you haven’t already, read through the tutorial wrapped around today’s paper to learn how to activate the digital portion of your subscription. And remember, when you read the TNT, you’re in increasingly good company.

Karen Peterson: 253-597-8434
karen.peterson@thenewstribune.com

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