A Catfish Tale Reveals Media Weaknesses

Manti Te'o part of "catfishing" hoax?

Manti Te’o part of “catfishing” hoax?

In all the flurry of media activity surrounding Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o, about whether his girlfriend’s death was a hoax or he was “catfished,” there is one gaping omission that no one seems to want to talk about: poor journalism.

I realize that I am not a journalist and don’t work in the field and don’t have to churn out story after story, day in and day out to fill a 24-hour news cycle, but there is a basic tenet of journalism that was ignored in favor of marketing this seemingly tragic tale of a top-notch college football player. Any guesses as to what it is?

Fact-checking.

I’m a bit surprised that the media, when pinned down about their sources and fact-checking, abdicates responsibility for their professional omission (for another take on this, read David Klein’s post in Ad Age). They gobbled up the celebrity-ish marketing package and ran with the story. The only focus was to be the first to break the story online, on Facebook or Twitter, anywhere where it could be consumed instantaneously by an audience thirsting for instant gratification. The goal wasn’t to be the best, or to have an accurate story, but simply to be the first while forsaking the rules that any journalism student learns at the entry level (and for full disclosure, I started out as a journalism major and took these classes which really do talk about proper reporting and ethics).

When the girlfriend’s obituary couldn’t be found, no police report of the car accident seemed to exist (or was it leukemia that took her life? Reports conflict . . .see my point?), photos of her couldn’t be dug up from the bowels of the internet, her family was completely unreachable and people in the real Kekua family had no idea who she was. Did anyone think to at least hit the pause button in writing the story? Did no alarm bells go off in the writers’ subconscious that something seemed off?

I don’t have all the facts to make an educated guess about who was responsible and whether or not Te’o is behind it, but frankly, it doesn’t matter. It’s not going to change how the media report stories; how they are hell-bent on being the first to report something; how they raise celebrity marketing packages to artificial news status; how demanding the public is for heart-warming/wrenching stories; or how quickly news, rumor, innuendo, and mistaken information from, literally, anyone can take seed and make its way to you, me, journalists, marketers and, ultimately, the world.

So while Te’o is mired in controversy, it’s hard to ignore his skyrocketing level of awareness to the general public. Whether this is the side effect or the goal remains to be seen, but it stands as proof to the voracity with which we consume information  and the seemingly limitless number of information outlets that are available to us, only a handful of which are reputable.  And how the public get upset when we feel duped into believing some tragically tall tale without thinking critically about where the the information came from.

Because, you know, if it’s on the internet, it must be true.

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