Alison Gerber: Sorting facts from fiction

Alison Gerber: Sorting facts from fiction

January 20th, 2013 by Alison Gerber in Opinion Columns

People lie; records don't.

That's the advice a veteran newshound gave me when I was a young reporter. I thought about it last week when reading two of the biggest news stories of the new year: Cyclist Lance Armstrong finally admitted he used performance-enhancing drugs and football player Manti Te'o's tragic girlfriend, it turns out, never existed.

Armstrong's mea culpa to Oprah Winfrey was kind of anticlimactic, coming after he had already been stripped of his Tour de France titles. His story about not doping had been checked out by reporters around the world - French media was especially skeptical. While there were firsthand accounts of Armstrong's doping given by other cyclists on his team, there was no absolute proof.

Te'o's story, on the other hand, comes as the Notre Dame linebacker is preparing to be drafted into the NFL - high in the first round, according to most draft analysts. Until last week, his story had not been seriously called into question.

He claims to have been the victim of an elaborate hoax in which someone pretended to be a 22-year-old woman who became his girlfriend and staged a story about her dying of leukemia. He hasn't explained how it is that he never actually met face to face the woman he called his girlfriend and said he loved. In his first statement about the matter, he said the whole thing "was apparently someone's sick joke."

The website Deadspin broke the story about "girlfriend" Lennay Kekua's non-existence, stating that the myth grew with help from a compliant press. Many news accounts of the gifted football player painted him as a hero who endured the death of his grandmother and girlfriend within hours of each other but still managed to perform well enough on the field to be a Heisman Trophy finalist.

The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and ESPN, among others, covered the dead-girlfriend story. All of those are well-respected news organizations, ones that should have checked out the story but didn't.

Deadspin found no Social Security Administration record of the death of Lennay Kekua and no obituary nor funeral announcement in the database Nexis. The website also noted that the Stanford registrar's office has no record that a Lennay Kekua ever enrolled there.

The bizarre situation raises this question: Why didn't the reporters covering the story of Te'o's personal life check out his story? After all, aren't reporters a skeptical bunch whose job it is to separate truth from fiction?

As news reporters we're trained to ask government officials to hand over records. We know to verify with multiple sources the facts of any news story. We're accustomed to reviewing budgets, court documents, police reports, tax filings, even autopsy reports.

But when people share information about their personal lives, especially painful or extremely personal details, we often trust that they're telling the truth. Perhaps no one asked Te'o to prove his story because it's hard to imagine why someone would lie about something as serious as 22-year-old dying from leukemia.

Still, it's worth remembering that people lie. Not all lies are as big and dramatic as a fictional dead girlfriend. Some might be small and slight - little details of how something happened that perhaps doesn't make it untrue but changes the slant or paints someone in a more sympathetic light.

But good reporters check out the details of someone's story. They don't just take the word of a crime victim; they look at the police report. They don't just accept the prepared statement of a politician, they check records or call secondary sources.

In recent years, I can remember three different times when Times Free Press reporters and one photographer asked to review medical files for stories instead of simply taking the account of the patient or the patient's parents. Another sought verification that a person had been jailed; another asked a student to hand over school transcripts. In most cases, they got what they asked for. It's surprising how free some people are with information about their lives. Sometimes, all you have to do is ask.

Then again, it's easy to be free with information if it does not contradict your story. Just ask Lance Armstrong.

When a reporter is sitting in a room, talking to someone who is reportedly dying of a horrid disease or who is recounting a tragic incident it his or her life, it can be difficult to ask: "OK, can you prove it?" It would feel coarse and uncaring.

These days, however, with so much information on the Internet, it's simple for a reporter to go back to the office and check on a person's story. If they find discrepancies, they call can the person back.

The reporters at Deadspin said they became suspicious when a Google search of Lennay Kekua's name only came up with stories that linked her to Te'o. She did not exist outside of the story. And that's very hard to do in today's information-saturated world. Very few people are totally off the grid, so to speak. Some reference, some record is usually out there for reporters to find.

In Te'o's case, no one even looked.

And that's bad reporting.

Alison Gerber is the managing editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Reach her at agerber@timesfreepress.com. Send suggestions to readerfeedback@timesfreepress.com.