How Did Sports Media Whiff on Manti Te'o's Fake Girlfriend?

Over at Slate, Josh Levin tries to suss out how and why the Sports Illustrated’s and ESPN’s of the world bought into the hoax that Manti Te’o had a girlfriend who died of leukemia at the beginning of the 2012 college football season.

Confirmation bias plays a role, he writes. This is the notion that people are prone to believe that which reinforces what they already believe, whether true or not. In this case, a national, fact-checked (most of the time?) magazine — Sports Illustrated — published a glowing feature on Te’o, complete with his religious, Boy Scout upbringing and personal triumph over tragedy. As his on field reputation grew, future reporters referenced biographical features found in the original SI feature without much thought.

Which leads Levin to explore the basic hagiography we use to report on celebrities. We apply well-worn, paint by numbers, templates — in this case, the heroic athlete overcoming adversity — that do both subjects and readers a disservice.

No matter what we learn about Te’o in the coming days, this black-and-white narrative—good man fixes bad things—enlightens no one and does the athlete no favors…

…Sports Illustrated looked at the linebacker and saw a classic template, not a human being who demanded the scantest thought or scrutiny. In the end, they got back the exact amount of effort they put in. This was journalism as fill-in-the-blank exercise, the creation of a simple story that tells you what you already know. In this case, what we already knew happened not to be the truth. If only Manti Te’o hadn’t been such a boy scout. Then we might have known how interesting he was all along.

Josh Levin, Slate. The Fake Girlfriend Experience.

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