By Margaret Holt
6:43 PM EST, January 17, 2013
The Manti Te’o saga is a reminder to all of us who practice journalism that we live in glass houses.
The newly exposed hoax that is rocking Notre Dame football, Te’o and sports media this week is a high-profile and embarrassing reminder that journalism is difficult and there are a million ways to mess up, including falling for a fable that many, with the benefit of hindsight, might say was too good to be true.
(UPDATE: On Jan. 23, Manti Te'o told Katie Couric that when he found out he'd been lied to, he was so embarrassed, he kept up the fiction.)
With this error, we will do what we do after every error: Admit our mistake, learn from it, do some soul-searching and move forward.
For the record, let me take note of our transgressions and how the Tribune has publicly aired our mistakes in this still-developing story:
• A Page 1 article on Thursday by Stacy St. Clair and Brian Hamilton laid out how a blockbuster story by Deadspin exposed the tale of Manti Te’o’s dead girlfriend “Lennay Kekua” as a hoax. It described how Notre Dame is scrambling to explain this, portraying Te’o as a victim. Our story noted that the Tribune had run at least 15 articles mentioning either Kekua or Te’o’s girlfriend in the past four months.
• Columnist John Kass took some whacks at the sports media with a piece headlined, “Golden slices of baloney flavor Te’o hoax offering.”
As Kass pointed out, the unfortunate truth is that it’s not just sports journalists who make mistakes. As the keeper of the Chicago Tribune’s dirty laundry on the accuracy front for many years, I can tell you that while this case is a whopper, it’s not the first time we’ve been spun.
It’s not as though no one covering city, state, national, international, business, arts, entertainment and any other kind of news has never fallen for a sappy tale and created a narrative with a life of its own.
There are some follow-up actions we will take. We will go back into our own archives and append an editor’s note to each of the articles that mentioned the “girlfriend” to be sure that any reader who follows in the future will know that the article bears a scarlet letter.
I’m still not quite sure what the note should say. I spoke with Mike Kellams, the Tribune’s associate managing editor for sports, who rightly points out that this story is still developing. Was Te’O duped, or was he part of the hoax?
We are also taking a look at how we could have done better, Kellams said. “There’s no reason the Chicago Tribune could not have broken this story, but we did not,” he said.
“We have to dust ourselves off and dig back in to find ways to do our work better,” he said in a follow-up email to me. ”It’s clearly an important question to get answered and could be the good for us that comes from the realization that what was believed true is simply a myth.”
At the Chicago Tribune, we run in-house training sessions on topics such as how to run background checks on sources and stories. “We need to continue that training,” Managing Editor Jane Hirt said.
Elsewhere on this page, we regularly report our errors in the corrections space and provide a phone number for readers to report mistakes. Online, we have a readily available form for readers to tell us about mistakes they see.
Since we adopted our accuracy policy in 1996, we have reviewed more than 10,000 errors that resulted in corrections. Our threshold for a correction is very low – if it’s wrong, even if it is a simple typo that creates a factual mistake, we fix it.
“That’s because we believe in admitting our mistakes and learning from them,” Hirt said.
-- Margaret Holt, standards editor
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