Te’o story shows investigative journalism is not dead

mantiteo

By Sylvia Stead
Globe and Mail

Today some journalists and news organizations are feeling sheepish and embarrassed over being duped by the Manti Te’o dying girlfriend story.

The Globe’s story by Bruce Dowbiggin says if it’s too good to be true it probably is. Bruce points out how gullible the media was to buy into this fake story.

The Globe and Mail didn’t report the original story, which if true, would have been a great human interest story: triumph in the face of tragedy. The reason so many believed and reported it as the truth was likely in part because it is a great tale but also, as Bruce suggests, because so many people were in on it.

Te’o, his family, his coach — and then there were the social media references and tweets and a photo of a real woman. Today, the story gets even more bizarre.

This morning the Poynter Institute, which writes on journalism issues, suggests this story shows the “diminished role” of investigative journalism.

While Poynter is partly right, I would take the glass half-full side of the argument and say it shows great investigative journalism can be done by a very small organization as long as the reporters are using their critical thinking skills, are tenacious and keep thinking about what was wrong.

The story was broken by Deadspin. Deadspin is a sports website owned by Gawker Media. According to its website, Deadspin has 12 full-time staff.

Twelve staff. I saw CNN’s Anderson Cooper interview Deadspin’s Timothy Burke on how he broke the story and according to the Poynter article by Mallary Jean Tenore, there were just two reporters (Timothy and Jack Dickey) who broke this story with help from two editors.

It started with a tip that something was wrong. And like all great journalism stories, the reporters just started pulling those loose threads. Something didn’t seem right. Something was fishy.

It’s a tribute to their critical thinking skills that they followed their noses to a great story. To me, it shows investigative reporting skills are alive and well and can be accomplished by organizations big and small when they question what seems wrong.

This column was originally published in The Globe and Mail on January 17, 2013.