The Manti Te’o Scandal: How to Fact-Check in the Digital Age

It’s been a busy week in the digital blunders department. Deadspin’s expose on Manti Te’o’s non-existent girlfriend is shocking for the simple fact that all it took was some old fashioned fact-checking. That the Gawker Media sports blog “without access, favor, or discretion” scooped traditional sports media like Sports Illustrated and ESPN, among others, is a big deal — and a rather simple one.

It’s J-School 101. Always ask questions, ask until you get a real answer, and make sure you have real facts, dates and numbers, to back up your claim. Of course, it’s easy to look back and see where everything spiraled out of control. The online news world is exciting, fast paced, and usually effective. It’s easy to spread a good story online; it’s now twice as hard to make sure it’s true.

Here’s a quick refresher:

1. Follow The Links

In the digital age, it’s safe to say that most journalists will repost, retweet and report on a story if enough media outlets are linking to it. As long as there are enough outlets reporting on a story and those outlets are credible, it can seem safe to pass it along. But don’t we all know that feeling of finding yourself in a link loop? One blog links to a story and that link leads us to another story and another one linking back to the same quote and then you find yourself back at the first story, never getting to a real source? It’s easy to call off the search when the original “breaking news” post is on a questionable or obscure news source. It’s not so easy when the “facts” comes from a Sports Illustrated cover story (oh, to be a fly on that wall today!) or ESPN.

Someone at the South Bend Tribune or Sports Illustrated should have looked into the girlfriend’s story. They didn’t; social media and Te’o himself seemed to corroborate the story. But a new rule for fact checking online is that you are no longer just responsible for your own facts. You have to fact check other media. Even Sports Illustrated, even The New York Times. Someone writes that he skips a funeral for a game? Find an obit for the deceased listing the service, call the funeral home, get a local picture of the service. We’re all looking for extra video and audio content, right? Too much information is supposed to be a good thing these days.

2. Learn How to Use Simple Tools 

Granted, the timeline on the Te’o story has many layers. But one thing the Deadspin reporters did was check public records to start delving into the mess. The fact that no one looked up the girl’s name on Lexis Nexis until this week is shocking. An ESPN reporter says that “short of asking to see a death certificate” he’s not sure what other people would do. I don’t know what people do, but journalists should get that certificate. It reminds me of the second season of The Wire, when the major case detail and the homicide division keep messing up the investigation just because they didn’t communicate or double check on-going case records. It’s silly only because of how simple it is. You can take free tutorials on how to search public records if you don’t know how. It’s time to brush up.

3. Social Media Follow Up

The heart of the story lies on Twitter and other social media. Whether its a fake girlfriend or a fake leukemia cause, social media hoaxes are commonplace now. As a reporter, it can be tough to spot a fake if you’re not already skeptical. But if you’re using a quote from a social media account, there are some ways to spot a suspicious account. Public Twitter profiles give you basic information about what a user is doing on the site. About 25% of Twitter accounts have no followers, but most follow 125 accounts. Because, what’s the fun of Twitter if you don’t follow people? If the numbers of someone’s network are small in scope, or they aren’t tweeting often or at all, a red flag should go up. When users are changing their handles or accounts go from inactive to active during a short time period, and they are part of your story, you need to look into that.