Edgar Tamayo was described in many ways in the hours preceding and following his execution by the state of Texas. The range of descriptors assigned to him captures the range of interpretations of his story.
In reading these descriptions, it is telling to note the news source, whether is U.S.-based or Mexican-based or somewhere else altogether, and how Tamayo is presented. In each case, the headlines and leads are enough to get the sense of how his story is being framed: Tamayo as a convicted cop killer or Tamayo as victim denied his rights.
These various descriptors highlight the power of words as discussed in Chapter 8 of Overcoming Bias, as well as the notion of perspective — U.S. or Mexican or global — that is discussed throughout the book. Consider the “Fault Lines” of race/ethnicity and geography discussed in Ch. 1, Context, Culture and Cognition, when looking over these examples:
— headline from The Global Dispatch (an online news site)
“The 46-year-old Mexican was controversially executed in Texas less than two weeks ago for the killing of a Houston police officer in 1994, despite outrage from human rights groups and last minute appeals from his lawyers for clemency on the grounds that Tamayo was mentally disabled.”
— headline and lead from the UK’s Daily Mail
“Texas executed Edgar Tamayo Wednesday night after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an 11th-hour appeal to keep the Mexican national from death at Huntsville State Penitentiary in Texas. Tamayo, 46, was convicted of fatally shooting Houston police Officer Guy Gaddis in 1994.”
— headline and lead from AlJazeera America
— lead from the BBC News
— lead in The New Zealand Herald, which used an Associated Press story.
— the lead from NewEurope (which describes itself as “the European Political Newspaper that mainly publishes and discusses news concerning EU politics and issues”).
TribCityHallReporter Kristen Mack, interviewed here in March, 2013, offers advice on what to do when a story’s focus changes, how to keep personal biases out of a news report and important traits to have as a journalist.
CLICK ON THE LINK above to play the video.
Mack was the Chicago Tribune’s City Hall reporter until last September, when she took a job as press secretary to the Cook County board president.
Mack was a reporter for the Chicago Tribune since 2009. Mack’s coverage of the Chicago Teachers Union strike brought her national attention.
According to Chicagoland Radio and Media’s website: “Prior to coming to Chicago, Kristen Mack was a reporter for the Washington Post for two years and a political columnist/reporter for the Houston Chronicle for six years. Before joining the Houston Chronicle in 2001, Mack was in the Hearst Newspaper Fellowship program, interning with the Seattle Times, Memphis Commercial Appeal, and the Miami Herald. She was an undergraduate at Emory University in Atlanta and received her Masters Degree from the UC-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.”
The Manti Te’o hoax may well become a newsroom verb of caution for any large-scale digital dupe. Before giving the OK to proceed on an Internet-centric story, editors will warn: “Just make sure we don’t get Te’o-ed.”
Te’o, a 21-year-old linebacker for the University of Notre Dame hoping to be drafted into the NFL, has since told ESPN and Katie Couric that he wasn’t part of any hoax but the victim of a scam. But he did admit to leading people to think he had met the person with whom he had an online relationship before she died.
Journalists did not check every single fact of the Te’o – Lennay Kekua love story.
But who can blame them?
You’d be in good company if you believed Te’o. See the list of those who did believe Te’o and didn’t check out the whole story. An element of what I’ll call “gotta confirm”-ation bias courses through this story. For more on the confirmation bias, see Ch. 7 of Overcoming Bias: “Critical Decisions Before Deadline.” The subhead of that chapter is particularly worth mentioning in this post: Why even experienced journalists neglect certain facts and what to do about it.
Until more reporting brings forth the why and how of this saga, the story remains so extremely bizarre that any reporters who claim they wouldn’t have been duped aren’t being honest — with themselves, mostly. (See Jeremy Schaap on ESPN.com on this topic.)
Too Good to Check
Margaret Sullivan, the public editor at the New York Times, wrote a column about the newspaper’s Te’o coverage. The paper’s coverage was fairly limited but nonetheless Sullivan urged a “trust but verify” approach to all stories. In an appearance on msnbc’s “Morning Joe” news show, she stated: “There’s a category of journalism called ‘too good to check.'”
In Ch. 3 of my book on how the mind organizes and interprets information, I quote Kurt Andersen of New York Magazine reiterating the longtime newsroom joke about how “some juicy fragment of reporting is a ‘fact too good to check.'” (p.41)
With any dramatic tale, the journalist (or at least a part of him or her) prays that no source or document will come along that will undo the magic of the story. You hold your breath that it checks out so you can run with this great read. The Manti Te’o story was such a compelling one because it was all there: young lovers, tragedy, heroism, inspiration. It caught the attention of reporters from Sports Illustrated to ESPN to the South Bend Tribune and many others.
(See this Poynter column examining why journalists didn’t find out about the hoax sooner.)
When journalists fall in love with the story, just like with true love, they can lose their judgment. The can lose their critical thinking skills.
Instead of playing Monday morning quarterback (sorry), I’d like to acknowledge the power of the age-old narrative coupled with something comparatively new: The Internet. One tool that can help a journalist avoid biasing herself toward a story is to limit her consumption of the master narrative already coursing through the digital veins of the Internet. In cognitive terms, it’s called exposure control. (Ch. 10: Journalism and Reflective Practice, p. 181)
Controlling exposure to biasing information — in this case the stories that had already been reported on Te’o and his girlfriend — may have prompted more scrutiny and less acceptance of the master narrative.
That said, what journalist doesn’t do his homework and check out the prior coverage when doing background research? The lessons in this hoax aren’t easy to learn because this story is so strange it feels like the exception and not the rule. Ironically, it’s an ideal time to remember the tried-and-true guidelines that protect against digital dupes on both the everyday and the exceptional stories.
So, Potential Lesson One: Don’t follow the pack. (Ch. 6, p. 107).
Huffington Post writer Michael Calderone wrote that: “Te’o’s story was the type sportswriters — or really, journalists in general — flock toward. Here was a talented young man, who in the face of deep personal loss, triumphed on the field…The Deadspin investigation may be remembered as much as an indictment of the media’s herd mentality than for its revelations about the hoax itself.”
After the hoax was revealed, senior columnist Gene Wojciechowski, who covered the story for ESPN, said on SportsCenter:
“Well, I sat across from him and I was moved by his story and it was heartbreaking and heartwarming and as it turns out totally untrue. But short of asking to see a death certificate, I’m not sure what most people would do differently in that case. But in researching it before I wrote the script, I remember trying to find an obituary for his girlfriend and could not. And couldn’t find any record of this car accident. But we asked Manti, could we contact Lennay’s family and he said the family would prefer not to be contacted. Could we have some photos of Lennay? He said the family would prefer not to provide those. And so in that instance, and at that moment, you simply think that you have to respect those wishes. But in retrospect, you can see where some of those things simply were not adding up to make sense. Easy to say now. At the time it never enters your mind somebody was involved in that kind of hoax.”
But wait. It’s not as easy as all that, to pin the blame for believing on journalists’ love of a good story and pack mentality of journalists. Some smart journalists were on this story, and ESPN was also investigating its veracity.
So, Potential Lesson Two: Counterargue the story’s premise. In this story’s saga, this means counterarguing not only someone’s death but her very existence. Which, as the NYT sports editor Joe Sexton pointed out when he responded to Sullivan’s question for her column, is pretty ludicrous:
“I could never imagine in editing such a story, with the references existing as they did, asking the reporters: Do you know for a fact his grandmother is dead? Do you know for a fact his girlfriend is dead? Do you know for a fact his grandmother existed? Do you know for a fact his girlfriend ever existed? And any editor who tells you they would have or should have asked those questions is kidding you.”
Sports Illustrated senior writer Pete Thamel’s account of his recorded interviews with Te’o and other sources shows that he asked a lot of good questions — probing questions, questions to pin down time and place and circumstances. Wrote Thamel: “[Te’o] never specified that he’d met her in person, and I didn’t ask. Why would you ask someone if he’d actually met his girlfriend who recently died?”
Potential Lesson Three: Acccountability.
Deadspin reporter Timothy Burke, who broke the story with colleague Jack Dickey, told Poynter’s Mallary Tenore that, “You can learn a lot about what happened by looking at the contradictions between other journalists’ stories. That was what really tipped us off, after all, that something was weird here. Major news organizations disagreed on the date of a person’s death by up to four days.”
Deadspin.com’s fact checking was a simple and thorough search for verification, as you’ll see here:
“Manti Te’o did lose his grandmother this past fall. Annette Santiago died on Sept. 11, 2012, at the age of 72, according to Social Security Administration records in Nexis. But there is no SSA record there of the death of Lennay Marie Kekua, that day or any other. Her passing, recounted so many times in the national media, produces no obituary or funeral announcement in Nexis, and no mention in the Stanford student newspaper.
Nor is there any report of a severe auto accident involving a Lennay Kekua. Background checks turn up nothing. The Stanford registrar’s office has no record that a Lennay Kekua ever enrolled. There is no record of her birth in the news. Outside of a few Twitter and Instagram accounts, there’s no online evidence that Lennay Kekua ever existed.”
The lasting legacy of the Manti Te’o hoax may well be that it becomes a cautionary tale around newsrooms, much like the Richard Jewell case has taught journalists to avoid jumping to conclusions when it comes to reporting on suspects, or the Duke lacrosse case taught them to avoid stereotypical narratives. Instead of “a fact too good to check,” we need to rewrite the age-old motto to fit these digital times: No fact is too good to check.
“The illusion of explanatory depth.” This is the cognitive term for thinking we are smarter than we really are. Turns out we are limited in our understanding of how limited our understanding is.
That tongue twister sums up a useful bit of knowledge for journalists: When interviewing sources who seem supremely confident about what they know, never fear pressing the point. Ask: How do you know what you know?
Researchers Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil in 2002 wrote about how people are generally overconfident about their abilities and their knowledge. They also have an overinflated view of how well they understand how things work — from a piano key to a flat tax, it turns out.
A New York Times op-ed piece on Sunday referenced this illusion when people are asked to explain political policies. The column, written by two of the four researchers, asked people to explain how political policies work. The result was that not only do people not understand how the policies work, but that in trying to explain them, “they become more moderate in their political views — either in support of such policies or against them.”
The researchers, Steven Sloman and Philip M. Fernbach, noted that politicians should be driven to explain just how their pet policy will function if put into play, not just why voters should back the policy. “We should demand that Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney explain how in addition to why,” they wrote.
It strikes me that this is excellent advice for journalists as well. Demand of our sources and ourselves that we can explain the how behind complex stories and issues.
Rozenblit and Keil also noted that “people grossly overestimate their ability to remember what they have observed in a scene.” Just because a scene is vivid doesn’t mean we remember it vividly.
Again, the science is a useful reminder to careful journalists; this time the point being to be wary about taking eyewitness reports as fact.
Sources: Rozenblit, L., & Keil, F. (2002). “The misunderstood limits of folk science: An illusion of explanatory depth.” Cognitive Science, 26, 521-562.
Sloman, S. & Fernbach, P.M. (Oct. 19, 2012). “I’m right! (For some reason).” The New York Times. Sunday Review: The Opinion Pages. p.12.
We know by now that, in the rush to be first in reporting the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on the individual mandate portion of President Obama’s healthcare reform law, CNN and Fox News incorrectly declared that the justices had overturned the mandate.
Speculation as to how major news outlets could make such an error on such a significant news story ranged from the power of expectations (the reporters read just enough of the ruling to confirm their expectations that the Court would overturn the mandate) to a suggestion that Fox News journalists stopped reading the opinion once they read enough to confirm their hopes that the mandate would be overturned.
See a good play-by-play of the incorrect reporting and corrections here.
Overcoming Bias’ Chapter 7 discusses the importance of accuracy over speed. In the digital world of journalism that measures scoops in seconds, Reuters’ Handbook of Journalism provides a solid guideline to follow:
“We expect our journalists to reach conclusions through reporting, but they must also demonstrate the intellectual discipline to keep their conclusions susceptible to further reporting, which requires a posture of open-mindedness and enlightened skepticism. This is difficult to demonstrate in the social networks’ short forms and under the pressure of thinking-writing-posting in real time. But maintaining this posture is critical to our credibility and reputation as journalists. When in doubt about a post, tweet or other action on social networks, we must enlist a second pair of eyes, even at the cost of some delay.”
Both Fox News and CNN did soon correct their mistake and proceed to report and analyze the SCOTUS decision. As their experience demonstrates, “some delay” is far better than really wrong.