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January 17, 2013

Media buys into tale of athlete's tragic love

Was it too good to check?

Reporters from the South Bend Tribune to CBS to Sports Illustrated all repeated the story about the heartbreaking death of a young woman and her alleged romantic links to a Notre Dame football hero.

One problem: It appears not to be true. As the sports website Deadspin.com reported Wednesday, the woman — identified in TV, print and Web stories for months as Lennay Kekua — never existed. Her reported death and relationship with University of Notre Dame star linebacker Manti Te'o seem to have been an elaborate hoax.

Although it's still not clear who created and perpetrated the apparent deception, the media took Te'o's word for it without inquiring further.

In a statement released by Notre Dame after the Deadspin report broke Wednesday, Te'o said that he believed that his "girlfriend" existed, at least online. He said he, like the news media, was duped into believing that Kekua died of leukemia in September.

"This is incredibly embarrassing to talk about, but over an extended period of time, I developed an emotional relationship with a woman I met online," he said. "We maintained what I thought to be an authentic relationship by communicating frequently online and on the phone, and I grew to care deeply about her. To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone's sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating."

Reporters perpetuated and built upon the questionable story of the doomed relationship, taking for granted that previously reported facts were true, said Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based organization that studies the news business.

He likened the Te'o story to widespread media reports of rampant looting and killings in New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, including tales of dead bodies stacked in police freezers. Those stories — which were given especially prominent play in foreign news outlets — seemed to confirm a narrative of a violent underclass unleashed on a city in which authority had broken down. Virtually all of the most lurid stories turned out to be false.

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