Deadspin’s editor-in-chief explains editing, reporting behind Manti Te’o story

Deadspin Editor-in-Chief Tommy Craggs says Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey were faced with a tough question when reporting their now famous Manti Te’o story: “What lengths do we go to to try and prove a negative?”

Tommy Craggs

When asked about his reaction to The Boston Globe calling Deadspin “a website that has broken some high-profile stories but not an outlet regarded for journalistic standards,” Craggs says: “Whatever. Why should I care what a craven, slipshod outfit like the Boston Globe thinks of my ‘journalistic standards’?”

In an email Q&A, Craggs elaborates on Burke’s explanation of how Deadspin got the story that all other journalists missed.

Mallary Tenore: Who edited the story?

Tommy Craggs: Tom Scocca and I edited. We have a sort of wrestling-tag-team method of editing these longer features: We’ll put the story in a Google Doc and I’ll suplex a couple paragraphs and then Scocca will leap off the turnbuckle and piledrive a section or two, and so on. 

What sort of editing went into the piece?

From the start, Tim Burke and Jack Dickey kept a running notes file in Google Docs that acted as a skeleton for both their reporting and for the story itself. They asked themselves the obvious questions, Socratically: Who is the person in the photos? Where was Lennay Kekua born? When was Lennay Kekua born? Where did Lennay Kekua live? Did Lennay Kekua attend Stanford? When was Lennay Kekua’s car accident? When did Lennay Kekua die? [Then they] set about answering them, through public records and media reports.

There was a fat pile of the latter, contradictions and all, and absolutely nothing of the former. From there, the story wrote itself. That’s all pretty obvious, and anyone who reports a story goes through at least a mental catechism like this. But putting it all on the page made the holes in the Lennay story plain to see.

How long did the reporting and editing process take?

The editing was easy — just a matter of making sure we’d asked ourselves the right questions and kicked over the right stones, and then making sure the story wouldn’t lose readers as it descended into the rabbit hole.

What sorts of questions did the editor ask to make sure that this was a thoroughly reported story?

We began reporting on Friday. By Monday, Burke had found and contacted the woman in the Lennay photos. Once we had her on the record, we knew we had enough for a story. By Tuesday, we had a draft.

The only question, really: What lengths do we go to to try and prove a negative? Do we call funeral homes in Carson (we did)? Do we call funeral homes *near* Carson (we didn’t)? Once we got an answer from Stanford on the question of Lennay’s enrollment, I was satisfied.

What’s your reaction to the reality that no other journalists thought to look into this story?

Well, I understand how this slipped through the cracks initially. If I’m a beat guy and I have 500 words to file after practice come hell or high water and the best player on the team has just told me a story about his dear, departed girlfriend, I’m not going to go spelunking through SSA death records to make sure he’s not full of shit. They won’t say that out loud in journalism classes or anything, but that’s just the nature of covering sports on a hard deadline.

I have less sympathy for the folks who crafted those painstaking “Love Story”-in-cleats feature stories about Manti and his dead girlfriend. Those were dumb, infantilizing stories to begin with, and they were executed poorly and sloppily, and if there’s any lesson to be drawn from this, it’s that this kind of simpering crap should be eliminated from the sports pages entirely.

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  • http://occamsrazr.com Ike Pigott

    I seem to recall hearing that ESPN actually had a tip on this prior to the championship game, and tried to score an interview with Te’o to get his side. Days after the game, Te’o's people were still stonewalling. According to the theory, someone at ESPN might have leaked to Deadspin to kick things off.

    That is its own ethical quandary, but if that’s the case then Deadspin may have known full well that it was going to get the same stonewall, and that Notre Dame might jump out in front of it.

  • http://jamesdasilva.com/ James daSilva

    Fairness would be ND and Te’o not sitting on the story since December. Screw them.

  • kystokes

    Appreciate it. Good luck! I think this is more of a story about journalism than it is about sports at the end of the day, so I’ve been obsessed with it from the beginning.

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Thanks, @kystokes:disqus. I think these are good questions. If I end up doing a follow-up, I’ll ask him these questions.

    ~Mallary Tenore

  • kystokes

    I would’ve appreciated a question to Deadspin’s EIC that has to do with why they decided not to put *real effort into contacting ND’s press people, Te’o, or Te’o's family. It looks like they put in a text to or called each person once. It’s pretty blatant character assassination to insinuate with an unnamed source saying he was “80 percent sure” Te’o was “in on it”… and not put any real effort into getting Te’o/ND’s side of the story.

    Also, I would’ve appreciated Poynter asking him why they didn’t craft a more coherent theory of the case. Sure, they proved Kekua was a fake. But they didn’t answer the Big Fat ‘Why?’ in the story — what were the motivations at play, why would Te’o, Tuiasosopo, etc., do it. It seems as though they proved only the central point of their story, but left ND’s spokesperson to fill in the holes with a narrative that seems to be as thin as the Kekua story itself (see: es.pn/XkyTes and http://es.pn/XkyUiL ).

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Roger-Moore/1375959658 Roger Moore

    You let him DODGE the most important question — the length of time they were on this. It speaks to the player’s current narrative, that he was duped. If they were on this for months and Te’o got wind of it, he and his peeps could have come up with their current spin.

  • http://twitter.com/reg_rollins reg_rollins21

    Including details like the unnamed friend of Ronaiah’s comment about being 80% confident that Te’o was part of the invention of the dead girl, with no explanation for why he had that opinion, is really poor.

  • cjr001

    Te’o has already given his side… with months of lies upon lies upon lies.

    And Notre Dame deserves to be dragged through the mud when they knew for at least 3 weeks and sat on it.

    Deadspin did the journalistic work that nobody else bothered to do. Yeah, they deserve credit, while the rest need to ask themselves why they’re no longer doing any actual journalism.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=537401152 Tom Jackman

    Tom: If someone were writing a story about you, wouldn’t you want a chance to respond? And when you did respond, wouldn’t you want that response placed somewhere in proximity to the many allegations? Or is the very end of a long, heavily reported story sufficient for you, the story subject.

    Great work on tracking down the woman and figuring out Tuiasasopo. But Te’o and Notre Dame deserved a chance to give you their side before you published, and their side deserved fair play, regardless of how bogus or legit it may seem. Your view?

  • http://www.facebook.com/robert.knilands Robert Knilands

    Hostile, you shouldn’t be afraid to rip on the South Bend copy. You are likely right. I remember about 10 years ago (shudder) the paper ran some sort of cutline that either misidentified the coach (Tyrone Willingham at that time) or in some way did not make the connection between the image of the coach and his title. I remember thinking then: “How in the world does someone not get this right?” I guess things are much the same today.

  • http://twitter.com/tomscocca Tom Scocca

    Wrong. Try reading the story. The tip wasn’t from the woman in the photograph. Tim Burke tracked her down, and she had no idea her face had been out there. No luck about it.

  • http://profiles.google.com/gov.squid Governor Squid

    “Beaten to the punch” is exactly right. How long does one wait for comment from the people being reported on? Long enough for them to put together a quick press conference to get in front of the story? Long enough for them to find a more sympathetic writer at a more sympathetic paper?

    Deadspin nailed this one, and no amount of whining about who did or didn’t get a voicemail won’t change the fact that the “respectable” press completely blew the dead girlfriend story. Deadspin might not measure up to whatever impossibly high bar some want to hold up, but they performed a damn sight better than their dinosaur competition.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mwbaron Matt Baron

    I was a journalist for 20 years and Deadspin did what so many failed to do….without pixie dust over a compelling bed-time story. Kudos to them, and if “journalistic standards” means taking too much at face value, then that ought not to be the standard. TMZ and Deadspin are among those the upstarts Davids who have slain media Goliaths who have gotten sloppy and lazy. When a baseball stat I created was published in Sports Illustrated back in 1999, it got vetted extensively…and correctly so. I’d be interested to know what in the world has happened at SI. It’s not as if this was a one-day turnaround story that it wrote.

  • jrg

    They had a story with a solid factual umderpinning. All the assumptions they made based on that fact were clearly assumptions, and they detailed the reasons for those assumptions. They reached out to all of the people involved. Notre Dame didn’t answer. Teo’s number wasn’t accepting calls. And his father wasn’t available. They didn’t owe it to them to sit around and hold a major scoop while they decided whether to get back to them.

    Also, all parties knew about the story from at least Dec. 26. They had a chance to get out in front for weeks, and failed to.

  • http://twitter.com/dandeuce hey now

    Well if ND and Te’o had nothing to hide, they wouldn’t need a day to respond to the facts pointed out by Deadspin.

  • Dr. Gaspar

    Agreed Go with the real story.

  • Dr. Gaspar

    I am a journalism professor in Tampa, FL. Thank you for making my accuracy and obituaries lessons so easy this week!

    .

  • diane_edits

    From Deadspin.com’s story: We called a cellphone for Manti Te’o, but the number we had is not
    accepting calls. Brian Te’o, Manti’s father, was in a meeting when we
    called, according to a text message he sent in response. Ronaiah
    Tuiasosopo did not answer his phone or respond to multiple text
    messages. We left a message with Notre Dame earlier this afternoon.
    We’ll update with comments when and if we get any.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=537401152 Tom Jackman

    “We left a message with Notre Dame earlier this afternoon,” then posting the story at 4 pm is not really seeking their comment. They responded at 5:15. And it’s all buried at the very bottom of a very long story. Going through Notre Dame to get to their student is the way to get a response from Te’o. Waiting for that response, at least for a day, is the fair way to go when you’re going to trash a guy for the rest of his life.
    There’s no doubt the media blew it by not checking out whether Manti Te’o's girlfriend really died. But suspecting he would create this vile story out of whole cloth is not something that automatically occurs to most people. It didn’t occur to Deadspin either. They got a tip, as we all do. Good for them checking it out.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=537401152 Tom Jackman

    I read to the bottom of the story, my post makes clear. They never called Notre Dame. That’s just basic fairness, Journalism 101. They are certainly making it sound that Te’o is defrauding everyone by concocting this horrendous lie. Exposing it is one thing, and good for them. Determining who did it, and why, is where the actual journalism comes in.

  • http://www.facebook.com/DNicoa Hostile Negress

    I’m baffled by this. I need to go back and read the stories – but how in the WORLD do you report on a dead person with zero quotes from family and friends? And what about a picture – you don’t use Twitter pix.

    There seem to be a hell of a lot of points where this should have been sniffed out. Reading some of the South Bend copy, I hate to say it, it’s extremely prose-like. I’m thinking this was one of those stories that sounded really great and inspirational (aka Pulitzer bait) and folks were willing to go with it, rather than ask the hard questions. It happened to me once – not asking the hard questions -but I was in college!

  • http://twitter.com/putajerseyon French Linton

    They asked Notre Dame and Te’o for comment, and they wouldn’t give one. What else can you do?

  • jayrig5

    They never reported that Te’o was defrauding anyone. They reported a list of facts and quotes from sources. Te’o had told this story publicly countless times. They also called Te’o and got no response. They then added the released statements by Notre Dame, who was responding to the story.

    Maybe read to the bottom of a story (or maybe just read it) before making stupid and distracting accusations.

    If everything they printed was true, that’s all that matters. (And it certainly puts them way above every single media outlet who reported on the GF story, since that was all obviously false.)

  • Phil Perspective

    ND gave their version last night. And it still didn’t answer any of the pertinent questions. How was Te’o a victim of this hoax in the age of Skype(and other free, similar services?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=537401152 Tom Jackman

    Note that it never occurs to Craggs: What is Teo’s side of the story? What does he or Notre Dame have to say? What does the accused hoaxer, Tuisasosopo, say? There was no effort to contact Notre Dame, minimal attempts at Teo or Tuisasosopo. It’s called getting both sides of the story, or real journalism. So maybe Notre Dame’s side — that Teo is a victim, not a hoaxer — is bogus. But you get that, and you publish it, up high. Their proof that Teo was involved? Two anonymous people, one who is “80 percent sure.”
    They’re having a lot of fun patting themselves on the back. But they only did half the job.