Scripps alumnus Timothy Burke of Deadspin broke one of the biggest stories of the year last week, uncovering falsities in articles about Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o’s tragic start to a Heisman-finalist performing season. Burke spoke to The Post’s Local Editor Kelly Gifford about how he handled the story and how his Scripps roots helped him ask the questions countless reporters did not.
The Post: The Manti Te’o hoax story is one of the biggest stories of the year, and it all came from an anonymous tip. How did you go about tackling an investigation based on just a tip?
Tim Burke: How Jack (Dickey) and I went about doing this story speaks volumes to the power of collaborative media. We got the tip and created a shared Google document where we wrote out questions we had after reading the original Te’o story — 24 of which were fact-based questions and 10 reporting-based questions. Those included questions like “When did Lennay Kekua die? Where did she die? Did she go to Stanford? Did Te’o’s grandmother in fact die?” That list consisted of all the details that we felt were not answered.
We proceeded to try and fill in those blanks with different media reports, and that was where we found about five different dates of Kekua’s death. That was the red flag for Dickey and I, and we knew, “Hey, this is something to really look into.”
I proceeded to verify who appeared in the pictures of Te’o’s girlfriend, and Dickey looked into her school status and the grandmother’s death. We worked our way down the list of our questions. After 24 hours, I saw the person who appeared in the girlfriend pictures. I had to figure out how to recover the deleted user pictures and find where they originated, which took a long time. Then we found Diane O’Meara’s account. It only had Diane’s first name so we had to keep digging. I sleuthed around on Facebook and sent her a FB message, and it all went on from there.
Post: Why do you think reporters from Sports Illustrated and ESPN did not ask what many journalists consider to be the fundamental questions surrounding the tragedy Te’o described in his initial interviews?
Burke: There is a saying in journalism that goes “Don’t question cancer and don’t question death.” I found that completely strange. At the very least, I thought they would try and find a picture. So I did.
(After getting confirmation from O’Meara and their original tipster, Burke and Dickey proceeded to get confirmation from sources close to the tragedy that Kekua was not a real person).
Post: How did you get your sources to confide what they knew in you and your partner?
Burke: One of hardest roles in journalism is getting people to talk. It took about six phone calls to get many of my sources to actually talk to me. I am a media critic; I do video and assign stories. This is off my beat. I really had to go on the fly with talking to my sources. Frankly, (ensuring anonymity isn’t) really something I learned in school cause I learned the tech-y things. You can’t teach how to work with the sources cause everyone reacts differently.
Post: Do you have any comment on the ESPN producers being suspended for cutting away from Swarbrick's press conference?
Burke: ESPN has some strange policies or lack thereof about cutting away from live coverage, and it sort of blows my mind that some people were suspended for doing their job.
Post: How did your education at Scripps and your experience in journalism at Ohio University help prepare you for handling a story like this?
Burke: One of the most important lessons I learned at Scripps was the idea that when you come into a story, you can’t focus on "the why." You need to find "the what." If you find the what, the why will soon follow.
I also learned that there is a certain amount of thoroughness that comes with being a reporter. When you are coming out and accusing one of the biggest stories in sports as a hoax, you better be pretty sure about it.
Thoroughness in fact checking our own story was key. For example, we knew early on that Lennay Kekua did not exist. That fact didn’t absolve us from getting answers from Stanford. It didn’t absolve us from calling the L.A. Health Department and confirming no one named Lennay Kekua had died. It is vitally important that we A) do the background, fact-checking work and B) understand that the piece has more credibility if you say you can know it and know it two different ways.
I have to say that the main person responsible for how I got information from people and the necessary rigor to handle the Te’o story is WOUB’s Fred Kight, who just retired. As important as my classes were, it was his guidance that helped me have the ability to do the reporting.
Post: Do you think breaking a big story like this will change the identity of Deadspin?
Burke: I hope our identity doesn’t change, and I don’t think it will. Part of what enables Deadspin is that we aren’t burdened by access to sources. “Lack of access” is part of our slogan. Our lack of access allows us to report on things in a way that others can’t. Independent news organizations have the freedom to push the envelope; that’s why the independent press is so vital.
Independent news organizations like Deadspin are going to be the ones who break these stories because we don’t have shareholders that are invested in some media something that are concerned about what we are publishing. ESPN was worried about having access to Te’o and other future sources. Their investigation was based on getting access to Manti Te’o. We aren’t worried about getting interviews with other sorts of celebrities. I only answer to my (editor-in-chief) and my boss. It’s very freeing.
The reality is that now this is our biggest story ever. It’s going to boost our credibility and probably add a new way for us to tackle assignments. But I don’t think the essence of what Deadspin started as with Will Leitch will be lost. We are not going alienate our audience that brought us to where we are now.
Post: So, what's next for you after breaking such a big story?
Burke: I am still very happy working for Deadspin. I love my colleagues. I like being part of this company. Some of the things that I do are tailored to working for Deadspin. If another job opportunity came along, it would have to be something really exciting and new to jump ship. I get paid to watch sports! It’s the best job in the world.