Student guest post: Ensuring accuracy off the field

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the first of those posts. Alexa Burrell is a senior majoring in editing and graphic design. She is from Aurora, Colo., and is interested in working in sports communication after graduation from UNC-Chapel Hill.

It was tough week for sports journalists.

Not only did Lance Armstrong admit to doping after years of denial, but Deadspin also uncovered that the heartwarming and inspirational story of Manti Te’o and his deceased girlfriend was a hoax. During the college football season, several reliable journalists and publications continued to spread the story, seemingly without checking the facts. As the story continues to unfold, one of the biggest questions is, how did journalists and editors not catch this?

Sports journalism differs from other types of journalism because of its high entertainment value. Sports writers often look for stories or narratives that can turn a simple game into a display of an individual’s passion and personal struggle. While those stories are captivating, accuracy still needs to take precedence when writing and editing pieces.

Here are some of my tips as a sports journalist for keeping the narrative, but maintaining accuracy:

Back up your sources’ claims with documentation. Most of what was reported about Lennay Kekua could have been checked with documentation. Documents could have — and should have — been recovered for everything from where she attended school, to her tragic car accident and even her death. No other writer seemed to think to do what Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey did — check the sources. A couple of Google searches, phone calls to Stanford University and requests for records let the Deadspin writers have what is an even “juicer” story than the alleged tragedy.

Talk to teammates. As the story continued to develop, it was revealed that several teammates knew Kekua was not Te’o’s girlfriend. Why weren’t the teammates asked about her in the first place? Not only would a teammate’s perspective enhance the narrative, but reporters might find out more information by asking the locker room how a particular event has affected and individual’s play and, perhaps, personal life.

Be skeptical. When reporting on a game, sports journalists have it easy. There are replays, statistics and detailed records for each player’s performance on the field. However, off the playing field is a different story, and every bit of information presented can’t be taken as fact.  If anything, the magnitude of attention and criticism the media has garnered from this incident will hopefully increase journalists’ skepticism and efforts when checking for accuracy.

Bring it back to the basics. In the digital age of journalism, not all journalists are trained to adhere to news values. But it was a blog that broke the hoax in the first place. Even though sports journalism is not as “serious” as other types of reporting, remember to maintain and adhere to news values.

The story of Te’o shook the world of sports journalism this week. The failure to check for accuracy has become a story of a much larger magnitude than the original narrative, and from this, sports journalists should remember accuracy is important in any type of reporting.



  1. Might I suggest a humble (and biased) option for assuring accuracy: checking with your librarian. We are search ninjas & can help reporters / editors find relevant published material – just as I did when I was a newspaper librarian. Even if your news organization doesn’t have a library, folks at the public library are happy to help any patrons — including journalists.

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