Sourcing: Yes, you can overdo it
Yet another sourcing post with a surprising title. I don't mean to imply that journalists DO 'over-source,' but that some people expect them to do what I would call 'over-sourcing' or 'over-verifying.'
This time, let's take the story of Manti Te'o and the girlfriend hoax.
Recap: Perhaps the greatest defensive player in college football in 2012, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o, used his longtime girlfriend Lennay Kekua (whom he met online) as inspiration when he played, especially after she was diagnosed with leukemia and later died. Months after the fact, though, it was revealed that Te'o had been the victim of a hoax, and that Kekua not only hadn't died, but had never existed. Ultimately, it's not a story that impacts your life that much, unless you're Manti Te'o (for whom, I'll confess, I feel a little sorry. I've been hoaxed/scammed in a very emotional way before (not by a mysterious girlfriend, though), and it sucked. But that's neither here nor there). But it CERTAINLY was a talker for a few weeks.
Here's the gist of a comment I read online:
"This just goes to show that sports journalists need to verify their facts. They kept mentioning his girlfriend every game, but they never bothered to find the truth."
Are you kidding me?! This was somehow on the shoulders of sports journalists?
First, let's think about how they found out that Lennay was Te'o's girlfriend -- by asking him. Manti Te'o himself. He either talked about it to them first, or they asked him about it, or both. He was their primary source. Remember back in school, when writing a research paper, how nothing topped a primary source? Same here. No source tops the man himself who says he's dating Lennay Kekua.
Secondly, even if someone had reason to doubt Te'o's statements that he was the boyfriend of Lennay Kekua (which no sports writer would), there is no way to prove whether or not two people are dating. The only way you could come close to "proof" is by asking the people in the supposed relationship-- like Manti Te'o. He would work.
Also, a claim to be dating someone who is not famous is a VERY trivial aspect in a story. Why would it matter? Why would you question that? No reporter dropped the ball here.
To sum up my thoughts, I'll quote a fellow journalist who tweeted this:
Does EVERYTHING need to be questioned now? Should I start asking for interviewee's driver's licenses to verify their name?
Do you see my point?