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Examining our own mistakes and what went wrong

Allan Joseph | Monday, January 21, 2013

Almost as soon as news of the by now infamous Lennay Kekua hoax broke last week, it was clear the media would have some answering to do. Rather than uncovering the truth, we all unknowingly perpetuated the false narrative.

This is my turn to answer, and my turn to apologize. We at The Observer were one of the many organizations taken in by the hoax, and we published stories mentioning Kekua’s death. Since Wednesday, I’ve taken the time to review our coverage mentioning the Kekua story, and while the results are encouraging, we did make mistakes.

All told, we mentioned the story in six separate articles this fall, all of which are attached to this article on our website in their original form. Only one, a Senior Day feature published in the Nov. 16 Irish Insider focusing on Manti Te’o’s relationship with the student body, identified Kekua’s name, or identified her as a student at Stanford. Three gave a passing mention to Te’o losing his grandmother and girlfriend in the same week, while one described her death as Te’o’s motivation to reach out to the family of a young and terminally ill Irish fan.

We should have checked if Kekua in fact attended Stanford. However, the story had been so widely reported in the months prior to that article that we mistakenly took her attendance at Stanford to be common knowledge. We should have cited reports of Kekua’s death, rather than again citing it as common knowledge. As we all know now, we got those facts wrong. For that, I take responsibility and sincerely apologize. We always strive to live up to the mission statement listed on the front page of every paper and bring the truth to our readers.

But after reading through every word of our coverage mentioning Kekua, I feel safe standing by all of it. We never made that story a focal point of our coverage. We covered the community’s response to the Te’o’s pain in the form of the leis against Michigan. We covered how Te’o responded to his difficult days by playing some of his best football. And we covered how the football program and larger community supported Te’o in those days – and how that strengthened the bond between the linebacker and his classmates. None of those things changed when the hoax was revealed, which is why I’m still proud of the exceptional coverage we produced. As a student newspaper, we always felt the story should be about Te’o and the support he received from fellow students, and thus Kekua was only a minor detail. That mindset helped us cover the story that mattered to our readers, and helped us maintain accuracy too.

However, the lessons we learned from re-examining the Te’o story can help us as we move forward in covering the many incredible stories of the Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s communities. Every article we publish goes through at least two rounds of copy editing, and our copy editors fact check on an ad hoc basis. We will be more vigilant in checking verifiable facts, and will be more comfortable sacrificing compelling but unverifiable details in order to maintain our accuracy. We won’t stop covering the great stories that take place every day, from the triumphant to the heartbreaking. But we won’t stop striving for the truth, either.

As always, if you see something in The Observer that you think might be inaccurate, please contact me. And if you have more questions about our our coverage of this story, please let me know.

I firmly believe our coverage since the hoax was revealed has been impeccable, and I’m still incredibly proud of the work we did to cover Te’o’s season, among many other big stories, last semester. But we have learned our lessons from our mistakes – and hopefully, we’ll never have to answer for similar mistakes again.

Contact Allan Joseph at ajoseph2@nd.edu