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Former USF student breaks Te’o story

Published: Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Updated: Tuesday, January 22, 2013 01:01

Timothy Burke had a busy weekend.

His inbox has been filling up with hundreds of emails a day since Wednesday.

His voice has been heard on 18 radio shows and his face seen on nine television appearances since then, including CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360. 

His story is the reason why the world knows that Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o’s dead girlfriend never existed. 

Burke, an editor at Deadspin.com who completed his doctoral coursework in communications at USF in 2008 and taught a few undergraduate courses, broke the story about Te’o’s girlfriend and has since seen the story picked up by outlets around the country. 

“I thought it would be interesting to college football fans,” Burke said. “I didn’t think it would be a national story. I didn’t think it would be the kind of thing that would have Access Hollywood covering it. It kind of blew my mind about how many people were interested in this, but I guess the original hoax was so compelling, that the demolition of the myth was interesting to people too.”

Te’o, who finished second in Heisman voting, had long told the gut-wrenching story of finding out his girlfriend, “Lennay Kekua,” had died from leukemia just hours after finding out that his grandmother had died. His girlfriend, he had said, he met through Facebook, and her last days and Te’o’s long hours on the phone with her had been reconstructed by media outlets around the country including Sports Illustrated and ESPN.com

But when Burke and his Deadspin.com colleague Jack Dickey received an email from a source saying there was “something sketchy” about Manti Te’o’s girlfriend, they decided to look into it. 

“We did some Internet searching and realized there wasn’t a lot on this woman except for the fact that she was Manti Te’o’s dead girlfriend,” Burke said. “So we thought well, maybe there’s something to this.”

Dickey looked into people that Kekua was supposedly associated with and Burke, using Google image searching and searches through cached Twitter pictures, tried to locate the face behind Kekua’s online profiles. 

They found no records of Kekua’s death, or life, but within 24 hours, Burke said, he and Dickey stumbled upon a name — Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, who is now suspected to be behind Kekua’s profiles. 

Burke found a woman in California whose face matched the profile. According to the article, she did not know of the profile’s existence, but said she had gone to high school with Tuiasosopo and he had asked her to take a photo of herself with the letters “MSMK,” the letters that were part of Kekua’s Twitter handle. 

“It made me think about how the process of critical thinking about information we’re told and what the media reports is really lacking,” Burke said. 

Though Burke and his colleagues at Deadspin received statements from Te’o and Notre Dame, acknowledging Kekua was not a real person, they still have more questions, he said.

They have questions about Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, Burke said. They have questions about how Notre Dame, who has not responded to them since, handled the situation since finding out. They have questions about how other media outlets did their
reporting.

“I tried to teach my students, and many who took my classes back at USF would remember this, at all times, you need to be listening critically. You need to ask yourself ‘About what I was just told ... Why? Why is this true?’ If it still has evidence, then great, but most things (don’t). I think investigative reporting has fallen by the wayside and I think it’s associated with a lack of critical thinking being taught. I think if reporters aren’t being critical, then their readers, or viewers or listeners are also missing out on those important critical skills.”

 

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