Friday, January 18, 2013

What the Manti Te'o Hoax Teaches Us About Media and Education

In the week that President Obama's announced twenty-three new executive orders regarding gun control in the wake of the Newton school shooting tragedy, the nation is gripped by two news stories of scandal from the world of sports. Lance Armstrong admits (maybe) to using performance enhancing drugs, and news of the touching story of the death of the girlfriend of former Heisman hopeful Manti Te'o of the storied Notre Dame football program turns out to be a hoax.

If you don't know the story, here it is from the news source that broke it,

What? Since September, this story, crafted into an inspirational story of loss and hope has been perpetrated by media from sports outlets like Sports Illustrated and ESPN to broader outlets such as CBS and CNN. Long story short, Manti Te'o began sharing a story about losing his grandmother and girlfriend within hours of each other, making his team's quest for an undefeated season even more meaningful. It turns out the girlfriend was a fiction. Maybe he knew, maybe he was the victim of a hoax. In either case, the public is a victim of careless media.

We write about education, so what does this story matter?

A piece on the Atlantic analyzed this story and ended with this line "If you want to trick someone, lie to them. If you want to fool someone, tell them what they want to hear." 

How is it possible in the information age, that so many media outlets failed to take the simple step of checking public records or inquiring a little deeper into the veracity of a story? It is troubling that only an largely unrecognized internet outlet would take the trouble to do so.

In trying to research information for this blog, it is increasingly evident that media outlets are "receivers" of the news more than "investigators" of the news. Governments and institutions employ media relations people to create and craft the stories they want to be told. Newspapers and television reporters regurgitate what they're told and sell it to the public as truth, often lacking any depth or critical analysis in their reporting.

This is why even when PBS teams up with TED to "talk education" we get Bill Gates, Ken Robinson, and Geoffrey Canada as the exemplars of what's wrong and what's right in education. They give us a story we want to hear, words we want to be true for everyone. This Teach For America gets exaggerated claims of success without anyone caring about the numerous failures.  It's why the media can call the approach of Khan academy "online learning on steroids" without anyone saying, "what makes it substantially different than a lecture?"

Increasingly, a one-dimensional and inadequate narrative of the story of public education is sold to the public and we lack the strong journalistic media to check all claims and facts to present all sides of a story. Instead of looking for the primary sources and roots of information which is often difficult to find and hard summarize, they take what they're told, pass it along, and move on to the next item.

The misleading story of Manti Te'o's girlfriend is unfortunate, but could have been prevented if news outlets would have simply tried a few searches of public databases and independently verified sources.  Instead, they simply passed on what they'd been told.

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