It only took five minutes of Googling for Tommy Craggs and his colleagues to realize they had something big on their hands. The Deadspin editor-in-chief and Medill graduate spoke to students Tuesday via Skype about the process of unraveling what may have been the sports story of the year.
The revelation that Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o’s girlfriend and her heartbreaking story were fake brought droves of viewers to Deadspin’s website and exposed a series of inaccuracies published by multiple media sources.
In a Q&A with students and staff at the McTrib, Craggs explained the investigation process and what it means for journalism and the future of Deadspin.
According to Craggs, Deadspin received a tip late in the afternoon of Jan. 11, five days before they published the story that would be viewed nearly 4 million times.
The tipster was a man from Hawaii who alleged the tragic story of Te’o’s alleged cancer-stricken girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, was false and that she did not exist. He further alleged that Te’o was aware of the fraud.
Craggs said they knew quickly after beginning to investigate that something didn’t add up.
“It took five minutes of Googling to realize there was a hole in this story. There was something weird here. Everywhere we went we ran into a dead end,” he said. Deadspin contacted the woman in the photos identified by many news sources as Kekua, who confirmed she was not Kekua, and was not in fact, dead. Craggs said it was then he was sure there was enough to warrant publishing.
“I remember Gchatting my managing editor saying, 'Oh man, I have such a hard-on!'” he said with a laugh, mimicking the crude humor often associated with Deadspin’s style.
Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey, the two writers who worked on the piece, used reverse Google Image searches and old Myspace profiles to trace the hoax back to Ronaiah Tuiasosopo. They found people who knew Tuiasosopo and who were willing to fill in details.
Craggs said Deadspin reached out to Te’o, his father and Notre Dame 45 minutes before publishing, but had no idea the university was prepared to acknowledge they knew about the hoax. “I believe there were two hoaxes,” Craggs said. “The social media one, and one by Manti Te’o making an Internet relationship the love of his life.”
The story made its way around the Internet quickly and thrust Deadspin into the news. Despite the severity of the accusations, Craggs saw humor in the situation and how the investigation filled many gaping holes in the story.
“It absolves him of being the worst boyfriend in the history of boyfriends,” Craggs said of questions why Te’o never visited Kekua when she was supposedly sick.
Many questions still remain, including the extent of Te’o’s role in the hoax.
When asked what's next for Deadspin, Craggs says he wants the website to get ambitious in future projects, but admits it will be difficult to top the magnitude of the Te’o hoax.
“This is the best story I will ever do,” Craggs said. “This is what I set out to do when I got into journalism, telling the actual story.”