USA TODAY Sports
1. Read this.
2. And then focus on this part in particular:
(Craggs:) We did what we could to get those "critical components," but we weren’t betting our shirts that Notre Dame or anyone from the Te’o camp would to talk to us. It’s fun to imagine some frictionless plane of journalism where potentially hostile sources return phone calls and grudgingly fill in all the blanks out of some sense of duty to the truth, but that’s now what we were working with.
3. That "Frictionless plane" doesn't exist. Anyone who's dealt with the onion of PR, SIDs, agents, family, handlers, or anyone else standing between you and an honest answer from the subject knows what's at the middle: nothing, a trained hollowness incapable of giving any answer to a question.
4. Worse still, when confronted with a story like the Te'o case, the subjects themselves--Notre Dame and Te'o--might just outright lie or ignore the question. Even if Deadspin had contacted them, what answers do you think they would have given regarding well-researched facts the reporters and writers had already established? Did you see Jack Swarbrick and Te'o talk in the days following the incident? Do you think calling them would have accomplished anything besides tipping the story, making things worse, and sending the Te'o camp scrambling to look for a soft, questions-free landing place to offload a couched, vague PR statement?
5. The playbook for crisis response is now so fucked and truth-y that in many cases it makes contacting the parties involved a solicitation of a polished lie. Deadspin could have contacted Te'o and Notre Dame. They would have gotten nothing, since that is the ingrained reaction of organizations to inquiry: issue a statement saying nothing, and then find a sympathetic ear to tell their story in exchange for future access.
6. That's not just an online/blog problem. It's something I know mainstream journalists struggle with, too.
7. The response from schools/teams/etc. will be that they will work with those who vet their sources, are "responsible," and practice good journalism. Some may mean this, but most mean doing things easily, stepping on no toes, and letting the subject act as dominant partner in the relationship. This assumes your subject or interlocutor is not hostile from the start when in fact they are, from the start, opposed to telling you anything.
8. Starting on a war footing with the subject seems extreme, but it's way closer to the truth than the kind of hagiography that made the Paterno/Sandusky case and Te'o so jarring. Deadspin starts with wary hostility for a lot of reasons, but the most compelling to me is that it builds a necessary skepticism into process from the start. It is honesty, the sort that only seems like open warfare to those who'd prefer the parlor politics of easy entertainment journalism.
9. TL; DR. If someone's going to deny you equal footing from the start, then start chopping at the knees until you see eye-to-eye.
10. If someone asks you stupid questions, they deserve the answers they get, particularly if they rely on a Girl Scout cookie joke to play gotcha at the end.