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I just read an edited transcript of an ESPN reporter’s interview with former Notre Dame linebacker Manti T’eo about the hoax he says was played on him involving a fictitious girlfriend.  You can read the transcript here.  How do you think the reporter handled the interview?  What additional questions would you have asked?

If I were interviewing Manti, I would try to ask as few direct questions as possible.  Instead, I would simply ask him what happened, and then continually follow up with “then what.”  In essence, I would want him to tell me the entire story with very little interruption from me.  Only once he’s told me the entire story would I go back and ask more direct questions for clarification.  If someone is lying, it’s more difficult for them to lie when forced to tell the entire story, rather than simply having to provide short answers to a series of closed-ended questions.

Reverse-Order Storytelling

At some point, I might also ask him to tell me the story, or at least portions of the story, in reverse order. Studies have shown that it can be difficult for people who are making up a story to tell the story in reverse order.  If you’re accessing your memory of an actual event, your mind can fairly easily recall the story in reverse order.  However, if you made up an event, it’s much harder for you to tell this fictitious story in reverse order.


Manti provides a lot of detail in his interview with the ESPN reporter about what occurred.  This actually suggests that he may be telling the truth.  Details are the enemy of the liar.  Any detail he introduces is a detail that the interviewer may be able to contradict him on.  Also, liars normally try to avoid including lots of details in their story because they may forget a detail when questioned later.

Additional Questions I Would Ask

Because Manti provides lots of details, I think it would be fairly easy to determine if he’s being truthful, because we could check up on the details he provided.  If I were interviewing him, I would have asked the following additional questions:

1.  Can we see a copy of your phone records?  

T’eo says that for a period of time he spoke with the woman for hours at a time every day.  He said he would speak with her at night and when he woke up they would still be on the phone together.  If this is true, his phone records would show this.

2.  Can we see your phone and look at your text messages?

T’eo references text messages, including a text message he supposedly received from a friend of the fictitious woman earlier this month.  I’d ask to see his phone to see if the text message was still there.  If it was, it would lend some credibility to his story.  If it’s not there, he may say that he previously erased it.  If he says that, I would look to see what his normal practice is with erasing text messages.  Is he someone who frequently erases them, or is he someone, like me, who never thinks to erase text messages.

Of course, the press can’t require him to release cell phone records or show them the text messages on his phone.  But if he’s telling the truth, you would think it would be in his best interest to do so.

In any event, for T’eo and his family’s sake, I hope the evidence turns out that he is telling the truth and was not in on the hoax.

About the Author

Michael Johnson, CEO of Clear Law Institute, is a former U.S. Department of Justice attorney who brought one of DOJ’s first “pattern or practice” sexual harassment cases. He has provided training and consulting on harassment prevention or investigations to organizations around the world, such as the EEOC, the United Nations, and Google. He is a graduate of Duke University and Harvard Law School.  Read more about Michael here. 

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