Maria Headley in Sinatra’s Cold is Contagious.
Headley writes in reaction to Caleb Hannan’s Grantland story, Dr. V’s Magical Putter, which has become something of a case study in journalism ethics since it was published on January 15.
On the Media recaps here:
Last week, ESPN’s Grantland ran a remarkable story titled “Dr. V’s Magical Putter,” a journalistic odyssey that began with curiosity about a supposedly revolutionary golf club, and ended by focusing on the chaotic life of its inventor, a woman named Essay Anne Vanderbilt. The reporter, Caleb Hannan, discovered that Vanderbilt was transgender, and he revealed his knowledge of this fact to Vanderbilt. Shortly after, Vanderbilt committed suicide.
The piece subsequently made its rounds on the web, sparking outrage and raising a discussion on transgender rights in media, and the ethics of outing.
Vice takes us through Hannan’s reporting process and what he ultimately decided to publish:
He tells us “everything he knows,” which is definitely not the same thing as “everything that’s relevant.” He refers to Dr V as “he” and publishes her old name. He discusses her life before she transitioned to female. He tells us she was married. And that she’d tried to kill herself once before, a few years previously. Never mind that she was clearly vulnerable, it was all just another fantastic twist in the plot for Caleb. “What began as a story about a brilliant woman with a new invention had turned into the tale of a troubled man who had invented a new life for himself.” And never mind that faking her scientific credentials had nothing to do with being transgender. Caleb, who has been found guilty of sloppy journalism before, was simply recycling a media narrative that casts trans people as liars and fakes.
Grantland’s Editor-in-Chief Bill Simmons has since publicly apologized for the story, taking the blame for his writer’s mistakes and lamenting that he failed Hannan as an editor. Simmons admitted that the Grantland staff was not sensitive enough with the story and uninformed on transgender people’s rights, high suicide rates among trans* people, and even correct pronoun usage.
FJP: As Headley points out, there are a few things that should come before the all-important story for a journalist. Right after “Seek the truth and report it” on SPJ’s Code of Ethics comes “Minimize harm — Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.”