The first (and longest) section of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics is titled “Seek Truth and Report It.” It encourages reporters to be “honest, fair and courageous” in their work and to “test the accuracy of information from all sources.” This is what journalists do: They dig.
When sports writer Caleb Hannan found out about an unusual new putter in the golf world, he decided to dig, and he discovered that its inventor, Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt, had fabricated some rather fantastical education and work history to help sell her supposedly scientifically superior golf club.
He also discovered that she was a transgender woman.
She tried unsuccessfully to get Hannan to agree to write about “the science and not the scientist,” and subsequently killed herself. After learning of her death, Hannan’s editor at the ESPN-owned news site Grantland, Bill Simmons, urged Hannan to finish and publish the piece about his quest to learn the secrets of this “mysterious” person, which appeared on January 15 under the headline, “Dr. V.’s Magical Putter.”
Many journalists initially saw the in-depth piece as exemplary (Storify, 1/21/14). New York Times media reporter David Carr tweeted that Hannan “sinks a long 1” with the story. Sports Illustrated reporter Richard Deitsch, who also teaches at Columbia Journalism School, tweeted: “This @calebhannan piece (‘Dr. V’s Magical Putter’) might be the best I’ve read this month. Highest recommendation.” Wired’s Jason Fagone wrote lightheartedly: “I recommend this @calebhannan piece at @Grantland33. If ever a story was bananas, this is bananas.”
Simmons (1/20/14) wrote later of the response during the first 48 hours: “People loved it. People were enthralled by it. People shared it. People tweeted it and retweeted it. A steady stream of respected writers and journalists passed along their praise.”
But though Hannan had sought and revealed “the truth” as he saw it, there’s more to journalistic ethics than seeking truth. The second section of the SPJ’s Code of Ethics is titled “Minimize Harm.” This section urges reporters to “treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.” Among its admonishments:
—Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.
—Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.
Here is where Grantland’s reporting failed disastrously, and why censure soon overtook praise as the dominant public reaction to the piece. Many trans people and their allies (e.g., Shakesville, 1/17/14; Aoifeschatology, 1/18/14; Glittering Scrivener, 1/18/14; Papier Haché, 1/20/14) criticized Hannan and Grantland for inappropriate use of male pronouns for Vanderbilt—transgender people should always be referred to by their preferred gender pronouns, not by the reporter’s predilection—and for treating her gender identity as part of her series of lies, a titillating plot twist in the story.
When he learned from a source that Vanderbilt “was once a man,” for example (a phrase that dismisses many trans women’s experience of never having identified as a “man”), Hannan wrote, “Cliché or not, a chill actually ran up my spine.” Here, the article shifts gears: “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.”
The problem with this construction is that the story did not “turn into” something else of its own accord. Stories are spun by their writers, and Hannan had steered a putter investigation into the outing of a transgender person who had expressly requested that he not write about her.
Critics fingered Hannan’s outing of Vanderbilt to one of her investors as one of his gravest missteps. Why was it necessary? Hannan seemed to do it for the reaction, which he apparently assumed would mirror his own shock: “Maybe the most surprising thing about my conversation with Kinney was how calmly he took the news that the woman he thought was an aerospace engineer had once been a man, and a mechanic.”
Hannan clearly saw the story as Wired’s Fagone did—bananas. The adjective “strange” (or “stranger” or “strangest”) appears in the piece 10 times. For Hannan and his editors, Vanderbilt’s transgender identity was the centerpiece of this “strange story,” a crucial part of the con that Vanderbilt had committed, and it had to be revealed.
As Hannan himself reported, Vanderbilt had attempted suicide before. This would not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the transgender community, which has an attempted suicide rate as high as 41 percent (NCTE/NGLTF, 2/3/11). Hannan’s reporting may or may not have prompted her final, successful attempt. But both his reporting and Grantland’s publication of the piece demonstrated an utter lack of ethics in terms of treating subjects with respect and dignity, respecting privacy, and not pandering to lurid curiosity.
In his apology, Simmons described the thought process leading up to publication:
Did this work? Was this good enough? Could this get us in trouble? Are we sure about the reporting? Was it well written enough? Was it up to OUR standards?
And most important …
Is it worth it to run this piece?
Curiously, “Is it ethical?” was nowhere to be found among those questions.
The idea that a transgender person’s private and personal life is not rightfully public information seems unusually difficult for journalists to grasp. Even after the criticisms surfaced and wrongdoing was recognized, some seemed reluctant to concede this point.
NPR host Robert Siegel (1/21/14), for example, seemed unconvinced that Vanderbilt’s transgender identity wasn’t a crucial part of the story: “But the journalist wouldn’t have been able to explain who she wasn’t without explaining who she was, right?”
And Grantland editor Simmons, in his lengthy published apology (1/20/14), wrote
Even now, it’s hard for me to accept that Dr. V’s transgender status wasn’t part of this story. Caleb couldn’t find out anything about her pre-2001 background for a very specific reason. Let’s say we omitted that reason or wrote around it, then that reason emerged after we posted the piece. What then?
ESPN.com’s Christina Kahrl, a trans woman, disagreed forcefully in a response published on Grantland (1/20/14).
By any professional or ethical standard, [Vanderbilt’s transgender identity] wasn’t merely irrelevant to the story, it wasn’t [Hannan’s] information to share. Like gays or lesbians—or anyone else, for that matter—trans folk get to determine for themselves what they’re willing to divulge about their sexuality and gender identity.
What should Grantland have done instead? It really should have simply stuck with debunking those claims to education and professional expertise relevant to the putter itself, dropped the element of her gender identity if she didn’t want that to be public information—as she very clearly did not—and left it at that.
Grantland’s publication of Vanderbilt’s story clearly demonstrates the lack of diversity in corporate media; Simmons acknowledged that none of the “13 to 15” people who previewed the piece had thought to run it by a transgender person or someone familiar with the trans community.
But the fracturing of the media landscape and the new points of access to public conversation—particularly through Twitter and the blogosphere—meant that instead of this ending with praise and self-satisfaction, it ended in a lengthy editor’s mea culpa and a conversation throughout media circles about the appropriate way to deal with transgender subjects in news coverage. Thanks to transgender critics and their allies, Hannan and Grantland’s failures are less likely to happen again.
‘The Genitalia Question’
There is sadly nothing unique about Grantland’s lack of respect for its transgender subject (Extra!, 11/07, 6/12). Journalists regularly ask trans people intimate questions about their bodies and sexuality that would never be asked of others. In a recent instance, NBC’s Katie Couric (1/6/04) pressed actress Laverne Cox to talk about “the genitalia question,” to which Cox eloquently responded:
The preoccupation with transition and surgery objectifies trans people. And then we don’t get to really deal with the real lived experiences. The reality of trans people’s lives is that so often we are targets of violence. We experience discrimination disproportionately to the rest of the community. Our unemployment rate is twice the national average; if you are a trans person of color, that rate is four times the national average. The homicide rate in the LGBT community is highest among trans women. If we focus on transition, we don’t actually get to talk about those things.