The Right

by: Michael Shields

A recent tragedy has thrust upon us a discussion about the ethical responsibilities of journalists….

There is no question that when I write something I hope that someone will read it. Even if it is aimed at an audience of one, what I write will have a target, an audience that I hope it reaches for one reason or another. I find it disingenuous when I hear fellow writers talk about how they write only for themselves. I am not ignoring the cathartic nature of writing by any means. Getting something off your chest so often allows one to breathe again. But even then, when you are writing to air a grievance or to put something in perspective for personal reasons, I would wager that the author wouldn’t mind having someone commiserate with their concerns. I know I sure as hell do.

I can confess to having engaged in mild-mannered hyperbole to make a point stronger. In my days of putting pen to pad I have toe’d many a fine line, broadening my argument to an extent that I assumed would garner more attention. I have never considered this trolling, but rather a tool used to highlight the depth of an ill I may be speaking on. I have found that dancing lightly around a subject is no way to make your voice be heard. And if your voice isn’t being heard about something you believe in deeply, I believe you should speak louder, and certainly bolder.

In that light I have certainly been accused of exaggeration, embellishment, or attempting to attract cash for clicks. The first two I can confidently accept as an occasional dalliance, usually assuming the reader is walking a similar path and understands when I sidestepped a few feet to stand out some. But the third, well, I assure you that I have never written for a publication where the traffic I attract affects my income. But when that day hopefully arrives, I can do little more than adhere to all the laws of morality that have guided me thus far and hope that is enough. Chasing clicks, rubberneckers, and controversy is something that I just don’t have in me, and I do not expect that to change any time soon.

I believe fully in the responsibility of the writer, particularly in journalistic investigations. I believe in the power of words. I know what they are capable of, and thus I do not take how they are used, or what they are used for, lightly. I have always believed in the drawing of lines, and adhering to a code of journalistic ethics so as to not cross that line. It’s far too important.

So, what the hell am I getting at here you wonder? Meandering on and on about writing for effect, the power of words, and the responsibility of the journalist? Well, a recent story has numerous journalists conversing upon the obligations and accountability of the writer. It finds us deliberating on ethics, liability, and restraint. What began as a straightforward foray into a “scientifically superior” piece of golfing equipment (the Yar Oracle GX1) by an author from Grantland, became so much more, and led inadvertently to the death of the inventor of the equipment in question. An investigation for a story that would, in the scheme of things, simply come and go, has led, in one way or another, to the loss of human life. And many are left wondering, how could this happen?

The piece was never meant to “out” the transgender identity of the inventor, Essay Ann Vanderbilt, the turn of events that led to the inventor taking her own life. In fact, the author of the piece1 wasn’t aware that Dr. V (as she became to be known) was born a male until he was knee deep into the investigation. It wasn’t until he found discrepancies in the truth2 that he began to stumble upon something else entirely. But it was what the author did with the information he found that led us to the point we are at, where a human being is no longer with us, and fingers are being pointed haphazardly around.

In Bill Simmons’s (Editor in Chief of Grantland) astonishingly detailed explanation of the events that occurred as the story was researched, he admits that the author of the piece made a grave mistake in outing Dr. V to one of her investors while she was still alive. He explains that the author may not have “understood the moral consequences of that decision.” But it is clear to the founder of Grantland, and to all who see this tale through the vantage point of hindsight, that he should have.

The author told Dr. V and Gerri Jordan, Vanderbilt’s girlfriend and President of Yar Golf, that he planned to publish his findings about her credentials and her previous identity in his article. It was soon after that conversation, around the 18th of October, that Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt died alone. She killed herself shortly after learning that details of her former life were going to be exposed by a journalist who regarded the fact that she was born male a point of fascination.

It is interesting to note that the piece wasn’t published on Grantland until just last week, and the author displayed minimal regret about the role he may have played in the tragedy. He presented the piece as a bizarre tale of what a journalist can stumble upon in their investigations. Look what journalistic investigators are capable of falling into! In no way are we saying that the author is responsible for Vanderbilt’s suicide. That ignores the complexity of the issues at hand here. But, it is important to look at his role in it, and decide where he may have gone too far, so as to avoid walking that path.

The idea behind the story was simple, “Could there really be a magical putter? And what was up with the mysterious lady who invented it?” What Grantland thought they had on their hands was, as Bill Simmons puts it, “a quirky feature about a quirky piece of sports equipment.” What was intended to be an exploration of “scientifically superior” golfing equipment eventually became an investigation of Essay Anne Vanderbilt and her transgender identity. The story turned on a dime, and became about something it shouldn’t have.

Bill Simmons, while aptly discussing where they went wrong with the piece, mentions something I would like to delve into some. He states,3 “there’s a chance that (the author’s) reporting, even if it wasn’t threatening or malicious in any way, invariably affected Dr. V in ways that he never anticipated or understood.”

I guess where this leads us to is a question about aptitude. Journalists can be responsible to the point wherein their knowledge base and capabilities lie, but outside of this they are simply guessing, and that will never be good enough with so much on the line. The point being made here is that ignorance is not an excuse, and it never can be. And the only way to assure you are able to speak on a topic is research. And then research some more. And then again. This is something Bill Simmons admirably admits to falling short on. He regrets not running his piece by a member of the transgender community, and learning more about the community as a whole. There is an incredibly valuable lesson here. “We weren’t sophisticated enough,” Bill Simmons explains. “We will be better next time.”

There will always be a clear distinction between whistleblowing and outing, one so obvious it is almost not worth dissecting. It is clear to many now that this piece should never been published, as there is no admirable news interest worthy of infringement upon Vanderbilt’s right to privacy. And this is the crux of the matter. What did the author have to gain? What can society learn here?

I am not taking Grantland or the author or Bill Simmons (Editor in Chief – the buck stops there) to task here. Far from it. What this amounts to is another opportunity to discuss the responsibilities of a writer, and to learn from a grave mistake. In the pursuit of a story an author became misguided, and eventually lacked compassion and understanding of his subject. It became more about the story of his investigation. Authors overly internalizing a story have led to many a mistake throughout time, some more grievous than others. Although nobody can speak on the author’s true intentions, it is easy to surmise that if he knew the outcome of his investigation he, or the staff at Grantland, would never have taken the story in the direction they did.

In this situation the almighty power of words, and the actions taken while investigating a story, take center stage. We can clearly see how a harmless act can so easily lead to a devastating tragedy. The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics urges journalists to minimize harm in their reporting, reminding them to remember that “Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy,” and urging us to “Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.” Furthermore, it is a fact that 42 percent of people in the transgender community have attempted suicide4. That astonishing and disheartening number, paired with guidelines presented by the Society of Professional Journalists’, should have provoked pause.

To many it seems so obvious. Outing a transgender person is not only a violation of privacy but also dangerous. And to others, it can be seen that Dr. V’s previous deceptions led her down this road, and she is just as much to blame for her sexual background becoming public knowledge. After all, she did lie about her educational and professional credentials to both the reporter and the investor who ponied up $60,000 to her, money he would never see again.

But, what gives journalists the right to decide what is fodder for public domain and what isn’t? What gives them the power? Journalists must search their soul when they come upon a dilemma such as this, and they must find a way to empathize and understand the subjects they are writing about. In the quest for a remarkable story, human compassion may have been compromised and a complicated individual’s life reduced to a series of intriguing plot points.

As writers we must continue to toe that line, while simultaneously respecting its existence. We must continue to dig deep in search of life’s truths, but remember the people behind those truths, and that the story we tell will affect them. Words have an incredible amount of power, and a life beyond the page. We must remember that. It’s far too important.

  1. You may notice the blatant omission of the author’s name. This piece is not about dragging a person further through the mud, someone who is notably distressed as a result of his actions. No, this piece is about furthering the discussion of journalistic responsibility, and about learning from our mistakes. []
  2. She hadn’t received the degrees she claimed to hold, etc. []
  3. Comment #7 in the section of Bill Simmons’s editorial response detailing what he believes a member of the transgender community would have told him how to present this piece. []
  4. Somewhere near 30 times the rate of the general population. []

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