STIGMERGY: The C4SS Blog
Missing Comma: There Is No Ethical Ambiguity When It Comes To Harm Reduction

On January 15, freelance sports blogger Caleb Hannan published a longform article at Grantland documenting his eight-month search for the truth behind Yar Golf’s “physics-defying” putter and its inventor, Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt.

Over the course of Hannan’s reporting for this essay, he discovered that Vanderbilt’s claims regarding her academic credentials turned out to be unverifiable. As he dug deeper, he learned from her investors and court documents that she might be a con artist. He also stumbled upon a facet of Vanderbilt’s life that should have been inconsequential, but which he thought was important – nay, “shocking” – enough to focus at least part of his piece on: she was a transgender woman.

According to Hannan’s own accounting of events, Vanderbilt asked him from the beginning to “focus on the science,” and not on her. He agreed to this. As he investigated her claims and found that some of them didn’t pass the smell test, he was well within his rights to do more research. As a journalist he had an obligation to tell the truth given the context of his story. Where that obligation ended – in fact, where that obligation never even approached – was her gender identity.

In his essay, Hannan details at least one scenario where he discussed Vanderbilt’s gender identity with an investor of hers, and it becomes clear as the article progresses that he viewed her transition as another aspect of her con. Indeed, he casts her increasingly agitated email exchanges with him over the course of the reporting period as attempts to obfuscate his ability to tell the entire story. It probably didn’t occur to him that she didn’t want to discuss her gender or have her trans status publicized.

And yet, he did it. And it killed her. Vanderbilt committed suicide on October 18, 2013, almost exactly three months before the piece went to print. Hannan styled the final paragraphs of his essay as a “eulogy,” clicked “save” in his word processor, and sent it to his editors at Grantland, who had no problem publishing the final product.

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This final product created a firestorm on the Internet.

Audrey Faye at Autostraddle highlighted Hannan’s flippant misgendering of Vanderbilt:

Hannan details Dr. V’s history of lawsuits, relationships and a suicide attempt. He describes outing her as trans to at least one investor without her consent, and without any acknowledgement of the fact that that’s what he was doing. And then, as the linchpin of the piece, he writes “What began as a story about a brilliant woman with a new invention had turned into a tale of a troubled man who had invented a new life for himself. Yet the biggest question remained unanswered: Had Dr. V created a great golf club or merely a great story?”

“A tale of a troubled man who had invented a new life for himself.”

A troubled man.

Just like that, Hannan did what so many people do: he called into question the reality of Dr. V’s gender as if her being trans was as suspect as her missing degrees, engaging in the deplorable and time-honored practice of depicting trans* people, and especially trans women, as duplicitous and deceitful.

Melissa McEwan at Shakesville notes his separation from the human element in his story:

Hannan distances himself from this tragedy by including in the story the report of a previous attempt at taking her own life made by Dr. V, as if to suggest that her suicide was inevitable.

Further, he catalogs her deception about her educational and professional background alongside the revelation that she is trans, in a way that suggests her failure to reflexively disclose that she is trans as part of any introduction to a new person is a lie, just like so many others she told.

When she does not agree to become the focus of his story, which was meant to be about the science, he pouts and tasks her with the responsibility for his aggressive invasiveness: “Dr. V’s initial requests for privacy had seemed reasonable. Now, however, they felt like an attempt to stop me from writing about her or the company she’d founded. But why?” He reports disclosing that Dr. V is a trans woman to one of her investors. He publishes her birth name. He describes the scene of her death. And he concludes the piece by calling it a eulogy.

Grantland responded to the multivarious criticisms with an apology letter from editor Bill Simmons and a response piece by ESPN.com baseball reporter Christina Kahrl. These responses were, in turn, criticized for 1. treating Vanderbilt’s death like they would treat a misspelling of a name, and 2. for continuing to treat Vanderbilt’s identity as part of her con game, respectively. Tim Marchman at Deadspin brought up how inappropriate the chronological nature of the article’s structure was; that, by writing the story in linear time, Hannan apparently felt he had to out Vanderbilt in order for everything else to make sense:

By writing the story chronologically, as a mystery where every revelation led to a further revelation, Hannan essentially locked himself into a structure where he had to reveal that Vanderbilt was a transgender woman to make sense of the blanks he’d found in her background. The chronological structure requires that to be the emotional pivot of the story, the moment when the story begins to open up for the author; the death is only a coda.

This is all the more troubling given that Grantland’s editor-in-chief, Bill Simmons, wrote that the story was filed in something approximating its present form before Vanderbilt killed herself in October. That suggests that in the process of writing, Hannan thought it would be acceptable to out Vanderbilt, by way of buttressing his claims about her background and thus casting doubt on the science behind her putter.

The response to Grantland’s attempted mea culpa was just as fierce on Twitter:

 

 

 

 

Of course, Hannan didn’t have to write the article according to the edicts of linear time, and he didn’t have to out Essay Anne Vanderbilt. And ethically, this shouldn’t have even been a question up for debate by either him or his editors.

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Just about every newsroom in the world abides by a code of ethics. Sometimes this is a set of loose guidelines, but usually, it’s written out clear as day and in neon. The Society of Professional Journalists, for instance, has incredibly clear rules regarding conduct and harm reduction. Caleb Hannan should know this. He’s been working as a professional journalist since at least 2010, when he won several SPJ awards for his reporting in Seattle Weekly; he has written for Bloomberg Businessweek, Deadspin and others on a variety of subjects besides sports, so it’s hard to believe he’s green in this regard.

Here’s what the SPJ has to say about harm reduction:

Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.

Journalists should: — Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects.
— Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.
Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.
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.
— Be cautious about identifying juvenile suspects or victims of sex crimes.
— Be judicious about naming criminal suspects before the formal filing of charges.
— Balance a criminal suspect’s fair trial rights with the public’s right to be informed.

In the bluntest terms, Hannan objectified Vanderbilt’s transness; he saw her gender identity as a hook to get more eyeballs to his story and his work, and he wasn’t going to let frivolous facts, like transgender people being 25 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population, get in his way. He disregarded her desire to keep this aspect of her life private. He, and Grantland, profited from her death.

Hannan’s essay is journalistically unethical. It’s also grossly inhuman.

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