I hate when people discuss “the media.”
There is no such thing.
We don’t have monthly meetings to discuss how to screw over X, Y and Z while completely ignoring W. There are so many media outlets made up of countless individuals who craft your news programming – whether it be newspapers, television, radio, magazines, even a blog. So saying
“the media” is biased or “the media” has any collective opinion is inherently stupid.
They – we – do however have some collective responsibilities. As Fox News so ironically puts it, there is a journalistic responsibility to provide fair and balanced coverage on any story. Recently there have been a few stories circulating that make me examine what this really means, particularly that of Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt, or Dr. V.
Dr. V was the inventor of a golf club that she toted as the best putter ever created. Caleb Hannon, a contributor on Bill Simmon’s site Grantland, came across the putter and decided to write a story about it. Seems legit.
However, Hannon discovered over the course of several months of covering the story that Dr. V was a transsexual woman. By all accounts he blundered painfully through this discovery, even revealing her past to one of her investors. Dr. V eventually committed suicide before the piece was published on Grantland.com.
What was Hannon’s responsibility in this case? Did he, albeit without intending to, cause his source to commit suicide? I don’t know. I have to assume, based on the limited information I have, that she was suicidal before and although Hannon may have been part of the problem, he shouldn’t be blamed for her death.
He should be blamed for his article. In it, he treated Dr. V’s transgender identity as a source of strange fascination, a great twist in his story. When he realized her past, he wrote “a chill actually ran up my spine.” He then goes into detail about a past she had clearly been trying to keep a secret.
Now, Hannon did have a responsibility to report the truth pertaining to the putter, the alleged subject of his story. Dr. V had claimed to have degrees from MIT and the University of Pennsylvania that she had never earned. She used this fake academic credential to advertise her product and gain investors. When Hannon learned that these credentials were fake, he was right to investigate further. When he learned the truth of her past, he decided it was an important part of his story on a putter.
Everyday reporters and editors have to sift through information pertaining to a story and decide what is important. I can imagine that going through months of work trying to sift through what will make it into the final story would be difficult, but Hannon made a huge misstep here. Dr. V’s transgender identity does not matter. That information did not need to be in the story. She lied about her education – report that. If you feel so strongly that this information needs to be public, tread carefully. Very carefully. My first step would have been to contact someone familiar with the transgender community to help me with my language and portrayal of this woman – which should not be difficult, I can think of at least three sources here in the Copper Country I could turn to – something neither Hannon nor his editors ever thought about.
Soon after the article ran, Bill Simmons wrote a well-crafted apology, explaining that, essentially, they didn’t think. They didn’t think of the repercussions of the article, of how it portrays transgender people and reflects immensely negative attitudes towards them. He also claims full responsibility, saying Hannon should not be blamed for a story Simmons decided to publish.
Maybe. But I think we all have a responsibility to think critically about what we are saying, especially as reporters.