By Caitlin Kelly
Here is the story he wrote.
As he dug into the story over seven months, it became clear she was hiding something from him. He discovered that she was transgender, and outed her to one of her investors.
She committed suicide.
It has prompted a firestorm — among writers, editors, bloggers and armchair ethicists — over how this story was (mis)handled.
one of the best reasons for large journalistic organizations to hire staff with a broad range of life experience and expertise, and to treat those perspectives as if they’re valuable and deserve deference, is so someone’s present to step in when a piece fails, to educate the writer in question, and to save subjects of pieces from journalistic malpractice, and publications from damaging themselves…
It’s hard to consider better evidence of the value of having staff with a wide range of backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives–and of the willingness to go outside your own staff when they reach the limits of their wisdom. Doing this takes humility, and it takes curiosity, an acknowledgement that your own knowledge is not the sum of the world, and a voracious hunger to understand more of it. These are the basic qualities of good journalism. It’s remarkable that so many news organizations fail to apply them to considering the mix of their own staff and contributors.
I was once assigned to write a feature story on a high profile, nationally known professional athlete who kept getting into trouble. What was wrong with this guy? I talked to former coaches and anyone in his hometown who knew him back when the athlete was in high school.
Through that reporting, I learned a shocking family secret.
The athlete’s mother had attempted suicide back around the time he was becoming a local star with a big future. Not only that, but it was the athlete who had actually found his mother following the attempt.
The information may have shed some light on why this athlete had been so troubled. It also turned what was going to be a good feature into a great story.
But before I published it I wanted to find out something about this woman who was not a public figure and was about to have her personal agony exposed. That was a problem because I was not able to interview her. The athlete was refusing all media requests at the time, too.
So I tracked down the brother of the athlete and I asked him the one question I needed an answer to before writing this story:
Would revealing his mother’s secret cause so much anguish that she might consider suicide again?
Maybe, he said. And he implored me not to write it.
I thought about what greater public good would come from revealing the truth. Would it help others? Would it prevent a crime? Would it save lives? Was there any redeeming Fourth Estate journalistic purpose at all? We’re not talking Pentagon Papers here.
No. It would only make me look good for scooping the competition and drawing readers. And it would have been a hell of an ego boost.
I never wrote it. I have kept that secret to this day.
Like Viv, I’ve had a long career in journalism. Like Viv, I’ve also heard a few shocking secrets, and had sources plead with me to keep them in the closet. I did. No question about it. I never discussed it with an editor or coworker or colleague or friend. I knew what to do (how would I feel if it were me?) and behaved accordingly.
There’s another element to this story that pissed me off, and, yes, because it’s people like me and Viv — veterans of decades of smart, thoughtful, accurate journalism — have been shoved for good out of beloved newsroom jobs. We’re considered old and expensive; 24,000 journalists were fired in 2008 alone.
Here’s Bill Simmons, the editor of the Hannan story and part of his apology:
Another reason we created Grantland: to find young writers we liked, bring them into the fold, make them better, maybe even see if we could become the place they remembered someday when someone asked them, “So what was your big break?” That matters to us. Just about every writer we have is under 40 years old. Many of them are under 30. I am our third-oldest writer, as crazy as that sounds. For us, 31-year-old Caleb Hannan had (and has) a chance to be one of those writers. That’s why it hurts so much that we failed him.
There’s a really smart reason that some journalism organizations still keep and value those with decades in the trenches — who have made mistakes, learned from them and now teach others not to do the same damn thing.
It’s called institutional knowledge.
No matter how whip-smart or ambitious a 31-year-old might be, or a brilliant 23-year-old, they haven’t been around the block a few times. They’ve barely found the block — the place every ambitious writer reaches — where difficult, challenging, complicated stories demand a lot of smart, tough thinking from people who already done a lot of that.
Without smart, tough, wise editors — willing to think broadly, deeply, inclusively and incisively — we’re all screwed.