He outed a source. She committed suicide. Then ESPN apologized

By Caitlin Kelly

Have you been following this?grantland.jpg.size.xxlarge.letterbox

A writer named Caleb Hannan profiled the inventor of a “magic putter” named Essay Anne Vanderbilt for an ESPN-owned website called Grantland.

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.

Here’s one analysis of the piece and its aftermath.

And another, from Alyssa Rosenberg at Think Progress:

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.

Here’s a smart post from a friend, colleague and another veteran sportswriter, Vivian Bernstein:

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.

24 thoughts on “He outed a source. She committed suicide. Then ESPN apologized

  1. Gosh, Caitlin, I couldn’t have said is better. That way my first reaction when I read about this–no adult supervision. Everyone has skeletons in their closet. It is our job to ferret them out when it is in the public’s interest. But not when it causes suicidal anguish and is of no benefit other than to make the reporter look good. Well said.

  2. i hadn’t been following this story, but am horrified. It’s very sad what is being lost by substituting supposedly more glamorous (and cheap) youth over experience. Keep shedding this kind of light on these issues Caitlin and I hope those in charge of hiring are listening…

    1. I hope, too. But they’re not.

      I now work for editors who are 95% of the time half my age. They may be smart but they have, de facto, a hell of a lot less experience and also wield tremendous power over my work and reputation. Not cool.

  3. Thanks for this. I read the piece on Dr. V last week and my first thought was: “WTF, did this writer just out a transwoman?” My second was: “Where the hell were the editors on this?”

    And then I read your post here and my third thought was: “Damn. Institutional knowledge goes a long way. We seem to be losing a lot of that.”

    1. Hey, good to hear from you again!

      I think many of us old folks — people over 40 who actually do journalism, still (!) — are as horrified. There’s a lot to be learned from this debacle, but I highly doubt much will change as a result of this.

  4. We have a large firm over here that tends to employ the older person. There has to be a reason for this. Quite right, they’re taken n because of their maturity, because of their interaction with members of the public, because of their knowledge gleaned over a lifetime.
    This would apply equally well to editors of newspapers and magazines. It all well and good hiring the young for their energy but they have no life experience to apply to situations they may face.
    I’m disgusted that this happened but more so that it was allowed to happen. Guidance needs to be given to young go-getters as to what is in the public domain and what should remain sacrosanct. An older head would likely have seen this.
    xxx Huge Hugs xxx

  5. what a sad outcome, and what you say is so true. no matter what you’ve learned in school, or how many journo classes you may have passed, there is no comparison to life experience and age and time in the field. this is where ethics, empathy and the nuances of life and the art of reporting are all developed over time and where these skills are honed. it is a sad loss to the industry.

  6. It disturbs me that a journalist would go to such lengths to out someone’s sexual status or orientation for a news story, especially since this person isn’t a celebrity in movies or music or whatever. If you ask me, it shows someone without many morals. I hope he feels remorse later on.

    1. The larger issue — not that you want to read all those links I included with the details — is that journalism is a team sport; that story was read by 15 (!) other Grantland staffers **before** it hit print.

      The writer is never wholly cuplable. The writer had editors and plenty of them, to change things before that point — or just spike (i.e. kill) the story.

  7. CRGardenJoe

    A journalist must always make decisions about what to pass on and what not to pass on. Event though the ethos is to gather information and let the editor decide, I don’t think you can be fully human and function over time if you you don’t also sometimes have a heart. I recall about 25 years ago covering a suicide at a local high school–a student had shot himself in an English class–and how many reporters converged on the parking lot of the school and interviewed students as they were leaving. I was a young father at the time myself, and couldn’t do it–could not bring myself to question kids leaving school after an event like that. So I went into the school itself and happened to catch the superintendent of the district as he was returning–from visiting the family of the boy who had killed himself. I introduced myself as a reporter, and his first question was: “where you one of the reporters who was questioning students as they left school?” I could honestly say “no.” And ended up with an exclusive interview with the only school official who had been directly in contact with the family. Anyway, you’re pretty much right on all counts–there is nothing that substitutes for experience, and start-up operations that want to be “trendy” often would benefit from some employees with grey hairs.

    1. I really appreciate you sharing this…it’s one thing to opine from a safe distance and another to be in the middle of a story and making, on the spot with no direction, decisions like that one. I have managed to avoid a lot of GA work and the sort of scrum/stakeout/pack journalism this encourages and rewards, and that sort of behavior makes me embarrassed and ashamed to be a journalist. It’s why I’ve almost always chosen to write features…to avoid those scenarios.

      I did once have to interview the father of a soldier, one of a dozen killed in Afghanistan when their helicopter fell (!?) off a mountaintop. The man was so gracious and calm and it was heartbreaking to hear (by phone).

  8. Pingback: Middle Age, I Surrender | The Green Study

  9. I’ve been following it and like a lot of people, I found it totally appalling. It reminded me of something I said when I was in journalism school – that being a good journalist should never come at the expense of being a good person – and while a lot of what I said when I was in school was fueled by that specific kind of arrogance fueled by inexperience, this is one thing I still believe in wholeheartedly.

    The rest of your post – about the loss of institutional knowledge and experience in newsrooms – hits at the heart of conversations I have with two of my coworkers (both former newspaper guys in their middle years) every day. I don’t want to say too much because, you know, digital breadcrumbs, but I’ll say your observations mirror those of my colleagues, and we all feel the profession is much, much poorer because of it.

    1. Love that…”digital breadcrumbs.” 🙂

      One of the many things I haven’t blogged about much (yet) is journalism ethics, as every one of us makes decisions almost daily about how to behave with sources. Yet we almost NEVER talk about it to anyone else, which is bizarre and stressful and leads to crappy decisions as well.

      I’m really lucky that my husband is a 30 yr NYT veteran (and Pulitzer team winner) so he totally gets why we do what we do and in what spirit. The NYT also has a truly Draconian ethics code every freelancer has to sign. I resent it, but it’s also smart.

      Almost all my work now is assigned by people half my age. For fuck’s sake. It drives me nuts. I need great editing, too, and few 25 yr olds have the skills and experience (how cld they?!) to offer it.

  10. themodernidiot

    Grantland’s a hack shop. Ripped off NYT’s Snowfall piece. Plain and simple the reporter’s an asshat that deserved to get fired and blackballed, so he’d have plenty of time to sit around and think about what he did. What a dick move.

    1. Ah, but…the reporter had plenty of editors whose JOB it is to backstop/edit/re-direct. So, yes, asshat, but the editor’s job is to forestall asshattery.

      Ooooh, I like that word. 🙂

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