The Thread: What We Could Learn From Grantland's Coverage of 'Dr. V'
Scales of justice. Shutterstock/MilousSK
January 29, 2014


[Editor’s Note: This is the first in an occasional series called “The Thread,” where AJR.org publishes email conversations about a current topic in new media.

The following exchange is about the controversy surrounding a story that ran in Grantland, a longform sports journalism site. The Grantland story triggered backlash on Twitter and criticism from the LGBT community due to how a recent article handled a revelation the writer learned while researching the credentials of a golf club inventor: She was a transgender woman. That fact was a secret she had kept, and one the writer told one of her investors. The woman, Grantland reported, committed suicide while its writer was researching the story. The full Grantland story can be read here, along with a note from the editor, as well as a post from the ombudsman of ESPN, the parent company of Grantland. 

AJR editors Sean Mussenden and Lisa Rossi and intern and University of Maryland senior Mary Clare Fischer.

 

FROM: SEAN MUSSENDEN
TO: MARY CLARE FISCHER, LISA ROSSI

Mary Clare and Lisa,

As a slavishly devoted Bill Simmons fanboy, a lover of long stories and an avid, if terrible, golfer, the Grantland tale “Dr. V’s Magical Putter,” landed right in my wheelhouse.

I devoured it eagerly, fascinated by the mysterious inventor behind this supposedly revolutionary golf club.  The writer, Caleb Hannan, dropped just enough hints throughout the story to suggest that Dr. V wasn’t who she seemed.  Though it may be a cliched trope at this point, I happen to love the story structure Hannan employed: the “reporter takes reader along on a voyage to discover the truth.”

My first inkling that this trope may not have been right for this story came with Hannan’s big reveal that Dr. V was not who she claimed to be. Her academic credentials and work background did not check out. And, Hannan took pains to note, she was “born a boy” under a different name.

He wrote: “What little else I know about Stephen Krol in the years before and after he changed his name comes from people who knew him, but didn’t know him well.”

When I hit that paragraph, I realized something was amiss. I must confess I’m woefully undereducated on the most sensitive way to write about transgender men and women.

But I do know enough to know that if a person self-identifies as a woman, as Dr. V did, it’s not appropriate to use the pronoun “him.” It seems to me that the editors at Grantland should have known this, if only because the pronoun debate was thrust upon journalists after Bradley Manning announced his intention to become Chelsea Manning and many news organizations kept right on identifying Manning as “him” or “he.”

I deeply respected Grantland Editor-in-Chief Bill Simmons’s mea culpa editor’s note, but they just should have known better — or found someone who did.

Back to the “reporter takes us on a journey” story structure. It became apparent to me that this was the wrong narrative approach when I reached the third-to-last paragraph(!) and learned that Dr. V had committed suicide. That struck me as a deeply insensitive way to include the news of her death. I don’t agree with those saying Hannan is to blame for her suicide; that’s patently ridiculous.

But tacking it on the end felt, well, tacky. After the editors found out she committed suicide, the story needed to be ripped up and the sad fact of her death needed to be dealt with much more sensitively near the top of the story.

So, I’ll ask you, what could the editors have done to handle this more sensitively from the get go?

Sean


FROM: MARY CLARE FISCHER
TO: SEAN MUSSENDEN, LISA ROSSI

Sean and Lisa,

I’ll start by going backwards. The second thing Grantland editors should have done, if they were determined to publish the story, is to run the story by someone within the transgender community, as multiple outlets have recommended.

In November, Poynter published a list of rules to follow when reporting on the transgender population, a good start to a larger problem. However, I believe these guidelines should be used only in extreme deadline situations. Journalists make their livings reporting on what they understand, and it’s difficult to relate to someone who was born a man but considers herself a woman unless you’re in the same uncomfortable boat. The best way you can avoid insensitive situations like the one found in the story about Dr. V is to send it straight to an expert.

The first thing, though, was to consider whether they needed to publish this story at all. Many people have suggested writing this story and leaving the transgender piece out. I have a hard time figuring out how the story would have made sense this way; Dr. V created her new persona and constructed a network of lies, according to the Grantland piece, as a result of her transition.

If these details hadn’t been included, I think there would have been a noticeable hole in the piece that would have left readers confused. But why the need to write the story at all? The original subject (golf) was not a matter of life and death. It’s not a matter of public interest to expose the fake science behind a magical putter, even if investors were involved. Golf aficionados might gasp at this statement, but I ask them to tell me which is more important: a piece of steel or a human life. I think I’ll take the latter.

Mary Clare


FROM: LISA ROSSI
TO: SEAN MUSSENDEN, MARY CLARE FISCHER

Sean and Mary Clare,

For me, the Grantland piece and its surrounding controversy bring back many memories of my own time as a young newspaper reporter. There were plenty of moments when I was unsure what information I should share about a person I was writing about and what I should keep out of the paper.

I recall two examples when I stumbled upon information that a person had kept secret over the course of his or her life.

In one, I was sent to cover the incredibly sad funeral for a woman who police said killed herself and her two young children. I still shudder at the memory — all three shared an open casket. During the eulogy, a brother of the woman shared an outrageous accusation against the father of the children that he said led to their deaths.

The accusation was so outrageous that half of the people attending this funeral in rural Iowa stood up and abruptly walked out.

Not knowing quite what to do next, I interviewed some people standing outside for reactions to the accusation. I then immediately called police to see if a formal complaint on it had ever been issued.

It hadn’t.

I declined to ever reveal what this accusation was, since it hadn’t been confirmed by official sources. It very well could have been false and I would have been incredibly irresponsible to print it. I wonder today: Should I have investigated this further? If I had dug deeper, could I have revealed important truths about children who are victims of a crime?

In another case, I did reveal a secret about someone who had made the news. In November of 2005, I wrote a newspaper story under the headline “Transgender’s death reveals secrets, lies.” The story charted the secrets a woman who had been found dead in Iowa kept from loved ones, including, as I wrote, a “secret sex change operation” she had undergone.

As I reflect on it today, I wonder if I made a horrible mistake, outing this person, even in her death, to those who may not have known her past. The headline also may have been handled insensitively. The GLAAD media reference guide flags “transgenders” as a “problematic term” and advises that reporters instead use the terminology “transgender man,” or “transgender people,” for example.

I remain unsure about the right way to proceed here in an age of (hopefully) more awareness and sensitivity. As journalists, our job is to tell the truth. It’s that simple. Sometimes the truth might be someone’s secret. How do we proceed then? How do we weigh when the information might provide enlightenment and understanding or when it would be profoundly damaging and inhumane to reveal it?

Lisa


FROM: SEAN MUSSENDEN
TO: MARY CLARE FISCHER, LISA ROSSI

Mary Clare and Lisa,

I think you ask an important question, Mary Clare, in whether this story needed to be published at all. Certainly many are asking it. Few stories are so important that they HAVE to be published, but I think this is one that deserved to be published even if it’s not exactly the Pentagon Papers.

The main test, to me, is that it was very interesting. I’m not sure it’s fair to ask a journalist to balance the theoretical importance of a story with the remote possibility that the subject of a story will kill themselves.

To reiterate, Hannan did not kill Dr. V or cause her to kill herself. Suicide is always a choice, one that she, unfortunately, made. Is it fair to say fear of publication of this article helped convince her that suicide was the right choice? Sure, that’s possible. But that’s not on Hannan.

And certainly when he was reporting this story, he could not have known she would end her life. I hope this extremely sad case does not prevent journalists from publishing good or interesting or important stories because of the remote possibility that the subject might kill themselves.

And look, Dr. V was not innocent here, according to Hannan’s reporting. The fact that she had a sex change is totally immaterial to the larger point this story made (though I agree it would have been impossible to expose the fraud without revealing she once had a man’s name). If the story is accurate, she misled people about her background. According to the story, she used manufactured educational and employment credentials to help sell a putter.

And, as Hannan demonstrated, those phony credentials played a big part in the golfing public’s belief in the value of that putter. It’s entirely possible that fear of being exposed as a liar led her to believe that suicide was the right choice. We just don’t know what she was thinking.

Thanks for sharing that Poynter list of rules, Mary Clare. And thank you, Lisa, for sharing the GLAAD reference guide.  I hope every journalist bookmarks them.

Lisa, thank you for sharing the 2005 story you wrote that included the phrase “secret sex change operation.”  It’s obvious now, with the gift of hindsight, that was a mistake. Would we refer to a vasectomy or tubal ligation as “secret family planning surgery” just because someone didn’t share it with the entire world? I’m sure I’ve written similarly insensitive things. You ask: how do we proceed?  I think the key is to always question our assumptions about whether we’re making the right choices. And to know enough to ask for help from experts in these things.

Sean


FROM: MARY CLARE FISCHER
TO: SEAN MUSSENDEN, LISA ROSSI

Sean and Lisa,

I think it’s important to distinguish that I’m not saying Hannan caused Dr. V to kill herself — we can only speculate on her various motivations. I’m talking about post-mortem publishing; especially now that Dr. V has died, I see no reason to out her to her investors. It seems like an insensitive way to pay tribute to someone and by publishing the story, you’re either choosing to tell readers about the background behind a putter or exposing the vulnerabilities of the life of someone who was clearly in pain. By that, I think you’re putting a greater value on storytelling than respect.

Mary Clare


FROM: LISA ROSSI
TO: SEAN MUSSENDEN, MARY CLARE FISCHER

Sean and Mary Clare,

Thanks so much for your thoughts on the Grantland story.

I’d like to end this thread with two questions that perhaps our readers could address in our comments section:

  1. Did Grantland make a mistake in publishing the story about Dr. V? Should the story have been pulled in its entirety, or completely revamped, following the tragic death of the subject?
  2. How can journalists do a better job reporting about the transgender community and transgender people? If someone wants to keep that fact about him or herself secret, are we obligated to honor that, even if we might deem it newsworthy? What should the rules be?

Lisa

Comments
  • Brody Levesque

    WASHINGTON

    January 30, 2014

    Dear Mary Clare, Lisa, and Sean,

    The problem with this piece is the premise as laid out above previously by Sean.

    Of particular note is the not so subtle ‘I’m NOT the subject’ quasi adversarial role that Dr. V. adopted when approached by the journalist in pursuing the story, to wit; ‘Talk about the science not the scientist.’

    Granted, the natural and proper inclination of the reporter was to be through and adhere to the tenets of professional journalistic due diligence. But, having said that, once he had learned that Dr. Vanderbilt was not the person she claimed and that her credentials were falsified and he was unable to authenticate her claims, it is only too easy to understand that his instinct would have been to dig deeper.

    I’m not a golf person by the way- I, like the great American author Mark Twain feel that “Golf is the waste of a good walk,” however, the problem here is that if her credentials were falsified then the question becomes, was her claim to the science? Did she blatantly steal it from somewhere and take credit for it? This is a logical leap/conclusion for the reporter to take.

    Now, comes the ethics questions- He dug and discovered that Dr. V was trans. The problem here is that he drew a line connecting dots that the trans aspect played into the dishonesty and subterfuge surrounding her credentials and background. It was at this point an editor charged with overseeing the story should have intervened.

    I think covering the embellished and or falsified credentials aspect was fair game but, he should have not outed her gender identity transition as it was indeed a separate issue and judging from the research he revealed, not germane to the development of the putter, nor to the subterfuge employed by Dr. Vanderbilt in her dealings with her investors.

    That said- no, her transition was not newsworthy.

    The death of the subject as the reporter revealed in his approach in the piece was callous and insensitive. Should the manner of death been noted? Yes.
    But again, drawing parallels does a disservice to the reader as well as the subject of the piece. Obviously one could potentially surmise that the outing of gender identity coupled with the deceptive nature of her background as pertaining to the putter’s science being exposed in a national website/blog played a role- but its conjecture and not worthy of mention. Simple statement of facts would have been sufficient.

    Was this story worthwhile and should it have been published? Yes on both scores. But as reporters we are obligated to have a professional and objective compassionate approach when dealing with minority communities be they the trans community or the LGB community or persons of colour or other ethnicity.

    While facts are essential- not every fact of every story needs to be told.

    Sincerely,

    Brody Levesque
    Washington Bureau Chief
    LGBTQ Nation Magazine * LGBTQNation.com
    News Bureau (202) 556-0877
    E-mail: b.levesque@lgbtqnation.com

    • Lisa Rossi

      Thank you so much for your thoughts, Brody. I’m also curious to know how you think journalists should handle it when they find out a crime victim is a transgender person. Are we obligated to report that — or if the person hasn’t disclosed his or her transgender status to family and friends, is your position that a journalist not print it either?

      • Brody Levesque

        WASHINGTON

        January 31, 2014

        Dear Lisa,

        You’ve hit upon an incredibly complex relevant topic matter for my staff as well as our colleagues in the LGBTQ press with your question. I will add that this is germane to the MSM as well and my colleagues thereof.

        LGBTQ Nation adheres to the AP Stylebook as the principal guideline, [read: bible] for writing and presenting news articles.

        Now, having said that, here are the problematic areas regarding reporting on victims who are trans.

        The police reports, coroner’s autopsy reports, and other law enforcement or judicial documentation is the reference to gender if directly attributed and it is framed contextually as so. Say quoting those sources.

        But, to avoid misgendering or ignoring a person’s declared gender identity should be avoided past the above policy.

        An example:
        A month or so ago, a young self identified gender-queer person was attacked on an Oakland City transit bus in California and that youth’s skirt was set on fire severely burning the individual.
        In the Oakland PD report and in the hospital admission records, which were obtained by and sourced by LGBTQ Nation, the youth’s given birth name and gender were used. (male) LGBTQ Nation sourced those 2 references and contextually reported in the second para or so those facts.

        But, in the course of reporting the remainder of the story, gender neutral terms were used so as to not misgender this young person and in keeping with the AP Stylebook and the fact sheet put out by GLAAD. This assures an accurate reporting of the incident when a gender queer or trans person is the subject.

        I will add, that this person’s queer identity was well known including this youth’s parents.

        Now, let’s examine your question. I have written several stories in the past 5 years that directly address this issue.
        In the case that a trans person has NOT revealed their trans identity, as with the story above, as you report the story, frame the gender identity in context attributable to the source quotes.
        Hence if the family uses the gender opposite of the individual’s identity or is unaware of the trans status, then quoting the family members attributing them for gender (pronoun use) is acceptable.

        Should the victim be deceased?

        Again- source official documentation and quotes from law enforcement or designated spokespersons contextually. Then, after executing the requisite due diligence, then report the victim with the acknowledged gender identity.

        Should the family be unaware- I would strongly advise that a journalist NOT intrude upon the trans or gender area and instead rely on official sources. In plain English- it is inappropriate for the reporter to ask any questions that would effectively “out” the status. Let law enforcement or other official personnel do so.

        Generalised questions are fine- but no leading questions that could be looked at later as inappropriate in terms of where the conversation with the victim’s family may lead.

        A point here- there oft times maybe a chance that estrangement is most often a norm in the dynamics of the family relationships for the trans community, hence, one needs to be careful.

        Should it be published? A legitimate news story is just that. However, one must be careful in revealing all salient facts, because maybe some are not necessary. This is where the reporter and the editor/editorial team should work closely in determining the relevancy of a trans status to the story itself.

        ie: Latisha Williams, 23, was found shot to death in an alley off west Broad Street Thursday police said.

        Now- what follows is, if trans then the PD will say something along the lines of Latisha, who was identified as Darrel Williams…..

        IF, I were to cover this story- I would go to the family or sources close and phrase the questions such as “your child, or your family member was” and then let them use their selected gender term so you have an idea of how that victim was seen by family and friends. (Use the PD report in context ONLY if they bring it up and avoid gender use unless they broach it first.)

        This is a fairly complex issue- I hope I’ve assisted a bit in clarification but if not Lisa, please feel free to call me.

        Sincerely,

        Brody Levesque
        Washington Bureau Chief
        LGBTQ Nation Magazine * LGBTQNation.com
        News Bureau: (202) 556-0877
        E-mail: b.levesque@lgbtqnation.com

        • Lisa Rossi

          It’s a very complex issue. We may do a more in-depth story on these reporting issues later this year — I will put you on my list of people to call. Thanks again for your thoughtful replies, Brody.