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Journalistic ethics in transgender tragedy

  • 24 January 2014

Last week a troubling story broke on the high-profile ESPN subsidiary Grantland. 'Dr V's Magical Putter' began as a quirky sports story, an investigation into a potentially game-changing piece of golf equipment. The putter's inventor, Dr Essay Anne Vanderbilt, was challenging the old-hat wisdom of golfing technologies with hard physics. An attractive, eccentric inventor with a higher degree from MIT and a decade in secret dealings with the US Department of Defence, Vanderbilt, or Dr V. as she was known, cut an irresistible story for any journalist.

But after the journalist in question, Caleb Hannan, tested the putter and found it roadworthy, he began to investigate not only the science behind it but also the inventor herself, against her wishes. In the process of learning that Vanderbilt's credentials were falsified, Hannan also discovered that Vanderbilt was a trans-woman. In the article, this knowledge is conveyed as part-and-parcel with her fraudulent business claims. Hannan even outed her to one of her investors.

Some months later, a few days after a disturbed email exchange with Hannan, Vanderbilt killed herself.

The internet does not need one more person to stoke the fire against a piece of ethically tenuous journalism, or use one person's tragic decline for the sake of rhetoric. This topic been written about by much more erudite and sensitive people than me — for example here, here, here, and by Grantland's own editor-in-chief Bill Simmons here. But I do want to talk about the aftermath of the tragedy, what it means for both journalists and their subjects, and what reporting might mean in a post-internet world.

In following this issue closely, I am reminded that there are profound cultural changes brewing. The internet has changed what we say and how we say it. How we produce and legitimise knowledge is becoming more collectivised, and more frequently informed by the people who have historically played object to news stories.

'Dr V.'s Magical Putter' was written in a journalistic tradition that may struggle to exist in the post-internet world: the tradition of long-form narrative journalism championed by the great American magazines like The New Yorker, Esquire, Harpers, and Rolling Stone. Narrative journalism is a highly regarded literary tradition that students and professionals of writing dream of mastering. Some of its finest examples have endured the same cultural longevity and impact on our collective imaginations as the great movies and novels of our times.

It does what traditional news journalism cannot: it