Suicide reminds reporters how vulnerable their sources can be

Gretchen Molannen suffered in private for 16 years before her life story appeared on the Tampa Bay Times website on Friday, Nov. 30. In the piece, she described the persistent genital arousal disorder that forced her to “masturbate for hours for just a few minutes of relief.” She also told reporter Leonora LaPeter Anton about her condition’s other costs: The judge who denied her disability claims. The doctor who made a joke. The jobs that disintegrated. The boyfriends who left.

Five days later, Molannen appeared in another Tampa Bay Times story: “Woman featured in Times story about sexual disorder commits suicide.”

The suicide drew international attention to Molannen’s story — and to the reporter who told it. “I’m so sorry,” Anton wrote to me when she declined an interview for this piece. “I’ve been just so swamped by all the calls and emails and then I’ve also been reporting.”

A local blogger claimed the Poynter-owned paper had “blood on its hands” for running a “sensational story” with the consent of a “mentally unstable” source. Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan countered that the causes of suicide are complex, and the paper is not to blame. “It’s impossible to tell” if the story contributed to Molannen’s death, Times managing editor Mike Wilson told Poynter’s Kelly McBride. He added: “While we’re upset and heartbroken about the awful decision she made, I think her legacy is that she stepped forward to tell a story that needed to be told and so I hope that in spite of the tragedy, some good comes of this.”

Molannen’s story speaks to a paradox of reporting on sex and sexuality. In discussing these deeply personal issues, we hope to lift stigma, improve public understanding and effect social change. But the individual subjects we choose to illustrate these issues do not always benefit from our work.

Journalists worked for decades to break taboos around AIDS, homosexuality and sexual assault before the Times told Molannen’s story. And still even private conversations around these issues remain fraught. Most victims of sexual assault still don’t call the police. Many gay men never come out. Some women even struggle for years to ask a boyfriend to just spank them in bed.

Sex and gender journalists ask our sources to bare highly personal details that others find painful to discuss even in private. Our subjects are not compensated when they tell us their stories. Instead, comments sections around the Web compile the most heinous reactions to their private lives, written by the world’s foremost anonymous bigots. Our story fades from the news, but it continues to hover over their Google search results, possibly forever. Their friends are free to constantly rewrite their online personalities with a new Facebook status update, but our subjects’ life stories are crystalized at a moment in time — and in someone else’s words. The reporter who lent them a sympathetic ear has shifted her focus to the next piece.

I’ve been that reporter, the one encouraging a source to sign up for all of the above. Sometimes — when a stranger emails me to thank me for a years-old piece I wrote on sexual assault, or a bewildered colleague asks me for a primer on what “transgender” means — I get the sense that my work is contributing, however modestly, to a broader social shift. But I’ve also watched as my reporting has shaken the private lives of my subjects.

In 2009, I profiled Devin, a transgender college student struggling to find his place in his school’s Greek system. Online, the comment box unspooled with the force of hundreds of sorority sisters, who branded him a “freak” and an “it.” I detailed the facial fractures a middle-aged gay man named Stanley sustained as the victim of a series of hate crimes in Washington, D.C. Long after the story came out, he kept ringing my office line, hoping to keep up the coffee dates we had throughout the reporting process; I quit my job soon after and decamped to L.A. I reported on the medical procedures that Suzanne, a transgender woman, had undertaken in the course of her transition to female. She liked the story, but hated the way her face looked in the accompanying photograph. She posted a new photo to her blog months later, her face still bandaged and swollen from a few more cosmetic surgery procedures.

It’s not easy for reporters to admit that talking to them could negatively affect a source’s life. It’s not convenient, either.

“When you’re reporting on sex and sexuality, you’re asking a person to make themselves incredibly vulnerable,” Poynter’s McBride told me. Making sure a source gives informed consent to the story at every stage — with the knowledge of all the consequences it might bring — is essential. “That’s really hard for some reporters, who are so desperate to get that ‘yes’ that they avoid those opportunities for the source to have second thoughts,” McBride says.

The Times reports that the paper gave Molannen several opportunities to back out of telling her story. She insisted on making it public, she told the Times, to “educate people that this is serious and really exists, and that other women who are suffering in silence will now have the courage to talk to a doctor about it.”

But even in its report on her death, the Times breathed life into an alternate narrative — one where the story could have helped Molannen as an individual, if only she had lived.

The paper did not mention that Molannen’s story inspired a local blogger to  illustrate his media criticism with a tableau of dildos. Or that, though the newspaper disabled comments on the piece, 108 readers categorized her story as “LOL” by clicking on a mocking emoticon beneath the story. Or that commenters, after her death, would populate the Web with sentiments like, “She sounds like every mans dream. Constantly ready for action.”

The paper reported that it “received several offers to help Molannen” from lawyers, doctors and other women suffering from the same problem. But as Molannen’s boyfriend told the paper, even the story “won’t help her now.”

Related: Suicide by source: What do you do when a story is followed by the worst possible outcome?

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