Lessons learned from Grantland’s tragic story on Dr. V

By editor-in-chief Bill Simmons’ own admission, ignorance was the biggest mistake Grantland made in reporting and publishing the story of Dr. V and her innovative golf putter. Ignorance about one of the most vulnerable minority groups — transgender people.

Plenty of writers have dissected Grantland’s mistakes in reporting a story about the entrepreneur with a checkered past who happened to be transgender.

But this case need not only be a tragic example of what can go wrong. This can also be a moment for news organizations to learn how to get smarter, make stronger ethical decisions and compensate for weaknesses that can lead to harm.

When Caleb Hannan’s piece was first published on Grantland it was widely praised. “People loved it. People were enthralled by it. People shared it. People tweeted it and retweeted it. A steady stream of respected writers and journalists passed along their praise. By Thursday, as the approval kept pouring in, we had already moved on to other stories and projects,” Simmons said.

The story starts with Hannan’s discovery of a revolutionary new golf putter in a quest to improve his own game and ends with the inventor’s suicide as Hannan was building a story that exposed her deceptions. In describing Dr. V’s gender identity with her resume-related deceptions, Grantland made the mistake of equating something intrinsic about a human being (gender identity) with a character flaw (con artist.) In outing Dr. V to her investors and ultimately the entire world, Grantland invaded her privacy and took away her dignity. In failing to find alternatives while Hannan was reporting the story, before the harm had been caused, Grantland employed an echo chamber rather than a healthy ethical decision-making process.

ESPN released a statement on Sunday acknowledging that harm had been done, offering condolences to Dr. V’s family, and vowing to learn from its mistakes. On Monday evening, Simmons’ “Letter from the Editor” issued an official and emphatic apology and listed the numerous ways in which Grantland editors “failed” freelance writer Caleb Hannan. Sure, Grantland failed to give Hannan the support he needed to tackle the sensitive story. But it also failed Dr. V, her family, and the entire transgender community.

Additionally, Simmons acknowledged that his own ignorance was to blame for many of the mistakes in the piece. “I realized over the weekend that I didn’t know nearly enough about the transgender community – and neither does my staff. I read Caleb’s piece a certain way because of my own experiences in life. That’s not an acceptable excuse; it’s just what happened,” Simmons said.

Hannan’s tone in the piece, calling the story strange and odd multiple times, expressing surprise that the investor to whom he outed Dr. V wasn’t more shocked, suggests Hannan was fascinated by her transgender status in a sideshow sort of way. Transgender people are subject to unreasonable scrutiny from journalists, GLAAD’s communications director, Nick Adams, argues. “Underlying those efforts is a belief that transgender people are lying, deceitful, tricksters who are getting away with something,” Adams said in an email.

After his discoveries, Hannan said, he grew to believe that “What began as a story about a brilliant woman with a new invention had turned into the tale of a troubled man who had invented a new life for himself.” The pronoun switch in that sentence is key, because it demonstrates that Hannan believed Dr. V’s true identity was male, and that her femaleness was something invented, another detail of her background that was falsified. This sends the message that transgender women are impostors.

Grantland also published an essay by ESPN baseball writer and GLAAD board member Christina Kahrl, who excoriated Grantland for the mistakes in reporting, writing and publishing the story. “One of the reasons this is so awful is that it feeds into three of the four main negative stereotypes about trans people,” Kahrl said in an interview, “the flat out untrue characterization that they’re deceivers, that they’re crazy” and then “the true and unfortunate reality that trans people are at greater risk of suicide.”

No news organization is immune from these mistakes, no reporter is immune. Even if you think you don’t cover transgender issues, you do. Transgender people are people, and people make news of all kinds. Simmons said more than a dozen people were involved in the editing process and in the decision to publish Hannan’s piece. Not one of them had enough education or curiosity to recognize that they needed more information to make good decisions about whether to out Dr. V — to other sources or to the entire Grantland audience.

It’s wrong and potentially disastrous to out transgender people to their friends, family, colleagues and, of course, to the public in print, without a clear and pressing relevance to the news story at hand. “We live in a culture that marginalizes transgender people, subjecting them to poverty, discrimination and violence,” Adams said, “and outing them places them in actual physical danger.”

If a reporter discovers through background research that a source is transgender, and the source’s transgender status is not germane to the story, it is important for the reporter to assure the person that he or she will not be unnecessarily outed. Just knowing a reporter possesses that information, Kahrl said, could be terrifying for a transgender person who is not out. He or she might think, she said, “this can be used as leverage against me, or that you could reveal this, and this creates fear.” As a reporter, it’s irresponsible to ignore that as a dynamic in the reporter-source relationship.

The threshold for outing anyone’s sexual orientation or gender identity in a news story is exceedingly high. The story must be critically important to the audience, and the subject’s history must be critically important to the story. It matters little whether the person is dead or alive.

Simmons says in his apology that none of the editors who were considering whether to publish Hannan’s piece thought it was possible to out someone after he or she had died. Yet it’s difficult to fathom a scenario where publishing private information about a private individual would be ethically permissible after death, yet frowned upon before death. Out someone who is alive and you harm her and her family, friends and associates. Out someone after she dies and you only harm her family, friends and associates. The harm is still great and the journalism organization must still be responsible.

And that harm is further compounded by scarcity. Transgender issues rarely crack Grantland or ESPN in general. When the subject does manage to get attention from the staff, the stories tend to be flawed.

On Jan. 14, Grantland published an article about Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace, a transgender punk rock musician. In the piece, writer Stephen Hyden shared a question he asked Grace. “I’m used to talking to musicians about music, not about the particulars of their gender identities. I feel bad asking questions about stuff that’s not really any of my business,” he said. “But I’m here as a journalist, so I ask anyway: Where are you at with your transition? Do you think you’ll have surgery?” He frames this as though this question about her medical history, about her genitals, essentially, is so important that he must ask it despite the fact that he feels uncomfortable. Journalists must get past this idea that they can ask these questions that would reveal information that the audience should not have any need or interest in knowing.

When Poynter spoke to Jos Truitt of Feministing.com this fall, she pointed out that coverage of transgender people is so sparse, that transgender people sometimes feel pressure to “hand over” information like birth names and “before” photos even though they feel uncomfortable doing so. Even if you ask your subject if you can publish his or her birth name or “before” photo and you receive consent, it’s still important to consider whether these steps are necessary. Why do you want to include these details? Consider not only whether to publish these details, but also why you need to ask for them in the first place.

While Simmons’ apology goes far in admitting wrongdoing, negligence and ignorance, it is still troubling at points, such as in this paragraph:

But even now, it’s hard for me to accept that Dr. V’s transgender status wasn’t part of this story. Caleb couldn’t find out anything about her pre-2001 background for a very specific reason. Let’s say we omitted that reason or wrote around it, then that reason emerged after we posted the piece. What then?

The Grantland story established that Dr. V fabricated her credentials. A story about a rising company built on the founder’s deception is an interesting story. But equating resume lies with transgender status is a mistake that conflates a legitimate interest and a prurient interest. In doing so, Grantland sensationalized what could have been a legitimate and compelling narrative.

So what options did the writer and editors at Grantland have? Upon discovering the resume discrepancies, the writer clearly had to resolve them or ditch the story. And who wants to ditch a story? It’s possible that the reporter could have determined that the lies Dr. V told about her college degrees and work history, especially while seeking investors, were enough to merit a story. In that case, her status as a transgender person could have been dismissed as a private piece of information that had no bearing on a tale about a novel golf putter and the inventor behind it.

It’s also possible that the writer and his editors could have determined the deceptions were inextricably entwined with the name change and transition. In which case, the news organization would then have to ask if the subject of the story itself was so pressing to Grantland’s audience that it had to be published. It seems unlikely that an upstart golf club company rises to that level.

The reason Hannan couldn’t find any information about Dr. V prior to 2001 is because she was a private person who changed her name. The reason she changed her name is because — Hannan’s own reporting revealed this — she felt her old name didn’t “match” her. Her transgender status is part of her personal story, but that doesn’t mean it should be published or brandished to her business associates.

This is where training, education and a healthy process for making ethical choices comes in. “However good you are as a journalist,” Kahrl said, “you still have to put the training wheels back on about this issue.”

The staff at Grantland needed to recognize or to invite a knowledgeable voice into the mix that could articulate a nuanced reality: while some people may be surprised when they learn someone is transgender, or when someone begins transitioning, the process of transitioning is not an act of deception.

Perhaps this is the most important takeaway for journalists: transgender women are women, and transgender men are men. You cannot discover a person’s true gender identity by looking at a birth certificate. The history as a transgender person likely informs his or her current identity. But it’s a piece of information over which, except for the most extreme scenarios, an individual should have control.

Co-author Kelly McBride served as the lead writer on the ESPN-Poynter Review Project for 18 months in 2011-2012.

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  • Sandiegoway

    Dr. V was using a false identity in order to perpetrate a fraud. Consumers were told she was a scientific genius with a Phd. from MIT. No doubt investors were attracted to a woman who also claimed a Wharton MBA. If you are using a false identity to defraud people, the facts of who you really are need to be exposed. That would include what your birth name was and what you did prior to changing it to Essay Anne Vanderbilt.

    Given her previous attempt at suicide and the circumstances she found herself as a result of her fraud, it is ridiculous to claim that Hannan was responsible for her death. Hannan was the least of her problems.

  • rockerred

    This, or something like it, was inevitable. Simmons first brags about Grantland’s culture of advancing young writers, a worthy enough goal. But then he goes on to position youthfulness as a value in itself, shared by as many staffers as he can find. Then a few grafs later, he sheds crocodile tears, conceding he and his staff just don’t understand how people can take something like gender identity seriously.

    All of this, with no irony.

  • sargeh

    You’re still operating under the assumption that the ‘outing’ was the cause of V’s suicide. She had tried and failed suicide attempts before the so-called outing occurred. At the time of V’s death, V was involved in massive fraud, faked credentials. V was extremely deep in deep due to court awards in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. That V’s suicide was caused by those things is much more likely than the outing.

  • TariAkpodiete

    Since her credentials are fake, a mistake in the above story is to keep referring to her as ‘doctor’ since it perpetuates a lie. ‘Ms’ would be more accurate.

  • CPO_C_Ryback

    PLEASE

    If “ignorance” was a “get out of jail card,” most newspapers would not publish at least 20% of the time.

    Lack of math skills, lack of understanding of history, over-reliance on a few sources, cognitive biases, no sharp Google skills, “lede’s already written” from the start — how’s that for a start?

    Example: Steve Brill and Jon Stewart, attacking pharms. Right — a $20,000 drug-reg that prevents a $400,000 surgery with a 20% possibility of death is just like Bernie Madoff (/sarc). Well, don’t worry — Brill and Stewart are encouraging those Harvard MD/PhDs to do something else with their lives, thanks to their briliant “ignorance.” And thousands will die painfully, prematurely, and expensively.

    And let’s not waste any more time on “you can keep your doctor.” That’s already won “Lie of the Year” honors.