In order to be a good journalist, you must be a good person. Throughout my time in journalism school, that phrase has been frequently repeated and I couldn’t agree more.
It was recently brought to my attention that Grantland, a website for sports journalism, published an article exposing the creator of a revolutionary golf putter as transgender against her wishes. The article even states that founder of Yar Golf, Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt, wanted the piece to “focus on the science and not the scientist.” As the writer Caleb Hannan continued to badger her, Vanderbilt ended her life.
Hannan discovered that while Vanderbilt had produced one of the most scientifically and physically sound putters, she had no background in science and she definitely wasn’t involved in any of the classified government work she said she was. Vanderbilt was a pathological liar and she didn’t do a very good job of covering her tracks.
In the course of his research, he found out that Vanderbilt was born in a male body with a different name, which she changed decades later.
In addition to posthumously outing her in what he called his “eulogy,” Hannan also revealed her transgender status to one of her investors while she was still alive.
As a journalist, I feel obligated to follow a set of ethical guidelines. Hannan didn’t exhibit the moral fibre of an ethical journalist and stirred up controversy when he chose to write about Vanderbilt’s gender transition, which added nothing to his story.
Hannan’s treatment of Vanderbilt’s transition is, if not defamatory, ethically unsound. His narrative seems to say her gender transition is more noteworthy and “odd” than her golf putter, and the fact that her claims about her extensive education and previous work experience are false. By publishing the article following her death, Hannan avoided the possibility of a defamation lawsuit.
Journalists have a moral responsibility to respect their sources and to show compassion for vulnerable ones. It’s wrong to harass sources the way Hannan badgered Vanderbilt; there’s a line between dogged reporting and bullying, and Hannan let himself cross it when he made Vanderbilt’s gender part of the story.
The majority of suicides go unreported, out of respect to the family of the deceased, and because it’s not something that should be glorified. The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention says there is evidence of increased risk of others in the community replicating suicide following publication of it.
Whether it was due to the fact that she was exposed without her consent, or she was experiencing other personal issues (she had previously attempted suicide in 2008), we’ll never know for certain why Vanderbilt chose to end her life.
Including the very private details of her transition in an article that should have been about a revolutionary new golf club and the outrageous lies of the woman who made it was irrelevant, wrong, and unethical.