John Seven: Considering the ethics of outing
By now many are familiar with the story of Magical Putter inventor Dr. V and the revelations about her personal life brought forth by Grantland writer Caleb Hannan. It made the rounds online as a cautionary tale of press intrusion and the ethics of outing transgendered people, but I’m not sure it’s the best example for those causes because of specific details about both V and Hannan.
Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt agreed to be subject of a business profile by Hannan, but as Hannan looked into her background, he found claims of an MIT degree and top secret work for the Department of Defense were false. Hannan then discovered that V had not been born a woman. When Hannan informed her that he wanted to include it in the reporting, along with the other information, V understandably balked at the suggestion and demanded Hannan leave it out.
At some point in this, Hannan privately -- and wrongly -- outed V to one of her investors. A month later, V committed suicide, and a month further on, Grantland ran with Hannan’s story with all the details of V’s transgendered status. The Internet exploded with rage that didn’t always clearly address the issue.
Make no mistake, to publicly reveal a transgendered person’s status can put them in danger and should never be done without their permission. That’s undeniable. In context of V, though, the person was falsifying a professional history used to deceive investors, and the gender change appeared to be an aspect of that story. V was not necessarily an ordinary citizen trying to protect her privacy, but a potential case of business fraud. Grantland did not publicly reveal the detail until a month after her death, and the editor’s account of the months-long process (http://es.pn/M0Kv80/) describes a timeline of investigative reporting and posthumous coverage that seems consistent with coverage of similar stories about non-transgendered people I have seen.
Hannan’s piece revealed his own naiveté and, as a result, didn’t show any sensitivity to the subject. That’s one of the real issues here. Though public perception is getting better, the numbers are not such that a majority of people have firsthand experience with transgendered people. That’s not an excuse to belittle a transgendered person’s right to privacy, but to point out that, unfortunately, for too many people, transgendered folks still exist as a novelty.
A journalist has a higher calling, though. I would hope journalists, as professionals working with people intimately and constantly, would understand that no human is a novelty. Your own inexperience with whatever difference you encounter does not justify personal incredulity in your reporting. If you encounter something unknown to you, your job is to try and understand it. That makes good reporting. While I understand the outrage, rushing to Twitter, as many did, to call the reporter a "murderer" and "trans hater" isn’t the best way to get anyone to understand the error of their ways. Lynch mobs are seldom great convincers, even if they feel justified. However, Hannan’s unethical behavior with V’s investor certainly deserves some kind of reprimand.
I suggest a better story, one with more potential for all sides to learn from, is that of transgendered former college basketball player and trans advocate Kye Allums (http://bit.ly/1jTfqza).
Allums found himself in a similar situation, but he managed to turn it into something both sides of this matter can learn from. Allums was truly an innocent whose right to privacy was being infringed upon.
Journalists need to understand with any story including a sensitive aspect, compassion is a mandatory component -- compassion to the subject, sure, but also compassion to the audience. My hope is that people on both sides can look at Allums’ example of moving forward as the best one.
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