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University of Wisconsin–Madison

A Magical Putter and the Year in Media Ethics

I knew 2014 would be a notable year in media ethics at about the two-week mark. I remember it vividly. In mid-January, the sports website Grantland ran a stunning piece called “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” — an intriguing narrative about a golf club inventor who was transgender. The story concluded with her suicide. I recall reading it the day it was posted and saying to my husband, “Something doesn’t feel right about this.”

Two days later, he shared back with me a social media firestorm engulfing Grantland. Something indeed was not right, and what we saw in that opening ethics salvo of the year encapsulates many issues we should learn from heading into 2015.

Despite so many examples of important stories well reported and compellingly told, this year was one of media missteps. Lists abound, including Columbia Journalism’s Review’s summary of the worst journalism of 2014, Poynter’s corrections roundup and the top 10 from iMedia Ethics. But more important to me than individual incidences of ethics concerns are the connective tissue between them. Dr. V’s story was an anatomy and physiology lesson for what was to come.

Trapped in our own perspectives

To be clear, Grantland got nothing factually wrong in its coverage of Dr. V. The story is accurate. It went wrong with context. This woman’s story was not of a putter alone or even of her interactions with reporter Caleb Hannan. It was a delicate and nuanced story of a person who — as transgender — faced enormous struggles and questions. By failing to consult with even one person with experience or expertise on trans issues, Grantland went wrong on issues as small as gendered pronouns and as large as outing Dr. V. They wouldn’t have had to look far. The site is owned by ESPN, home to baseball writer Christina Kahrl, whose depth of understanding could have averted the whole mess.

We had so many perspective problems in 2014. The New York Times stumbled in trying to turn a stereotyped phrase and referring to Shonda Rhimes as an “angry black woman.” Coverage of the Ferguson protests lagged until a pair of reporters were arrested and got their own first-person view. And a Fox News anchor reacted to groundbreaking news that a female fighter pilot led the United Arab Emirates attacks on ISIL by referring to her as “boobs on the ground.”

This lack of perspective beyond our own is but one reason it’s a good idea to diversify both the people producing journalism and the avenues for citizens to participate in it. Every ethical discussion must include consideration of all those who would be affected by a story and whenever possible, we should seek and value their input.

Chasing a big narrative

The Dr. V story also shared fraught ethical tissue with likely the most regrettable media performance of 2014: The Rolling Stone story, “A Rape on Campus.” The bone-chilling tale of a gang rape at the University of Virginia had many elements familiar to those of us who know well the problems of sexual assault on campus. But it also struck some off-key chords, leading other media outlets — most notably the Washington Post — to question the story and find holes in the details.

Despite widespread references that the story has been retracted, the victim stands by her account and an independent review is under way at the Columbia University journalism school. With significant questions still in play, the jury is out on whether UVA fell victim to a “massive failure of journalistic ethics,” as asserted by the head of the university’s board of visitors.

But what is clear to me is that the magazine stumbled badly from the very outset of reporting. The writer, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, has spoken of casting about extensively for the right case on the right campus. She was hunting a particularly grave and stunning narrative. But that’s not what campus rape is about. It’s not case. It’s all the cases. In outing Dr. V as trans, Grantland missed the shared experience of trans people. In highlighting one horror in graphic detail, Rolling Stone missed the commonness of campus rape. They’ve been almost entirely overlooked in this debacle, but Atlantic’s piece on fraternity culture and the New York Times’ look at a campus sexual assault were ethical wins this year.

The Wall Street Journal discusses the Rolling Stone rape story.

Guessing at what isn’t known

Grantland raised a lot of questions with no answers in its putter piece. Other media this year erred in guessing when they didn’t know. The worst example — by far — came with the domestic abuse case involving Baltimore Ravens star running back Ray Rice. Before TMZ published video clearly showing Rice brutally punching his then-girlfriend in an elevator, all the public had to go on was video of the following scene outside the elevator. When Rice was suspended for two games as a result, it led to lots of uninformed speculation — as if to say, “We don’t know what she did in that elevator.”

ESPN suspended panelist Stephen A. Smith for implying that women ought not provoke abuse, just one of multiple examples of victim-blaming. And ESPN also suspended Bill Simmons — Grantland’s founder and editor — after he essentially dared them to when accusing NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell of knowing more than he disclosed in the Rice case.

Covering suicide

The most jarring element of “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” comes at its close, when readers learn the subject died by suicide. This passage feels tacked on and badly handled — fitting, as it kicked off what I will remember as a horrible year for one of journalism’s most difficult subjects. When Robin Williams died by suicide in August, I knew plenty of media outlets would go wrong. They would say he “committed” suicide, when experts repeatedly guide toward the phrasing, “died by suicide.” They would glamorize Williams and his death, possibly boosting the contagion effect. And they would express shock and surprise, despite Williams’ many years battling depression and substance abuse, two key predictors of suicide.

But I had no idea we would go this wrong:

  • Radar Online ran a photo of Williams at an Alcoholic Anonymous meeting, in clear violation of his privacy and contravention of the group’s parameters.
  • A CBS affiliate covered his attendance at AA meetings, courtesy of one of its own photographers who also attended.
  • Fox News’ Shepard Smith speculated about Williams being a “coward.”
  • ABC streamed live aerial shots from above Williams’ home after he was found dead.
  • And Henry Rollins betrayed his own experience with depression in a craven “F*** Suicide” post.

Thankfully, we are far ahead of where we were just a decade ago in understanding suicide and advocating for responsible coverage. Useful guidelines abound and should be routinely discussed in newsrooms. Advocates are also quick to root out problems and demand improvements. Apologies followed every one of the examples above. Let’s hope we learn from them.

Robin Williams' death dominated news cycles. (Photo courtesy of Eggwork and used here under Creative Commons.)

Robin Williams’ death dominated news cycles. (Photo courtesy of Eggwork and used here under Creative Commons.)

Getting it right when wrong

This brings me to the one place Grantland went right. When social media delivered a lashing to their door, the staff did not bolt the lock. Instead, they engaged in serious and public self-reflection. Simmons’ letter detailing how they got where they were and why the story was a problem is a masterstroke of ethical reasoning. It was late. But it was certainly not too little. The site also gave Christina Kahrl ample amplification for her searing critique.

Not everyone could claim the same corrective high ground. New York magazine was duped by a teenager into thinking he had made millions picking stocks. They’ve run a correction, but their online headline still reads as though the story is true. Conservative news site Breitbart also kept up a headline claiming Loretta Lynch, nominee for attorney general, had defended the Clintons during Whitewater. They had the wrong Loretta Lynch and appended a correction at the bottom of the page but left the original flawed headline live for weeks.

Yet the grand prize for doing worse in a correction than you did in a story has to go to Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana.

When outlets began focusing on flaws in its rape story, Rolling Stone could have done what it now has: investigate how things went astray and take responsibility. Instead, Dana took the initial errant step of blaming the victim, using her pseudonym,  “Jackie.”

“In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced.”

I suspect that one sentence did more to set back reporting on sensitive issues than any other development in 2014. Remember, Jackie has not retracted her statements. And she didn’t write or edit the story. But even though the magazine has now reworked its statement, that original is the dominant impression for many.

Ethics and public communicators

One final element of Grantland’s year-opening ethics controversy sticks with me. Simmons’ letter details his discomfort with the tenor of many responses, especially those directed at the writer.

(W)as that worth tormenting him on Twitter, sending him death threats, posting his personal information online and even urging him to kill himself like Dr. V did? Unbelievably, for some people, the answer was ‘yes.’ I found that behavior to be sobering at best and unconscionable at worst. You can’t excoriate a writer for being insensitive while also being willfully insensitive to an increasingly dangerous situation.

In that, I see an inescapable link to this year’s most troubling ethics case: GamerGate. While many claimed this movement was about calling out ethical lapses in videogame journalism, I was astounded and appalled by the misogynistic and threatening nature of some posts. People — particularly women — were attacked for speaking out, often getting “doxxed” (slang for having your personal information documented or published online).

I, like many, have had and still have hope that the participatory nature of digital media will help more people engage with news coverage, counter bias and correct errors. But GamerGate is challenging those hopes of mine. Much of the conversation — if I can even call it that — has been a toxic sludge of rumor, invective and gender bias. The irony comes from people who claim to be challenging the ethics of game journalists through patently unethical behavior.

It seems that to some, journalists must have ethics but other public communicators are free from responsibility. Wrong. We’re smack in an age when access to the means to publish — whether on Twitter, Facebook or elsewhere — amps up the responsibility we all have. Anyone with an Internet connection needs to consider the responsible use of our freedom to publish. Truth, bias, independence and minimizing harm are no longer questions merely for journalists. And every petulant gamer who will engage in doxxing, rape threats or other abuses needs to wake up, smell those obligations and stop polluting the public sphere.

This pollution extends beyond GamerGate, of course. Take a look at the mayhem of Charles C. Johnson if you’re interested in another case study. We began 2014 with all sorts of questions about Grantland’s responsibility. The interesting questions for the coming year will be how far such responsibilities extend beyond news organizations and how we can hold other public communicators accountable.

Kathleen Bartzen Culver (@kbculver) is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, teaching and researching at the intersection of ethics and digital media practices. Culver also serves as associate director of the Center for Journalism Ethics and education curator for PBS MediaShift.

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