Last week, a story on Grantland, an ESPN sports blog, attracted a great deal of attention for the way in which it handled its main source and for its controversial reporting. On January 15, Caleb Hannan posted an article that he had been working on for months on a new type of putter (see above) designed by a “mysterious” former aeronautical physicist turned inventor named Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt, or “Dr. V,” who committed suicide during the course of Hannan’s information gathering. (Vanderbilt died in October and Hannan’s piece was first published last week.) In Hannan’s reporting on the revolutionary putter, he revealed that Vanderbilt was transgender, having been born in 1953 as Stephen Krol, and that she had faked her academic credentials (reported to be degrees from MIT and the University of Pennsylvania).
The backlash to Hannan’s piece was immediate and harsh. On Slate.com, Josh Levin wrote that “Dr. V was a con artist and a trans woman. Hannan conflate[d] those two facts, as if they both represent[ed] a form of deceit.” Marc Tracy, a writer for New Republic, wrote: “This was a reporter entering a story with fundamentally flawed, not to mention bigoted, premises and letting those premises guide his reporting and his writing—a problem magnified since Hannan and his reporting are an essential part of the story.” To be clear, as Hannan noted early in his piece, Vanderbilt agreed to work with him on the condition that he maintain her anonymity, so that “our discussion and any subsequent article about her putter focus[ed] on the science and not the scientist.” Yesterday, Grantland Editor-in-Chief Bill Simmons posted a lengthy apology as a way of explaining what had happened.
After learning that her credentials had been faked, Hannan must have felt some responsibility to share what he learned. In the days before her suicide he had apparently let her know that he felt compelled to report the facts, possibly including what he learned about her gender. Of course, we’ll never know how Hannan might have influenced Vanderbilt’s suicide. At the very least, this story demonstrates the fine line that journalists must walk during their information gathering. They must continually determine what facts are germane to a story, while at the same time being sensitive to the physical and/or emotional needs of their sources. What do you think?
Thanks to our alum Mick Forgey for the tip!
Sources: Grantland.com, NewRepublic.com, Slate.com, TheVerge.com
Update (January 27, 2014): Thanks to my colleague, Dave Reed, who shared with me this wonderfully written assessment of the story from ESPN’s Ombudsman, Robert Lipsyte. In it, Lipsyte thoughtfully covers the case and discusses the feasibility of different options.