When does media reporting cross the line into bullying? And if an online publication has made an egregious error of judgement, will an apology help, or has the damage been done?
Media outlets are notoriously loath to admit mistakes. Traditionally, it’s only when the lawyers start calling or regulators hand down an adverse verdict that publications fess up to getting something significant wrong. Self-reflection on systematic failures has never been a strong point for an industry immersed in the here and now.
There are notable exceptions, of course. In 2012 This American Lifeaired a program-length retraction detailing fabrications in an episode about Apple factories, its most most popular to date. And a year after the Iraq War began, The New York Times apologised for its reliance on dubious unnamed sources in the lead-up the war. Even then, many thought the apology too qualified and too late.
Two examples from the past week suggest such acts of contrition might become the norm in our interactive media age.
On Friday, The Guardian pulled down an opinion article from its website following howls of outrage from readers. The piece, by United States journalist Emma Keller, examined the prolific social media habits of cancer patient Lisa Bonchek Adams and pondered whether her tweets were “a grim equivalent of funeral selfies”. As Crikey’s Guy Rundle explained, the impact was compounded when Keller’s husband, Bill Keller, wrote a similarly critical piece for The New York Times.
As well as pulling down the original piece, The Guardianpublished an article by readers’ editor Chris Elliott explaining where Keller had gone wrong. As well as containing factual errors, Keller reproduced private Twitter exchanges with Adams without her permission; the piece also had factual errors. Elliott and Keller both also agreed she should have contacted Adams about the piece before its publication. There were also more subjective issues of style — including the flippant claim Adams was on her “deathbed”.
Two days earlier, a far less well-known website published a 7700-word piece that seemed destined to be a hit only among golf aficionados. Grantland, affiliated with sports network ESPN, was created by veteran sports journalist Bill Simmons as a platform for thoughtful, high-quality sports writing. Now the niche site is at the centre of a global debate on media ethics — and a little-known freelance writer is being sent death threats and being blamed for the suicide of a transgender con artist.
Yesterday, Simmons published a lengthy apology admitting he and his team had “screwed up”. In an accompanying piece, writer Christina Kahrl predicted the controversial story, “Dr V’s Magical Putter”, would become “a permanent exhibit of what not to do, and how not to treat a fellow human being”.
If you haven’t yet read the Grantland piece — which remains online — the best thing to do now is read it. All of it. Then come back.
If you don’t have time, here’s the basic outline. After becoming fascinated by claims being made about a new “scientifically superior” golf putter, writer Caleb Hannan decided to investigate the putter’s mysterious inventor — Essay Anne Vanderbilt (Dr V). After discovering Vanderbilt’s impressive qualifications were fake, Hannan dug deeper and discovered she had been born a man. The story ends with the revelation that Vanderbilt committed suicide not long after Hannan confronted her about her secret past.
Like the Keller piece, there were issues with style and tone — especially Hannan’s lack of self-questioning and decision to treat the revelation about Vanderbilt’s gender as the climax of the piece.
But, as Simmons notes in his apology, there were more deeper errors. Simmons says Hannan’s biggest mistake was approaching one of Vandbilts’s colleagues about her being transgender while she was still alive. And he argues it was indefensible not to check the piece before publication with a member of the transgender community. University of Melbourne media academic Denis Muller said of the piece:
“I thought it was unforgivable. It’s obviously extremely difficult to apportion blame for something as complicated as suicide. But I couldn’t see any justification to invade someone’s privacy in a story about a bloody putter. It was disgraceful.”
Muller says a willingness to admit mistakes is a welcome development:
“The internet has opened the media up to much greater scrutiny and public accountability. I don’t think either The Guardian or Grantland would have responded the way they did were it not for all the pressure and criticism.”
But there’s a dark side, too:
“To some extent the media are taking refuge in the fact you can now pull stuff down — it’s easy to put something up, test the waters, and if it generates heat then take it down. In the meantime, of course, you have achieved your economic aim by getting a lot of visits to the website.”
Looser editorial controls and the pressure to publish more content may play a role, too, Muller admits. Regardless, it seems clear: in a media age when readers talk back, sorry can no longer be the hardest word.