Learn ethics before you publish

Maybe you heard this from your mother when you were growing up—I know I did—“Sorry doesn’t cut it.”

That’s one of the reason’s the apology from Bill Simmons today on Grantland rings hollow. Simmons apologized for the story that posthumously outed a trans woman, among many other offenses. I won’t list those offenses in full here, but Christina Kahrl has a really good rundown. Some of the basics, in addition to outing the subject, including using the wrong pronouns, disclosing the fact she’s trans to an investor, and conflating her decision not to tell the reporter that she was trans with various lies she told about her background. The apology from Simmons explains that reporting on LGBT issues is outside of his experience, and the experience of everyone else who had their hands on the story, the problems that were so obvious to many readers just never occurred to the Grantland staff. He’s promised to do better in the future.

That’s a start, but let’s dispense with allowing Simmons, Caleb Hannan, who wrote the article, or anyone else to claim ignorance as either an excuse or an explanation. The same tools that allowed the story to be pieced together in the first place were available to the reporter and the editors throughout the editing process, and could have been used to make sure that the story was being ethically reported. Simmons apology shows that he’s grasped the issues with Hannan’s piece:

Someone familiar with the transgender community should have read Caleb’s final draft. This never occurred to us. Nobody ever brought it up. Had we asked someone, they probably would have told us the following things …

  1. You never mentioned that the transgender community has an abnormally high suicide rate. That’s a crucial piece — something that actually could have evolved into the third act and an entirely different ending. But you missed it completely.
  2. You need to make it more clear within the piece that Caleb never, at any point, threatened to out her as he was doing his reporting.
  3. You need to make it more clear that, before her death, you never internally discussed the possibility of outing her (and we didn’t).
  4. You botched your pronoun structure in a couple of spots, which could easily be fixed by using GLAAD’s style guide for handling transgender language.
  5. The phrase “chill ran down my spine” reads wrong. Either cut it or make it more clear what Caleb meant.
  6. Caleb never should have outed Dr. V to one of her investors; you need to address that mistake either within the piece, as a footnote, or in a separate piece entirely.
    (And maybe even … )
  7. There’s a chance that Caleb’s reporting, even if it wasn’t threatening or malicious in any way, invariably affected Dr. V in ways that you never anticipated or understood.

But solutions to all of those issues were available BEFORE Grantland published it. There are a lot of really good ethical discussions to be had about Hannan’s piece, but all of them could have been had BEFORE Grantland published it.

I’m sure that Simmons, Hannan, and the rest of the staff feel terrible, and that they’ve learned a lot from this. But that doesn’t change the fact that they had an ethical responsibility to address the issues in the article before presenting it to their readers.

All journalists make mistakes, but all journalists also have an obligation to educate themselves about the issues they’re covering. Apologizing after the fact is a poor substitute for doing the ethical thinking required before a piece is published.


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