Why the narrative on Grantland’s Dr. V story shifted, and what lessons that can teach us

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The Grantland piece "Dr. V.'s Magical Putter" led to plenty of criticism and eventual apologies from ESPN and BIll Simmons, but that wasn't the initial reaction for many. Upon first read, the piece received plenty of praise from established journalists (and this writer); it was the outcry from the LGBT community and supporters that prompted reexaminations and the eventual apologies. The evolution of the discussion about this piece is worth examining, and it has some important takeaways for Grantland, ESPN and journalism in general. SI's Richard Deitsch did an excellent job of describing how and why his reaction to the piece changed, and his comments echo the thoughts of many others. Here's the key part of what he wrote (item #5):

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Grantland published a piece last week ("Dr. V's Magical Putter") on a miracle golf putter and the mysterious inventor behind it. I found myself enamored by the terrific writing, reporting and storytelling of the writer. I tweeted out the piece multiple times and praised it in my tweets. Plenty of other journalists pushed the piece, too, but I own my actions here. …

If I had a Twitter mulligan, I wish I had immediately recognized the pain many felt about outing the subject in the piece (which was clearly wrong), and the impact of the piece on the transgender community. I would have framed my tweets smarter and tried to prompt intelligent discussion on it. I also should have thought more about the ethical issues that popped up before tweeting it out, including if there was a written or verbal agreement that the author would only write about the science of the putter and not Dr V's personal background. I think I was so enthralled by the reporting and whodunit aspect of the tale — and the skill of a talented journalist — that I failed to recognize some vital issues about the piece.

This is important: Though I do not know the writer personally, I believe he initially approached the piece without ill intent, and the same writer has produced thoughtful takes in the past including on homophobia in MLS. I also know enough editors and writers at Grantland to know they care about people and the subjects they feature on their site. This is not the clown division at ESPN. I'll also note the writer has gotten death threats on social media and that type of response is unconscionable.

Had Grantland had the piece to do again, I'd like to believe they would have reframed (or excised) the latter half of the piece — the suicide should have been handled far more sensitively — and offered a separate piece from the reporter or editors explaining motivation, the reporting process and why they ran the story. Grantland editor-in-chief Bill Simmons addressed the story on Monday afternoon in a Letter From The Editor, ESPN staffer Christina Kahrl did as well, and ESPN PR released this statement to SI.com on Sunday afternoon. "We understand and appreciate the wide range of thoughtful reaction this story has generated and to the family and friends of Essay Anne Vanderbilt, we express our deepest condolences. We will use the constructive feedback to continue our ongoing dialogue on these important and sensitive topics. Ours is a company that values the LGBT community internally and in our storytelling, and we will all learn from this."

Emily Perper, an editor-at-large for The Annual Tweets, tweeted something Saturday that sticks with me. "My favorite journalists love Caleb Hannan's story for Grantland," she wrote. "The activists I respect think it is repugnant and unethical." I'll be thinking of that.

It's Perper's observation that really stands out there, and it illustrates the issues around this story and how they should be considered going forward. Digging deep to check the background of someone with remarkable claims the way Hannan did is generally laudable from a journalistic perspective, and it's led to a lot of great and valuable stories; that's why this piece initially received so much praise from many. However, the piece lumped Vanderbilt's sexual identity in with her other false claims and was extremely insensitive in how it handled her story.

Moreover, there's a difference between exposing someone's false claims about their background and revealing their sexual identity against their will, which is what Kahrl takes particular issue with. Perhaps the key takeaway here? Stories on LGBT people and issues are far from simple, and journalists and outlets who don't have a lot of experience writing or running those kinds of stories should probably consult colleagues or advocacy organizations before publishing a piece like this.

While it's unlikely that this is going to lead to ESPN clamping down on Grantland too heavily, the criticism and blowback against the Worldwide Leader in the wake of this makes it very clear that Grantland is seen as a part of ESPN. Simmons and his cast of writers and editors produce a lot of excellent work, and that should be noted; it's hard to see Bristol headquarters trying to exercise much more control over them over one problematic story. However, what Grantland produces does reflect on ESPN as a whole even though the affiliation between the two is loose at best, so it wouldn't be surprising to see Grantland be more careful with sensitive stories in the future and work more closely with colleagues like Kahrl from the .com side when appropriate.

There's another interesting point that's been raised here: The New York Times' Jonathan Mahler makes a case that part of the problem is people doing longform pieces for the sake of longform, and he argues that the Dr. V's story's form was a big part of what went wrong with it:

When we fetishize “long-form,” we are fetishizing the form and losing sight of its function. That’s how a story with a troubled woman who commits suicide at its center gets told as a writer’s quixotic quest to learn everything he can about the maker of a golf club that he stumbled across during a late-night Internet search for tips for his short game. There’s a place for writers in their magazine stories, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with offering readers a glimpse into the reporting process. The trouble starts when the subject becomes secondary, and the writer becomes not just observer but participant, the hero of his story.

Mahler's conclusion is somewhat debatable, as there have been plenty of good pieces where writers are far from neutral observers, and the insight into a reporting process can be extremely valuable. (For example, I'd highly recommend SI's longform piece on Bison Dele, which was very much about the reporting journey of writer Chris Ballard, who arguably became exactly the kind of participant Mahler is criticizing.) However, Mahler's point is worthwhile; not every story needs to be told that way, and the decision to tell Vanderbilt's story as a long tale of Hannan's search for answers arguably trivialized her and her eventual suicide.

That's another worthwhile lesson for outlets to take from this: the form of a story matters as well as its content, and not everything needs to be told longform just because those stories are popular. When writing or publishing something on a difficult issue such as the Vanderbilt story, it's well worth asking not just "What story do we tell?", but "How do we tell it? What's the key point?" The Vanderbilt story isn't going to lead to the death of longform journalism or personal reporting narratives, nor should it, but it should cause writers and outlets to think a little more about how to handle difficult issues and how the form of stories can affect how they're received.

Andrew Bucholtz

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz is a staff writer for Awful Announcing. He also covers the CFL and other sports for Yahoo! Canada.

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