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Getting Too Personal for Facts

by on February 6, 2014

Journalism can be a very powerful tool. It can influence the lives of so many people, while bringing real life stories of what’s happening in the world right to our iphones. But as proven by the National Enquirer it can also be hurtful, revealing and can cause great pain to the people involved in the story.

 So as journalists writing in service to the public, when should we stop digging into other people’s personal lives for the benefit of the story?

 The example I’m writing about is an article that came out on January 24, 2014 on a wordpress site titled, grantland.com. The article, called Dr. V’s Magical Putter, written by Caleb Hannan a freelance writer with contribution articles for the Bloomberg Businessweek and The Village Voice. Dr. V’s Magical Putter is written in a long-form narrative, which means it was 7,000 words or more.

 Caleb is a regular contributor to grantland.com; writing sports stories for the site for a couple of years. His last article was the magic putter article that resulted in the suicide of his transgender source and central character Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt, a physicist working to design a better golf putter.

 Caleb retells his experiences with Dr. Vanderbilt, going into detail how he came across her and how his curiosity to find out more about Dr. Vanderbilt’s past lead to her suicide.

 Originally the article starts out focusing on the new putter before focusing more on Dr. Vanderbilt and Caleb’s interactions with her.

 She clearly states to Caleb when he first contacted her by email that she’ll reveal certain information, protecting information she doesn’t want public. Bringing up the freedom of information act to further her point. Even her collogues advised Caleb to focus on “the science and not the scientist.”

 Caleb should have respected Dr. Vanderbilt’s wishes and focus more on the putter, but instead he thought the story would read better if it were about the clandestine Dr. Vanderbilt.

In reaction to this article, contributing writer for the New York Times Op-Ed section Jonathan Mahler wrote When Long-Form’ Is Bad Form. And in reaction to Mahler’s article a Letter to the Editor was published recently on February 5, 2014 criticizing Mahler’s article.

So in reaction to the article and the criticisms written about it. Should Caleb focus on Dr. Vanderbilt’s past life or focus more on the work she was doing to make a better putter? And is it right to probe other peoples lives for the benefit of a story?

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