Outing Identity Leads To Lethal Consequences

Essay Anne Vanderbilt, scientist and aerospace designer of the Yar Golf putter, was found dead in her home in Gilbert. Cause of death: Suicide.

Vanderbilt’s revolutionary club, dubbed the Oracle GXI, was said to change the nature of the game entirely.

But when Caleb Hannan wrote an article about Vanderbilt’s innovation, a different lead caught his eye.

http://grantland.com/features/a-mysterious-physicist-golf-club-dr-v/

Despite’s Vanderbilt’s pleas to focus the story on “the science, not the scientist,” Hannan’s story quickly evolved into an investigation of her past life as a man and her transformation into a woman. He claimed it was the strangest story he’s ever worked on.

The Gilbert designer’s former girlfriend and business partner, Gerri Jordan, who found Vanderbilt’s body, blamed Hannan’s prying investigation and questionable ethics into her personal life for accelerating the decision to take her life. She would have eventually gone through with it, claimed Jordan, but the article triggered the timing.

http://www.azcentral.com/community/gilbert/articles/20140124gilbert-golf-inventor-suicide-website-essay-anne-vanderbilt.html

Hannan’s supporters criticize Vanderbilt for her dishonesty about her life and credentials; the journalist’s decision to out those lies was his obligation. Vanderbilt claimed to have degrees from MIT and Pennsylvania State as a physicist, as well as experience on projects for the military — credentials which could not be corroborated. Detractors point out that his decision to reveal her as a transgender woman was insensitive, cruel and needless in the context of the story.

http://deadspin.com/how-grantland-screwed-up-the-story-of-essay-anne-vander-1505368906

His Twitter, in particular, is rife with comments calling him out on transphobia and tactless observations.

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Whatever the case, the language Hannan chose to use in his article dehumanizes Vanderbilt, demoting her to a caricature. Public relations is about cultivating healthy and thriving relationship with others, understanding their backgrounds and empathizing with them. The transgender community faces marginalization and degradation on a daily basis. His article failed to minimize harm to his subject and to a stigmatized population.

Should Hannan have been more tactful in his approach to investigating Vanderbilt’s background? What does the content of his article suggest for readers’ understanding of the transgender community? Do you think he should have avoided the matter? Should the article have appeared at all?

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3 Responses to Outing Identity Leads To Lethal Consequences

  1. Brett Nachman says:

    Interesting piece, Zander. Ironically, my classmates and I were recently discussing this story, because the author made multiple ethical errors when composing this story. For one, the author’s level of transphobia — or more appropriately, unfamiliarity with the content — speaks to how he approached the piece. It was certainly ignorant of him to use certain terms that may not speak to the culture of the community. Furthermore, I am among those who would argue that her sexuality has no relevance in the context of the story’s essence. Had this topic been a major attribute of Vanderbilt’s deceit and lies, that would be one thing. Yet, it just proved to be another facet of her life that was unnecessarily exploited. Of course, we cannot overlook the fact that Vanderbilt committed many unethical actions herself. She deceived individuals about her background and abilities. That is nothing to laud by any means. But Hannan should have evaluated this attribute of Vanderbilt in the story’s overall framework. Hannan was aware of Vanderbilt’s vulnerabilities. As a journalist, he has an obligation to minimize harm. His unfortunate action to publish that additional unnecessary detail, which Vanderbilt kept private to many individuals, could have expedited her untimely passing. This topic will likely continue to inspire many heated conversations, as our heightened awareness of transphobia has led to further debate of how these issues should be addressed. In this case, though, perhaps Vanderbilt’s previous life as a man should have remained in the past, as it had few or no implications on the content or context of Hannan’s controversial piece.

  2. Jacqueline Maxwell says:

    I think that Hannan should have avoided the topic of Vanderbilt’s background entirely. Her past had nothing to do with what he originally intended to write about — her invention of this particular golf club. Once he decided to go that route, it quickly turned into a bad ethical situation that is similar to what Cronkite students learn about in the journalism ethics class. It did more harm than good for him to mention a topic that was potentially harmful to Vanderbilt.

  3. Cristina Peralta says:

    This was a particularly interesting story because the intentions behind Hannan’s reporting were questionable. As a seasoned journalist, the subject’s transgender background should’ve had nothing to do with the story to begin with. I agree that Hannan should’ve executed a more careful approach and more importantly, re-examine his ability to think ethically. If he had wanted to cover the topic of Vanderbilt’s transgender process, it would have been the right thing to consult with Vanderbilt first and come up with a different angle that avoids a dehumanizing tone. After reading Hannan’s article, I think the tone is aggressive and demeaning in its nature because it paints a false picture of Vanderbilt — there is a lack of respect and understanding for that community. Instead, the story makes Hannan appear to be more ignorant and unprofessional than anything.

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