After the CFO of a media company was publicly outed as being gay (or bisexual) last week, I watched as “media Twitter” erupted in debate about the ethics of outing.
Now, I’ve written about this topic several times before. The first was in January 2014, after a Grantland published an article written by a freelancer named Caleb Hannan about Essay Anne Vanderbilt, a transgender woman and golf club inventor.
For those not familiar with Vanderbilt’s story, she agreed to be profiled by Hannan under the condition that the article focused on “the science, not the scientist.” That is, she wasn’t interested in becoming the subject of an article. During his reporting, Hannan came to discover that Vanderbilt was transgender (she was only out to a relative few), something he eventually included as the climax to his long-read story.
Vanderbilt died by suicide before the article was published. There’s no way to know how much a role Hannan’s reporting had in that outcome, but there’s one thing that should be obvious to all who read it: outing people can have dangerous, unintended consequences. You can read more about that in my Jan. 24, 2014, editorial over at The Advocate.
I’ve also touched on some of the intra-LGBT outing that seems to happen without much thought of potential consequences. At Slate, I wrote about how strange it was to see Apple CEO Tim Cook’s name on numerous lists about LGBT business leaders. Earlier this year, also at Slate, I expressed my disappointment with the media’s unwillingness to let Caitlyn Jenner come out at her own pace (this was a couple months prior to her Diane Sawyer interview). And while many may look back at that time and feel vindicated (after all, she eventually did come out as trans), the video in the lead-up to her accepting the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at this month’s ESPY Awards offered a sobering statement about how the public’s speculation led her to consider shooting herself.
So, we know where I stand on the topic of whether or not it’s okay to out someone without their consent for the sake of journalism: It’s not.
But there’s another issue that gets tossed around as a sort of justification for “outing” pieces: hey, if it’s the truth, isn’t that good enough?
In fact, that was Gawker co-founder Nick Denton’s take on the Essay Anne Vanderbilt story, suggesting that a Jezebel writer who didn’t agree with Grantland’s take “may be working in the wrong place,” as he considers himself a “truth absolutionist.”
— Keenan (@jktrotter) July 20, 2015
As a concept, “absolute truth” is a topic best left for that philosophy class you half-slept through in college. “Absolute truth” is not something found in an 800 word blog post. “Absolute truth” is absent from any piece of writing. Journalists (and all of humanity, really) have to pick and choose what truths to include in any published work, and the omission of a single piece of truth makes it no longer absolute.
Hunter S. Thompson once had this to say about that concept.
“If I’d written all the truth I knew for the past ten years, about 600 people — including me — would be rotting in prison cells from Rio to Seattle today. Absolute truth is a very rare and dangerous commodity in the context of professional journalism.”
Truth is no more absolute than the opinion of the person recording it. And beyond that, even if something were “absolute truth,” why does that mean that it must be published? While the phrase, “It’s about ethics in journalism” has been horribly misused by certain groups in recent months, this is one of those situations where that’s exactly what it’s about.
— Parker Molloy (@ParkerMolloy) July 18, 2015
Right there in the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, clear as day, are reasons not to publish something simply because it may or may not be true. “Don’t pander to lurid curiosity” is a simple request. As is “balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.”
Now, does any of this mean to suggest that all stories must be happy? Of course not. Again, framing journalism as either absolute truth or fluff is a gross oversimplification of the world. There are sad stories. There are stories that will make you angry. There are uncomfortable stories. But journalism should not be a firehose. Journalism should not be a weapon.
Image via Karl Frankowski/Flickr.