Friday Five — Empathy Edition

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Last week I posted about the Kellers, who decided to use a specific cancer patient’s use of social networking as hooks for their respective thought pieces. Both faced a huge backlash for singling out one person and treating her rather carelessly in their attempts to write about a broader trend.

This week brought another story with a similar backlash, and three of my five links pertain to it. Grantland published a long feature called “Dr. V’s Magical Putter: The remarkable story behind a mysterious inventor who built a ‘scientifically superior’ golf club.” The story begins as a review of a cool new putter that then turns into an investigation of the inventor and an exposé of her life. The reporter discovered that the inventor’s credentials were false and then found out that she was a transgender woman. Dr. V. committed suicide before the piece was published. This is mentioned in the essay, but the reporter’s potential role in her death was not addressed, so it came across as an irresponsible piece of “gotcha” journalism in which Dr. V’s trans identity was equated with professional fraud.

The writer and Grantland both faced a massive backlash for outing a trans woman to an investor, for then outing her to the public, and for general lack of empathy. Maria Dahvana Headley wrote an excellent blog post describing what went wrong in the reporter’s handling of “a hostile subject”: SINATRA’S COLD IS CONTAGIOUS: Hostile Subjects, Vulnerable Sources & The Ethics of Outing. Mostly she focuses on the importance of Subject vs. Story. Writers are often told that Story reigns supreme, but this is false. Stories have real consequences, and writers must treat their subjects with empathy and care.

The editor of Grantland wrote a long, reflective piece about what happened and what exactly went wrong in The Dr. V Story: A Letter From the Editor: How “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” came to be published. Essentially, none of the story’s editors or readers knew anything about the trans community and the problems they face, and no one made an effort to do basic research or to vet the article. This was a fundamental problem of privilege — those who had it didn’t see the potential effects of their actions on someone with far less privilege.

This week and last have highlighted how crucial it is to have empathy when writing. In fact, empathy leads to nuance, which makes for a better story. People aren’t all good or all bad. We all have faults and flaws and goodness, and that’s what’s interesting. Saying that a cancer patient tweets too much and should die with silent grace is far less interesting than trying to understand why she tweets and why someone else might prefer not to (besides the former being completely judgmental, and who’s the writer to say what’s appropriate?). So this is my call for greater empathy both in writing and in daily interactions.

And now to completely change the subject for my final links —

Romance writer Courtney Milan wrote an excellent post on print sales of historical romance, and she unpacks several issues that affect print sales, especially for minority writers. This is pure publishing biz geekery with real numbers. Good stuff. (via Gwenda Bond)

And the art kick-off for the weekend — old Media Lab friend Scott Eaton art directed a piece for the Olympic Games at Sochi that’s being called “a Mount Rushmore of the digital age.” Click through for some spectacular pictures.

Happy weekend!

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