There was a recent controversy on the net about a GrantLand reporter, a golf putter, an inventor, and a suicide. A lot was said about it, but what have we learned? If the subject of your piece says they’ll commit suicide if you don’t stop, what do you do? I’ve been there — had a subject say he would kill himself if I didn’t stop, and I decided to stop. Here was my thought process.
1. Is the guy bluffing? Probably. My judgement call.
2. What if he’s not bluffing, I run the story, and he kills himself?
3. It would ruin my life. I’d never get over it.
4. Don’t run the piece.
How do I feel about it now? I don’t even remember what it was about. But I never forgot the moment reading the email that threatened suicide. Too heavy for me. I’m out of here.
Now, I’m not a real reporter, I’m a blogger. I can do my job, developing software, without having to deal with this issue. But reporters write stories every day that may indirectly or even directly lead to deaths, and we don’t call them out for it. It’s one of the costs of doing business for reporters. I can think of lots of examples — reporting on terrorism or war, drug research, or even traffic safety. What about the early stories about AIDS? The lead up to war in Iraq? See an earlier piece from today about the extinction of species. If your writing covers an environmental calamity as it’s happening you might be involved in the death of millions of people.
Should we stop reporting? Obviously not. This is a complicated issue. It can’t be simplified, it’s really hard for me to see it in black and white, evil and good, savvy or clueless. Sometimes you get away with it, and other times the shit hits the fan.
One of the common beliefs of entrepreneurship is that if you never take a risk you can never be great. This is true of everything — also reporting. If a story has a terrible outcome, does that mean you shouldn’t run it? Wow, that’s actually impossible to say.