Photo illustration of Gawker homepage of 07/17/2015
(UPDATED July 17, 2015 at 3:40 p.m. EDT)
Gawker published a post yesterday suggesting the website Reddit is ignorant to the harassment and abuse that occurs within its walls.
The news and gossip site then published a post that alleges a relatively unknown married man paid a male escort for sex.
Basically, the post says the married brother of Timothy Geithner, former secretary of the U.S. Department of Treasury, contacted an unnamed escort. The man arranged to meet the escort in Chicago, but the rendezvous ultimately never occurred.
The post prompted immediate backlash toward Gawker, its editorial leadership and the post’s author. I sent tweets to both Gawker and the post’s author Jordan Sargent.
I received a few tweets and messages from people who said they shared my outrage, but they also asked why I’d expect Gawker to follow basic journalism standards anyway.
If Gawker acts like a journalism organization, walks like a journalism organization, talks like a journalism organization, it better try and follow some of journalism’s basic standards.
Earlier in the day, the website published posts about the mass shooting on a military base in Tennessee, the Islamic State and the case of the mass shooting in a Colorado movie theater. Gawker is clearly acting as a source for news produced by professional writers.
Granted, Gawker is not a shining example of journalism integrity, but people go to it and similar websites to get information presented in quick, entertaining and often smart methods.
My biggest problem with the post – other than it being in poor taste, is that it appears no thought was spared to consider the potential damage this post would bring upon the married man, his wife and children. Also, other than having a prominent brother and – what I’m assuming is – a well-paying job, the married man has little relevancy outside of his family and profession.
Under the tenet of minimize harm, the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists says journalists should “realize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than public figures and others who seek power, influence or attention.”
What’s more, the Code says journalists should, “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.”
Why did anyone need to read a post based on the word of an unnamed person that a private individual allegedly tried to arrange a meeting? None. What’s more, it likely caused significant harm and turmoil in several people’s lives.
As for the escort remaining anonymous, the Code says journalists should identify sources clearly, because the “public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources.”
The Code goes on to say that journalists should “consider sources’ motives before promising anonymity.” They should also, “reserve anonymity for sources who may face danger, retribution or other harm, and have information that cannot be obtained elsewhere. Explain why anonymity was granted.”
In this case, the post says the male escort “does not want to reveal his identity for professional reasons.” My question to the post’s author is why did Gawker agree to protect the identity of someone who admitted to blackmailing a person, and then turn around and publish a hit piece with no regard for the subject’s life or the lives of his family?
When the initial backlash began, a Twitter account allegedly belonging to Max Read, Gawker’s editor-in-chief, showed no remorse for the post.
Several people responded to his tweet with what I consider to be an appropriate response: Why?
While the damage is likely already done, I hope Gawker’s leadership and the author of the post will apologize.
Until then, shame on you, Gawker.
UPDATE – July 17 at 3:40 p.m. EDT
In a post published this afternoon, Gawker founder Nick Denton said the original story has been pulled from the website. While Denton acknowledges the post likely led to embarrassment for the subject, he did not apologize for the website causing that harm.
This action will not turn back the clock. David Geithner’s embarrassment will not be eased. But this decision will establish a clear standard for future stories. It is not enough for them simply to be true. They have to reveal something meaningful. They have to be true and interesting. These texts were interesting, but not enough, in my view.