Human rights journalist and Sidney Award alumna Mac McClelland stirred up considerable controversy with a personal essay in GOOD entitled “How Violent Sex Eased My PTSD.” Therein, she described how she and her ex-boyfriend negotiated a violent simulated rape scene on the advice of her therapist. She says this encounter helped her recover from the post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) she had acquired over the course of several gruelling assignments for Mother Jones, including two weeks spent covering sexual violence in Haiti.
In the course of explaining how she got PTSD, McClelland recalls witnessing a rape survivor (“Sybille”) dissolve into paroxysms of terror at the sight of one of her rapists. The eminent Haitian-born author Edwidge Danticat took McClelland to task on Essence.com for mentioning Sybille’s story in her GOOD essay after Sybille (a.k.a. “K”) had already requested that McClelland refrain from writing about her:
In her essay, Ms. McClelland writes that K*’s trauma led in part to her own breakdown. Nevertheless, during Ms. McClelland’s ride along with K*, on a visit to a doctor, Ms. McClelland, as has been reported elsewhere, live-tweeted K*’s horrific experiences. The tweets put K*’s life in danger because they identified the displacement camp where K* was living–with details of landmarks added–her specific injury, her real name, and suggest that she is a drug user. [LB: only the victim’s real first name was used.]
Blogger Jina Moore was shortlisted for a Mirror Award for her 2010 analysis of the journalistic ethics of live tweeting the original Mother Jones assignment. Moore argued that it was unethical for a journalist to appropriate a trauma victim’s story in this way.
Moore apparently wrote her original post before Sybille and her lawyer contacted Mother Jones to ask that McClelland not write about Sybille.
The details about who consented to what kind of coverage are murky. McClelland told her editors at Mother Jones that she had consent from both Sybille and her lawyer to cover the original ride to the hospital. Sybille’s American lawyer later claimed in a comment at Essence.com that she agreed to McClelland’s request over the phone, relayed by a colleague on the ground. There’s no indication from either the lawyer’s comment, or Mother Jones editors’ comment in the same thread, that these ground rules were ever put in writing. Under the chaotic circumstances, the potential for honest misunderstanding seems huge.
The lawyer writes that she thought that McClelland had agreed to speak with her before publishing anything about Sybille. The lawyer also says she had no idea that McClelland would be live tweeting the trip to the hospital. The Mother Jones editors explain that, in light of the apparent misunderstanding, they agreed to remove all references to Sybille in McClelland’s 6000-word feature, which ran in early 2011.
Mother Jones may not have been obligated to make these changes, but it was clearly the right thing to do under the circumstances. First, the ground rules were disputed. Second, it’s clear from the feature that women who speak out about rape in Haiti may be risking their lives.
Yet, for whatever reason, McClelland decided to discuss Sybille in her GOOD essay, which Mother Jones didn’t know about until after it was published. Unlike the live tweets, the GOOD essay didn’t disclose any details about Sybille (not her real first name) that seem likely to put her at additional risk. (Addendum: McClelland apologized to Sybille in the comments at Essence.com and took full responsibility for the decision to revisit the subject.)
Some critics are angry at McClelland for what they see as an appropriation of Sybille’s story. They argue that she is using the trauma of an unwilling subject as window dressing for her own psychosexual memoir. It seems to me that the major problem here was lack of editorial oversight for sensitive live tweets, not appropriation.
What concerns me is not so much that Mac told a story that “belonged” to someone else, but rather that she might have inadvertently put a victim’s life at risk in 2010 by tweeting identifying details about a crime victim, in real time, while the woman’s assailants remained at armed and at large. Common sense suggests that this is a terrible idea. It’s easy to say that in retrospect, but I can see how McClelland might have gotten caught up in the moment, especially if she thought she had permission from the victim and her lawyer.
Ethical journalists balance public’s need to know against potential harms to innocent people. In this case, there was no compelling need to know the these details of Sybille’s rape instantaneously. There is little journalistic value in covering an event like this in unfiltered 140-character bursts and considerable risk of harm. In fairness, twitter is a relatively new news medium and standards are still evolving.
There’s a long history of journalists phoning in field reports to rewrite artists back in the newsroom. If something can be tweeted, it can just as easily be privately relayed to an editor or reporting partner for writeup with oversight. Twitter is not the only option for fast-breaking coverage. There are any number of nearly instantaneous ways to publish reports from the field. After Sybille and her lawyer complained, Mother Jones editors had the luxury of time to weigh their options and make a reasoned decision.
The allure of twitter is that it’s instantaneous and unfiltered. That’s all very well for color commentary under controlled conditions, like press conferences and sporting events. Twitter’s great for talking about reporting, when explains why so many journalists love the medium. However, there are situations where you simply don’t want reporters blurting their immediate impressions directly into the public record. Reporters have editors for a reason. This painful episode shows why unedited tweets aren’t suitable for directly covering anything more serious or complicated than a parade.