The Guardian took down an unpopular column, raising questions about journalistic ethics.
The Guardian followed up a bad column with a bad face-saving move, and what is left is a mess.
First some context: writer Lisa Bonchek Adams has stage IV breast cancer. She writes and tweets about it seemingly all the time. A quick look at her Twitter feed at the time of writing shows 12 tweets and a few retweets in the last hour. Many of her blog posts and tweets describe the agonies of going through cancer treatment. Adams shares often, and she doesn’t hold back.
Hard chat with radiation oncologists, gearing up for what will be the hardest few days of side effects. Definitely takes mental prep. #sigh— Lisa Bonchek Adams (@AdamsLisa) January 13, 2014
Enter Emma Gilbey Keller, a writer and show host for The Guardian. Keller penned a recent column titled Forget funeral selfies. What are the ethics of tweeting a terminal illness? Keller’s piece was actually one half of a double whammy with her husband, New York Times columnist Bill Keller.
The article, which has been removed (more on that soon), describes Keller getting hooked on Adams’ struggles, but with a lingering question: how much agonizing cancer talk is TMI?
Once posted, there was a huge backlash against Keller, and from her column, it’s not hard to see why (emphasis mine):
“It’s clear that tweeting as compulsively as Lisa Adams does is an attempt to exercise some kind of control over her experience. She doesn’t deny that. She sees herself as an educator, giving voice to what so many people go through. And she is trying to create her own boundaries, flimsy as they might be. She’ll tell you all about her pain, for example, but precious little about her children or husband and what they are going through.... She was enraged a few days ago when a couple of people turned up to visit her unannounced. She’s living out loud online, but she wants her privacy in real life.”
What Keller fails to answer is what exactly she takes issue with about that. If someone is very public on the internet, that doesn’t give anyone license to assume she is equally open with face to face contact. Yes, we live in a time when we can broadcast our every sneeze, but why does that change the norms around who shows up at your hospital bed, and when? And yes, hearing about someone else’s struggles can be painful, but it’s not like Adams is coming to Keller’s door and making her listen. That would be an invasion. Tweeting is not.
And then there’s the Guardian. The Guardian published Keller’s column. Whatever their editorial process is, by publishing it, they tacitly declare that the column meets the standards of the Guardian. But now Keller’s column has been taken down, and it is clear that the Guardian did not know what to do about the huge backlash against Keller’s column. So they pulled the plug.
The Guardian explained first that the column was “inconsistent with the Guardian editorial code,” and then changed that to “This post has been removed pending investigation.”
Given that the column did not make any controversial claims about factual events or anything else that could be refuted, the Guardian’s explanations are media-speak for: “One of our writers wrote something insensitive, people got angry, and we thought this was the fastest way to end this ordeal.”
The New York Times has not pulled Bill Keller’s column, even though it has absorbed at least as much vitriol. The Guardian needs to take a basic level of ownership over what it publishes.