3 Takeaways From Emma & Bill Kellers’ Recent Missteps

66g8uCriticism surrounding a profile of stage 4 breast cancer patient Lisa Bonchek Adams has been mounting since Guardian writer Emma Keller published a controversial piece Jan. 8, and her husband, New York Times columnist and former executive editor Bill Keller seemed to sympathize with her position in a follow-up.

Adams has been chronicling musings and insights about her illness, sometimes painfully honest, through her personal blog and Twitter for some time now. Keller’s story about Adams, in which she wonders aloud about the “ethics” of tweeting about an incurable, aggressive sickness, as well as Bill Keller’s column, are in poor taste. So much so that the Guardian has removed the original story and begun an “investigation.”

In thinking about this whole unfortunate debacle, I’d like to consider some potential lessons:

1. Just because you can editorialize doesn’t mean you should.

The Kellers are writers with rich platforms and ample opportunity to do good, honest journalism. They are both exceptional thinkers who are more than capable of asking the right questions about the right issues, and producing something of substance. But, the story of Lisa Adams is and should be, despite her very public struggle with cancer, off limits.

It seems to me that the Kellers failed to consider one of the most basic tenets of journalism ethics: to minimize harm. Let’s not forget simple doctrines like “be sensitive,” “show compassion” and “show good taste” — all sprung from the Golden Rule and the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics — one of the only absolutes in modern-day journalism.

To me, Bill Keller’s piece is more unsettling in nature and tone than his wife’s for a number of reasons, but that is each individual’s judgment call. Without a doubt, I believe the Kellers thought they were doing raising good questions, but they lacked empathy, tact and fairness in their delivery.

NPR’s Linda Holmes wrote a fantastic analysis about this whole situation that I encourage you to read. In my mind, we should always be fair when writing about anyone — no matter whether their Twitter feed is public, or if they are a criminal, or if they are being bullied by a horrific type of cancer. “What if I inserted my name in the place of Lisa Adams?” we might have asked.

Ideally, we are human beings first and journalists second. Perhaps this is where the Kellers blundered. 

2. Always notify your source whenever you use private messages.

Guardian readers editor Chris Elliott wrote in an explanation of the paper’s removal of the original story that Keller “quoted [Adams] from a private [Twitter] direct message to Keller” and “published [her quotes] without permission.”

Additionally, Keller had to apologize for not warning Adams that she was writing about her at all.

Don’t make yourself have to deliver these apologies. Ask for explicit permission to quote from Twitter DMs and email exchanges.

3. Quadruple check the facts. And then check them again.

It certainly didn’t help Bill Keller’s case that, after receiving scathing reader feedback about the tastelessness and poor vernacular of his column, he incorrectly reported the number of children Adams has, leading to an official NYT correction. It’s unfortunate that he made such sweeping statements about Adams’ decision to cope with her illness publicly, her dignity and motivations but mostly, that he failed to get a simple detail correct.

Let’s use this horror story as motivation for getting things right the first time.

What lessons do you take away from the Keller/Adams situation? 


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