MuckrakerThe Muckraker

The real problem with Caleb Hannan’s story is that shitty journalism has a ripple effect

You may have seen me ranting on Twitter over the weekend about a hateful piece of journalism from reporter Caleb Hannan. Josh Levin over at Slate sums it up:


“If you haven’t read Hannan’s story yet, you should—I’ll be here when you’re done. In brief, the writer discovered that “Dr. V” was a con artist. She lied about her educational and professional credentials to Hannan and to a man who gave her $60,000—cash that investor never saw again. In the course of his reporting, Hannan also learned that Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt “was born a boy.”

Hannan eventually sent Dr. V “an email trying to confirm what I had discovered.” The inventor got very angry, tried to get Hannan to sign a nondisclosure agreement, and wrote him a note saying that “his deportment is reminiscent to schoolyard bullies.” Not long after that, Hannan writes, he got a phone call informing him that Dr. V had committed suicide.”


The Twittersphere is exploding with reactions to the piece. Some think Hannan did what reporters are supposed to do: expose the truth, no matter how uncomfortable it is. Others take issue with how Hannan seems to suggest that “Dr V” being a con artist and being a trans woman are directly related. They argue he made her status as a transgender woman the subject of the story, as if it was something dirty or shameful.

I have to agree with the latter camp. Read More

Previous Posts

  • A journalism qualification will probably not get you a job. It may help you make a living.


    When I sit down to write a blog post, I try to make it informative. Sometimes, it’s just an update on the book, but I always try to give something back.

    I’m afraid this is not one of those posts. It’s 1.33am and I am stressed out.

    I spent most of the holidays filling out funding applications and preparing a crowdfunding campaign. I also started writing a brief for an illustrator friend who is doing the artwork for my book. Next up, I have to file my tax return and sort out my budget/costs for the year: £500 for that flight to meet Source X, £X to live and eat, etc.

    When I started in journalism, I had no idea I’d end up like this: self-employed and hustling for the funds to do each story. My plan was for a life of stability: graduate from university, get a newsroom job, mortgage and live happily ever after.

    That’s not how it turned out. 25% of my time each week is spent filling applications for funding and toying with crazy ideas. Sometimes, it’s fun. Coming up with crazy ideas always is.

    Other times, however, it’s really hard. In fact, most of the time, it’s hard. It’s not what I imagined it would be. In some ways, it’s better; in others, worse. Such is life.

    I tweeted recently that I wished my younger self had known that the future of journalism was Read More

  • A book’s progress: The fight for investigative journalism and plans for 2014

    Every few weeks, I post an update on my book project – a story about the last weeks and murder of Reverend Robert Bradford, a Northern Irish politician killed in November 1981. Given that it’s New Year’s Eve and a time for making resolutions, I’m also going to look back over the last year and talk about my plans for next year.


    After a pretty rough 2011-12, 2013 was a great year for me, personally and professionally. I was shortlisted for a journalism fellowship at Stanford University in California (I didn’t make the final cut but  given my humble roots and that I dropped out of university the first time, being shortlisted felt like a huge achievement), passed the first year of my Masters degree and made great progress with my book.

    2014 is going to be an even bigger year. While I feel proud of what I achieved in 2013, I also feel like I didn’t take enough risks. There’s so much I want to do and I haven’t done it because I’m afraid. It’s easier to talk about doing things rather than making them happen but life is too short. So this year will be about jumping off the cliff and building wings on the way down.

    So I’ve got big plans for 2014.  Read More

  • Two takeaways from Robert Miraldi’s new book on Seymour Hersh, Scoop Artist

    “So if you’re broke, struggling and wondering if it’s all worth it, just think: Sy Hersh was in your position once too.”


    Over the holidays, I decided to treat myself and bought Robert Miraldi’s new biography of Seymour ‘Sy’ Hersh, Scoop Artist.

    Hersh is one of North America’s best investigative reporters. Best known for his exposure of the My Lai massacre in 1969, he now contributes regularly to The New Yorker and has been described by the Republican party as the “closest thing American journalism has to a terrorist.” Read More

  • Making a living as an investigative reporter in the digital age

    “There is no red-tile-roof house on the Aegean where famous writers all go to work in relative leisure. There might be 20 jobs now where you’re set for life, but the rest of us will be hustling forever.”


    Alexis Madrigal, Senior Editor, The Atlantic – “Follow your curiosity.Read More

  • Reporters, we need to rethink the concept of “beats”

    “ Journalists don’t have regular or traditional beats, they have “obsessions”. His, for example, include the Euro currency crisis and Bitcoin. It means he can really go in deep on these subjects, because he isn’t also required to file a 400 word report every day on the movement of the Belgian stock market just because it is part of the beat. Leo said later on that one of the great things about Quartz’s connected but distributed workforce is that they work things up together. “If I think something is interesting,” he observed, “the rest of the team help me make it interesting for ‘normal people’” who aren’t necessarily quite as obsessed. ”


    “Anyone referring to journalism as ‘a product’ should be shot” – Quartz’s Leo Mirani & Jason Karaian at #HHLdn (via Paul Bradshaw and Martin Belam.)


    The passage above really struck me. Firstly, it outlines the problem with journalists having “beats”, as defined currently in ‘old media’ newsrooms: they’re way too broad. They require reporters to constantly file copy on the latest developments, instead of letting them delve deep into a story. Read More

  • How freelance reporters are bypassing newspapers and going straight to the reader

    When I talk to older journalists (older being over the age of 30), they ask me the same question: who do you write for?

    It’s an awkward question. If it was 2009, I’d tell them I’d been published in (or had pieces broadcast on) the Belfast Telegraph, Private Eye, BBC, Sky News – a dozen or so news outlets that regularly took my work back then.

    In 2013, the answer is: none.

    I’m part of a new generation of “digital native” journalists who sell their work directly to readers, bypassing traditional news outlets like newspapers and broadcasters. Increasingly, reporters are using services like Beacon, Kickstarter and Woopie to raise funds directly from their readers and publish their work. Read More

  • Survivors: Why did the government remove funding from NI’s only Rape Crisis Centre?

    Note: This story was published in The Muckraker Report – a short-lived, experimental magazine I created – in August 2013. In 2009, a brief, 50-word piece was published in Private Eye magazine. They were the only publication willing to publish it. Despite having a paper trail of evidence to back my claims up, I could not persuade newspaper editors in Northern Ireland to do the same. The full story has never been told.

    During one interview, one of the Rape Crisis Centre’s staff told me she wanted to clear her name. Her wish is that when her great-granddaughter Googles her name, she won’t read “those news reports” and think her great grandmother did something wrong.

    When I first came across this story – five years ago – and saw the injustices the Centre had suffered at the hands of Northern Ireland’s government, I promised them I would do my best to reveal the truth and get their funding back. Such is the folly of youth. Unfortunately, I learned that journalism doesn’t always change the world. The least I can do is deliver one wish for them: clearing their names. I hope readers who paid for the magazine understand why I’ve made it available for free.

    Parts of the story have been updated to reflect new developments. 

    Read More

  • Matter had over 10K paying readers but paywall wasn’t right model, says co-founder


    In 2012, tech journalists Bobbie Johnson and Jim Giles raised over $140,000 on crowdfunding site Kickstarter for their new publication, Matter. The idea was simple: a digital publishing house that produced in-depth, investigative stories about science and technology (think Kindle Singles and you have an idea of what Matter stories look like). Their business model – charging readers 99¢ per story – was deemed revolutionary in an age where content is given away for free and paywalls are sneered at. Since then, they’ve been acquired - and recently announced that they’re dropping the paywall. Read More

  • Mosaic theory: Using public documents to break the next Watergate

    There’s a really interesting tidbit in this Mother Jones profile of Ryan Shaprio, an MIT PHD student and the FBI’s “most prolific” Freedom of Information Act requester”:


    “In the course of his doctoral work, which examines how the FBI monitors and investigates protesters, Shapiro has developed a novel, legal, and highly effective approach to mining the agency’s records. Which is why the government is petitioning the United States District Court in Washington, DC, to prevent the release of 350,000 pages of documents he’s after.

    Invoking a legal strategy that had its heyday during the Bush administration, the FBI claims that Shapiro’s multitudinous requests, taken together, constitute a “mosaic” of information whose release could “significantly and irreparably damage national security” and would have “significant deleterious effects” on the bureau’s “ongoing efforts to investigate and combat domestic terrorism.”

    So-called mosaic theory has been used in the past to stop the release of specific documents, but it has never been applied so broadly. “It’s designed to be retrospective,” explains Kel McClanahan, a DC-based lawyer who specializes in national security and FOIA law. “You can’t say, ‘What information, if combined with future information, could paint a mosaic?’ because that would include all information!”


    One argument I’ve heard over the years is that using public records laws like the FOIA “isn’t journalism.” Critics argue it’s the equivalent of asking for the “smoking gun” and having it handed over, no questions ask. It isn’t, they claim, “real investigative journalism”.

    That’s not true – and mosaic theory proves it.

    Using public records laws to get information is an attempt Read More