Home / View Point / Guest Columns / “[An] obzocky boulder in dirty water!” Dr Rampersad explains how Guardian got Ahye story wrong

“[An] obzocky boulder in dirty water!” Dr Rampersad explains how Guardian got Ahye story wrong

The Guardian didn’t do a shitty thing; they did a shitty job.

Fleeing from journalistic intelligence, skill and artfulness, they saw the kernel of a legitimate news story, wrapped it in cultural conformity and late afternoon testosterone, then dropped that obzocky boulder into dirty water. The splatter soiled; the shame spread.

Photo: A pensive Trinidad and Tobago sprinter Michelle-Lee Ahye has a  look at her 100m gold medal at the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
(Copyright AFP 2018/Wired868)

The intense blow-back was satisfying. News media serve the public interest so when the public says we happy or we vex, well, that’s the damn thing self, I uh-hummed. But estimable media ally Dr Emir Crowne wrote the words “no countervailing journalistic purpose,” and the deep love I have for this vocation—in good times and bad—chook me.

At the core of the Guardian fail was a valid news story: Michelle-Lee Ahye not only won us gold on the Gold Coast but did so with near-perfect execution. She ran the race of her career on the same day Justice Devindra Rampersad upended the golden-apple cart.

In the thick, hateful backlash, people were evicted, spat upon, verbally and physically abused, threatened with violence. With Ahye fresh on the mind, someone outed her by circulating a photo of her with her significant other. Another aspect of ugly attacks on LGBT people; now they outing them with the intention to shame, diminish their selfhood and national contribution, and draw a bullseye on their backs.

That’s a story there.

Photo: A protest by Christians against the repeal of buggery laws in Trinidad.
(Copyright Joe My God)

Ahye’s painstaking preparation for her races, however, was not replicated by the reporter. His execution was previous and indolent. To write a story about rain, one has to determine whether readers know it is raining. If they do not, the writer has to prove the existence of rain.

The story lacked that vital element: proof of leak (private Instagram setting is inadequate), smear as motivation for presumed leak and evidence of the smearing itself. Basic journalistic industry would have removed the antitheses betrayed in “an apparent” and “apparently.”

Alternatively, track developments over a couple days, allowing public time to feel the wetting for themselves.

Inside that lazy bit of reporting was an attempt at sensitivity placed in a question to Ahye’s manager: do you think malice aforethought motivated release of photos? The manager waffled. She is speaking on behalf of a gold medallist on a topic she perhaps never spoke of before, plus is a reporter on the other end. Sweat!

The journalist’s sensitivity was unequally distributed. There’s a reason media does not ordinarily cover divorce cases, even those involving public figures. That eh the public business!

Photo: Commonwealth Games 100m champion Michelle-Lee Ahye (right) is the target of world attention after snatching the title on the Carrara Stadium track on 9 April, 2018.
(Copyright Allan V Crane/CA-Images/Wired868)

Public figures are fair game most times but not their families and friends. So how is Ahye’s partner part of this story again? How she reach inside this boom bye bye blocko?

Any editor reading that story should have known to casually guide the reporter to fill out the parts, link the items, remove the story’s self-doubt and its irrelevant facts. Easy call: suppress her gf, push harder at the reprisal angle.

That done, time for contemplation. How do we represent this story, bai? Things out there thick like bad gravy and remember we didn’t use the girl on the front page when she win de medal. Okay, lewwe use that winning photograph with this story: it will set up the contrast nicely.

Instead, instincts clashed. The story wanting to go one way, the presentation of the story decidedly heading in another: we have photos, man; use them! Crop the gf? Nah, man. She smoking!

The editor always wins.

The country loses. This time.

Ahye flies two flags in one monumental cultural moment.

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago sprinter Michelle Lee-Ahye (right) represents her country at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
(Courtesy Allan V Crane/Wired868)

PS: Training is always helpful; but basic duty of care on the job is often sufficient to avoid reputational damage.

About Sheila Rampersad

Sheila Rampersad
Dr Sheila Rampersad is a member of the current MATT executive and the Women Working for Social Progress. She is a veteran columnist.

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53 comments

  1. D Guardian apologise.d out Michelle Lee because she did not run in d relays.guess d thinking was Tnt vex with she so now is ah good time to buss she files.

  2. I’d also like to add that I don’t agree with the suggestion that the reader is always right. Many people don’t understand the concept of “news” and how journalists choose what to write. People also tend to pay lip service to certain ideas that sound virtuous but they read and share the sensational stories. That’s why tabloids and tabloid-like journalism are the most successful.

  3. Ever get the feeling that all these things are distractions to escape what may be coming down the drain for rats ?

  4. Ahye needs to be asked about this is in a thoughtful manner. My concern is that the harsh reaction to the Guardian story means no one would again attempt to touch the issue. Other media houses are already reporting on the controversy and leaving out the key part of the controversy! I hope Lasana is not going to shy away from it.

  5. I don’t agree with “suppressing the girlfriend”. Definitely not. We don’t “suppress the girlfriend” when it’s a male athlete. Why do so now? https://www.google.tt/search?q=usain+bolt+girlfriend&rlz=1CALEAD_enTT675TT675&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiWwJr8_8TaAhXlwVkKHe0gAwcQ_AUICigB&biw=911&bih=436. Why send the message that there’s something sordid about a gay relationship? Also, apparently the woman in question is Ahye’s wife, not her girlfriend. They share a last name. This should have been clarified in the story. That’s a vital detail that would make the story even more relevant in light of the debate about gay marriage.

    • Because she referred to herself as Mrs Ahye on Twitter doesn’t mean they are married. We simply don’t know for sure.

    • And they are specific types of publications that specialize in publishing details of the boyfriend and girlfriend. They are called tabloids.
      Who is Jereem Richard’s girlfriend? Who was Hasely Crawford’s girlfriend at the time?
      It is absolutely not a standard in Sport to focus on the athlete’s partner.

    • Lasana Liburd I’m pretty certain I’ve seen popular athletes and their girlfriends in the local papers before.

    • Erline in 20-plus years, I’ve never been asked to do a story on or involving the partner of an athlete. The only exception being something extraordinary like when then national captain Jan-Michael Williams’ fiancée was assaulted in a robbery and left in a coma.
      Other than that the only mention of a girlfriend would be something genuinely interesting like the women’s football captain Tasha St Louis being married to the captain of Pro League football club, Caledonia AIA Kareem Joseph.
      Now there are times that athletes make their partners stories intentionally. Brent Sancho proposed to his then girlfriend during a tv interview during the 2006 World Cup. Or Cordell Cato walked out of a team camp because his wife couldn’t stay with him.
      Argentina football star Sergio Aguero was married to Diego Maradona’s daughter. Serena Williams’ husband is the co founder of Reddit. These are all very different stories to this.
      The only papers I know that trouble themselves with wives and girlfriends of athletes generally are tabloids.

    • Well based on my observation of local newspapers they do often operate like tabloids in their picture selections and headline selections. While there’s much to criticize about how the Guardian story was written I think focusing on that misses the point. From what people have said about this story and the story the Guardian did about Paula Mae Weekes, most people think sexual orientation shouldn’t be the focus of a story ever. Blurring Ahye’s wife or cropping her out would not have changed the reaction. People think you shouldn’t be writing about this in any way, shape or form. I don’t agree, but it seems you do.

    • Confession: Yes the story could have been done better. I think that about almost everything I read in the local press. But I loved that the Guardian published that story and those photos. In particular I loved the photos. I liked that they asked Paula Mae Weekes if she was gay too. It all makes people uncomfortable and I like that, because there’s still this feeling even among those who sympathize with the struggles of gay people that being gay is something to be hidden and not talked about openly.

    • Lasana Liburd “generally tabloids” aka Guardian? ?

    • Erline I think people should choose themselves when they want to reveal their private lives, once it is irrelevant to their day jobs.
      And ironically both stories made the sexual orientation of the people in question the main theme. And that’s not fair to either. Paula actually denied that she was lesbian while Michelle said her private life is private and didn’t want to comment.
      So you’re saying you think the paper was right to go ahead anyway?

    • In the case of Paula I think broaching the subject of what people were saying about her as an unmarried woman of her age was appropriate. As a woman in a similar position I know what people say about you. But like with the Ahye story, they then handled Paula’s story in an over the top sensationalized way. Big headline: “I am not a lesbian!” My bottom line feeling though about both stories is that I’d rather see sexual orientation addressed in a hamfisted way by a newspaper than not addressed at all. It’s not like there wasn’t widespread talk anyway about the sexual orientation of both women. Why should a newspaper pretend to be blind to that?

    • We should be careful about which people we are pandering to and the conversations we are trying to start.
      Suppose some people on Facebook start calling a minister a paedophile. So that justifies asking the minister if he is a paedo and making it the focus of a story? Or would you first look at the accusations, the accusers and the supposed weight of evidence and consider if it is something worth exploring on your own publication?
      We have to find a consistent ideology to these things. Don’t tell me that you saw “some people” (God knows how few) calling the president-elect a lesbian and suddenly you think that makes it a burning question and the most pressing thing from your interview with the country’s first female president.

    • You’re right in everything you say. During the 2008 presidential election, Obama’s opponents were spreading very detailed rumors that he was gay. They had a named lover, rendezvous, everything. There was no real justification for asking Obama about this. Although if a journalist did I wouldn’t have given them wrong, now that I think about it. It was pretty widespread and continues today. They ask him about rumors of him being a Muslim, why not about him being gay? In any case, the difference with asking Paula Mae Weekes about being a lesbian is that it has relevance beyond her. As I said, many unmarried men and women at a certain age have to deal with that kind of talk. In that context I do think it was appropriate to ask her about it and have her condemn that kind of thinking if she wished and also talk about why she wasn’t married if she wished. Does she think successful, independent women scare men off? I think the question was good basis for relevant conversations.

    • Erline those are different questions entirely. And that’s why I fully agree with Sheila when she said Guardian did a shitty job.
      Asking Paula-Mae what she felt about the interest in her personal life as a powerful and unmarried woman is on a planet from “are you a lesbian?”
      Again, a big obzocky boulder. There is a certain skill and subtlety in this art, as I’m sure you know. It is not as easy as it looks from the outside.

    • Lasana Liburd We actually don’t know how the question was put to her. I’m hoping it was put sensitively even if the writing wasn’t sensitive. :/

    • Based on her response Weekes didn’t seem bothered so I’m assuming the way the question was put wasn’t too egregious.

    • Poor Joel Julien. Has anyone sought his view about these stories? It should be sought.

    • And Julien is the VP of MATT. So yes a response from him is necessary.

    • This is further example of Trinidadians avoiding things that make them uncomfortable. I haven’t seen anyone talking about these stories mentioning the very important but inconvenient fact that they were written by the vice president of the Media Association.

    • I don’t think it has anything to do with MATT in any tangible sense. And I don’t know that Julien can say anything other than support the line of his newspaper.
      But I know perception is a funny thing and I guess MATT may have to think about that.

    • MATT is offering LGBT sensitivity training, according to Rhoda Bharath’s wall. How can anyone take this seriously when the VP wrote the offending stories?

    • Searched “joel julien” on FB and found one person defending him. https://www.facebook.com/search/top/?q=joel%20julien&em=1

    • I won’t say that is a reason not to take the LGBT training seriously. It’s not like Joel is the one doing the training. Lol.
      I won’t be too rough on any individual as I don’t feel like sensitivity, tolerance, etc is an overnight process and we are all at different stages of it or were at some point.
      I don’t think he went in to humiliate anyone. It is like you said and Sheila said. There was a story there but one that needed some thought and not an obzocky boulder.
      He didn’t handle the stories properly. And the editorial staff were not alert to the shortcomings in the pieces. Those are the main issues I think. I don’t assume he has anything against lesbians.

    • VP is not a minor post. If he couldn’t handle his stories properly why should he be trusted to handle sensitivity training or anything else in a media association? If people are as outraged by the stories as they say they are they should be questioning his leadership of the association.

  6. It’s a matter of perception ; Let the ladies have their fun.However,when one confronts hairy,big belly male couples with obzocky boulders, ,perfumed and talced,” then oh what tangled webs of weaves ,when first they practise to receive.”

  7. Stop talking and stop buy the papers

  8. Thoughtful analysis by Sheila Rampersad, but I would have gone in another direction. The problem with the Guardian piece—with local media in general—is the increasingly narrow way in which stories are defined and approached. The storyteller in me would have worked this story:

    Winning Hearts
    A local athlete, outed as gay, wins the race of her life on the very day a judge’s ruling in her home country struck down sections of a colonial law that criminalised homosexuality. How Michelle Ahye’s gold medal victory helped overturn attitudes to LGBT people in one of the most homophobic corners of the world?

    Fine by me if you don’t think that’s any good, but the point I’m making is you have this massive legal thing happening here and one hell of a run there and the athlete’s victory isn’t at all arbitrary in the circumstances. You have all the elements (almost) of a massive story and you opt for ‘quick ‘n easy.’ A shame, really.

    • You are writing a whole other story, Kerry Peters. Valid story but a different one. If she was outed maliciously, that’s a story by itself.

    • Yes, intentionally so. I’d have gone with a different story altogether and I accept my pitch made some assumptions. But those blanks could be filled in with extensive reporting. It would take more time but it’s possible.

      Here was an opportunity to make MEANING of LGBT activism, the law, prevailing attitudes et al, but local journalists never learned to make MEANING in their writing so they almost always go with low-hanging fruit: He say this, she say that; he did this, she did that etc.

    • Ok. I’m sticking with the story in front of me for now. Time enough for many others.

    • Kerry, I don’t think she was ‘outed’ since she wasn’t in the closet to begin with. I don’t think she helped overturn attitudes. And I do think the athlete’s victory and the court ruling are happenstance and in no way related.
      Other than that… Sure. Lol.
      Bear in mind that Michelle-Lee Ahye may very well not want her gold medal to be a red letter day for the LGTBQI community at all. She might just want to be remembered as T&T’s first women Commonwealth Games champion, as opposed to T&T’s first lesbian champion. And that would be absolutely fine. Most athletes get to just enjoy their moment without any baggage.
      But I agree with the general point that more thoughtful angles could have been found.

    • Michael Jordan made it crystal clear that he did not want to be an activist for anything or anyone. He just wanted to be the best in basketball. Tiger Woods wasn’t far different.
      When she told the Guardian she didn’t want to discuss her personal business that should have been it.

    • Lasana Liburd Fair enough. But it’s just a made-up pitch in which I made assumptions. The real story would rely on careful reporting which would have to happen before you were even sure you had a story. But great storytelling opportunities come from ‘happenstance’, too. If you just review Pulitzer winners that becomes evident. It’s a hunch here that checked out or something you heard through a vine. Or something you just tested on a whim that took you somewhere. Still, that is really not the point I’m making. I’m saying potential opportunity missed to tell a larger more meaningful story in favour the quick and easy ‘newsy’ one. I’m saying I have no doubt Michelle may have wanted to be known just for her accomplishments yet I’m fairly certain that gold medal performance influenced some changes in people’s attitudes toward LGBT people. I don’t know the facts and I didn’t pretend to. But given all these elements I would have mined for something larger to report. No two people see story the same way.

    • Kerry that Guardian didn’t give it enough thought and that there was surely something more meaningful they could have done are two points I certainly agree with.
      I won’t demonize them. They just did a shitty job on this one like Sheila said.

    • Lasana Liburd it is standard best practice to ask people if they are Out. Because it is unsafe, and dangerous all over the world to identify as LGBTQI+. Even more so for athletes. Just because you are aware of their orientation and gender identity does not give you the right to share that with others.

  9. Earl Best

    Sheila, I’ll meet you halfway: The Guardian set out to do a shitty thing and did a shitty job.

    I’m on thin ice here because I will not read the reporter’s story but I’m betting that the reporter’s instructions were to write a story to support the images, not to find some images to support his story. And that, in spite of all the valid journalistic things you said, is where the shoe pinches. THIS WAS NEVER, I daresay, ABOUT JOURNALISM; this was about selling papers, which has to be a concern, I suppose, if you can’t even get up as high as 20% of the market.