With everything that’s happened over the past few days in regard to an incident in which numerous public figures were violated and exploited through the leaking of personal photos, many people have asked The Gymternet (and me personally) for a response.
So here we go.
I chose to respond to the initial concerns via Twitter, announcing my support for the victims of this nightmare while stating that I didn’t want to cover it on The Gymternet because while the topic involves a U.S. gymnast, it wasn’t directly related to the sport of gymnastics, which is what we’re all about.
Furthermore, I didn’t feel comfortable posting anything because I didn’t want to contribute to the spreading of this information, especially to site readers who may be under 18. Even without posting a link to the images or other stories, I’m pretty sure everyone knows how to use Google; a post with no links is little more than an invitation to search for the links yourself.
As I’m sure you’ve all seen by this point, a few hours after I took my stance, all hell broke loose when Gymnastike chose to cover the ‘news’ along with a direct link to dozens of the leaked pornographic photos.
The man responsible for the decision to not only post the story but to feature it in the most prominent position on the website’s homepage, Joe Battaglia, later claimed an ‘obligation’ to report all news (despite not covering the majority of international gymnastics news that broke over the weekend including major competition results and World Championship team announcements). His objective as director of content for Flocasts, the parent company of Gymnastike, is clear when he prioritizes the further exploitation of a respected U.S. athlete over news and information that actually relates to the sport.
This is very unfortunate for Gymnastike, who were truly innovative in their approach to gymnastics and helped change how fans view the sport. But while meet coverage and behind the scenes video is a major part of what they do for the fan community, they also cater heavily to active club gymnasts, almost all of whom are under the age of 18.
This is the biggest issue to me, and why I personally couldn’t understand why Battaglia was so hell bent on keeping the article up. Yes, it is a journalist’s job to cover news no matter how ‘uncomfortable,’ but I would call sharing pornographic images with minors ‘criminal,’ not ‘uncomfortable.’ You have to know your audience, and I’m sorry Battaglia, but Gymnastike is a bit more Disney Channel than it is Howard Stern.
A 16-year-old J.O. gymnast contacted me about the Gymnastike article, outraged. This was partly because like everyone else, she didn’t like that a gymnastics content site was helping to spread the information rather than protecting the privacy of the athlete affected. But she also shed some interesting light onto the topic, which is likely why so many gymnasts, coaches, and parents have expressed their concern to me.
This gymnast said that her 13-year-old teammates were unaware of what had happened until they visited Gymnastike. Right there, front and center, was the article. They clicked. They read it. They visited the link with the dozens of photos all right there for them to see. These 13-year-old children were subjected to pornographic content through a website they usually visit to watch elite gym workout videos and keep up with their favorite Olympians. Most were devastated by what they saw.
Additionally, as high level athletes, these children are featured in some of the competition videos hosted on Gymnastike, which came up as one of the first links if you googled the gymnast’s name in relation to the ordeal. This means people searching for pornographic photos are happening upon Gymnastike, a website chock full of videos of underaged girls in leotards, which is another concern for some of the parents, gymnasts, and coaches who reached out to me.
Unfortunately, the internet is full of scumbags who sexualize gymnasts, as evidenced by thousands of disgusting comments that appear on YouTube videos and articles written by the mainstream press. Niche websites like Gymnastike have essentially provided a safe haven for those in the gymnastics community to discuss and enjoy the sport away from leering creeps. Until now.
From the start, it was obvious Battaglia didn’t care about protecting the privacy of a young celebrity athlete, as evidenced by his selfish promotion of the incident. But what is shocking is that he didn’t care that he was subjecting subscribers – many of whom are minors – to pornographic content.
With this in mind, I’ve thought a lot about why he fought so vehemently against taking down the article, even as hundreds of people unfollowed the site on Twitter, gold subscribers canceled their memberships, and his own staff begged him to make things right. Additionally, at least three contributors have ended their relationship with the website while two staff members I spoke to admitted to siding with fans, though couldn’t act on their values lest they risk their jobs.
So why did he do it? It’s an easy answer. Money.
Gymnastike is heavily into the clickbait trend, which essentially means they post content they think will be get hits rather than content that might be more meaningful but won’t perform as well. The more clicks they get, the more money they earn from advertisers, which is why you see dozens of single video posts instead of one post with multiple videos embedded and why they lure visitors to the site with misleading ‘Exclusive! Only on Gymnastike!’ tweets rather than tweets that are upfront about the information in each post.
Naturally, an article about the hacking of celebrity photos will perform better than, say, one about the Romanian Championships. Like, by thousands and thousands of views. If Battaglia’s goal as the director of content is to get clicks, he’s doing a great job. But he’s going about it in the wrong way, because while the site has likely never seen as much traffic as it got earlier this week, all of those clicks came in due to his exploitation of one of the athletes Gymnastike has always supported.
Battaglia could have made the decision to protect this athlete’s privacy, but instead he chose to make a profit through the exploitation of a victim of a very serious crime. Chose. He had zero obligation to report this news, especially to an audience of children under the age of 18. It was his choice, and it was a deplorable one. Though he has finally issued an apology – over 60 hours following the initial backlash – it was one out of pressure, not genuine guilt, and has done little to restore my faith in his ability to make responsible choices in the future, especially if he gets another opportunity to exploit someone in the name of clicks.
Reporting uncomfortable and controversial news is a part of journalism, but there is a right way and a wrong way to go about it. Battaglia did it the wrong way, with his own interests in mind rather than the interests of Gymnastike’s subscribers and the athletes they feature.
Article by Lauren Hopkins