Responding to Controversy

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

22 thoughts on “Responding to Controversy

  1. Pingback: boycotting Gymnastike — Gymnastics Coaching.com

  2. I hope Gymnastike can eventually clean up the trash, otherwise I don’t plan to return to the site any time soon. They do a good job of covering NCAA in depth and are one of the few places that follow MAG (mostly US) to a degree, so it’s a shame this incident has tarnished their image for the time being.

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  3. Having contributed heavily to gymnastike in the past, I’m disgusted at how bad Joe has made all of the contributors look. We spend hours getting coverage for everyone to see and work hard, and he had probably no idea how badly this would blow up. But even worse, I don’t think he cares. As you said, it’s all about page views. I am so angry at how bad he has made me and my fellow contributors look. I’ve never even met him, but I hope I don’t because I would certainly give him a piece of my mind! I hope to continue helping out in the future but I worry about the future of the site simply from this one poor decision he made. I really hope people will think rationally and not universally condemn everyone at gymnastike, because 99% of us who have contributed are NOT the type of person to publish this kind of TMZ crap! Ugh! I just feel angry about the whole thing. I can’t help but take it personally reading some of the nasty (not to mention untrue) words people have said about the website. I hope people will give gymnastike another chance, I think it’s deserved!

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    • Amy, I completely understand where you’re coming from! When I saw people going after Anne and the Gymnastike staff writers who actually care about gymnastics, I immediately jumped to their defense. It’s unfortunate that Joe is in charge of covering a sport he clearly doesn’t care about…because it’s Gymnastike’s name that gets dragged through the mud, not his own. I wish there was a way for the site to separate themselves from the people who aren’t putting their best interests at heart. They’ve done so much for the gymnastics community over the past six years, it would be terrible for this one man to single-handedly be responsible for their downfall.

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      • Your last sentence is my worst case scenario for what will happen next, and also what I dearly hope won’t happen. Anne invested so much time and hard work and now Becca is doing the same. Of course I think what Joe did was horrible, but at the same time it did seem a bit like some people already hated gymnastike so much and used this as another opportunity to scream out loud about how terrible gymnastike “has always been” which is also sad.

        Anyways, it will be really interesting to see what happens next.

        Thanks again for your insightful and well balanced article.

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  4. In response to papaliukin’s comment – I’m not sure how much gymnastike can do to take out the trash, as you said. If they split from flocasts, I think they would 100% rely on the gymnastike gold money to be able to cover things around the world and continue the BTR videos which I have loved. But with so many people supposedly canceling, there is less money, therefore less things they’ll be able to do. In a way I think they depend on the help they get from flocasts. But personally if that Joe has a say over what goes on gymnastike, he has demonstrated he isn’t capable of good decision making and personally I would rather get away from someone like that.

    Papaliukin, I hope you will continue to visit the website (now, not in the future!) and show your support for the girls who work so hard to make it happen. Please don’t condemn them because of some very poor decisions from people who don’t do any of the actual work. Thanks 🙂

    And Lauren, great article. Very thoughtfully written! I appreciate you looking at the whole situation, and not just immediately jumping to the conclusion that everyone and everything at gymnastike is horrible. I appreciate it.

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  5. Pingback: So, What Did I Miss? - The Couch Gymnast

  6. Lauren, I thank you Lauren for this thoughtful and considered response. Thank you for respecting her as a person and athlete and not mentioning her name once. For highlighting she is the victim and for everything you put forward about responsible journalism. I couldn’t agree more, bravo (and by the way your site is wonderful)

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  7. @amyolympics

    Why visit or return to Gymnastike? The Gymternet (here) gives better content, fresher content, faster breaking news, and has better writers. Also better international coverage too. Minus Anne and that blonde girl (Jennifer?) from last year, all their new writers/contributors of this year (they know who they are) do their research and take stuff from this site first. lol. It’s funny that I’ve never seen an article from Joe and Chavez on Gymnastike except of that McKayla one. Why do you want to contribute your time and stories to a website run by that guy who knows nothing about gymnastics? Think about it, then come over to greener pasture.

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    • @ABeck – I think both gymnastike and the gymternet do a great job at different things. Lauren does great commentary and analysis. But she doesn’t film videos, which gymnastike does. So I like both websites.

      Also I would hesitate to say “all of their writers take stuff from this website first” simply because I haven’t myself seen that happen, but I have heard other people say that. Also I would point out there are only so many ways to word the same news, so when it’s posted by 10 different blogs and websites, there is bound to be some overlap. I’m not trying to argue, I just like to try and look at a situation from all sides.

      Flocasts has always been the parent company for gymnastike. I can’t speak to exactly what sort of relationship they have other than that because I simply don’t know enough details but I would speculate that they offer help with hosting, web design/tech support-ish stuff, wouldn’t be surprised if there was financial help as well to make it possible for the girls to travel to expensive meets like Worlds. Also I am pretty sure they have more experienced video people that have helped with the higher quality videos like BTR or there was a great video recap from WOGA Classic that was great quality that I enjoyed watching. So in the beginning I was just helping Anne out at random meets when my schedule allowed and I later covered the OU men’s and women’s meets while I went to school there. I never met any Flocasts people except Madhu (web support type of things) so I wouldnt say it was run by a guy who has no idea about gymnastics. It was run by Anne!

      I suspect what happened was that Joe posted the article without saying a word to Becca. As an administrator of Flocasts, it isn’t a stretch to think he has those posting abilities on gymnastike. SHOULD he have? Obviously not. Clearly it should have been handled very differently and I think if he had let Becca handle it, this would have turned out completely differently.

      I don’t need I think about anything in regards to coming over to greener pastures. Both websites offer something for me as a gymnastics fan so I’ll continue to frequent both! Additionally, it was much easier to volunteer and help cover gymnastics meets while I was in college and recently graduated. It is much harder to help now that I work full time, whether it would be sharing pieces with Lauren for the gymternet or for gymnastike.

      I know this was quite long but I hope it helps you understand my viewpoint.

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  8. Nice article Lauren. Well though out and I’m glad you took the time to learn more about the issue before rushing to judgment like all those unsubscribers at Gymnastike. I am curious to know more about the relationship between Flocast and Gymnastike. I always thought Anne ran the website. How does Joe, Content Director of Flocast, even have the power to post articles on Anne’s website. Why couldn’t she take those articles off?

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  9. Thank you for posting such a diplomatic and honest response to the whole situation. I really appreciate how you made Gymnastike’s exploitation the primary issue of article.

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  10. Bravo Lauren! Your article was well balanced and accurate to the situation. I can no longer trust gymnastike’s decisions on how they cover the sport of gymnastics and do not plan on ever returning to their site for gymnastics information. I am loving the gymternet so much more. I am a loyal gymternet fan! Just goes to show what happens when a company sells out to a larger corporation to run it, corruption for the dollar. The good people that are employed with gymnastike should find a new venue to continue their love of the sport. Sorry gymnastike, I don’t think you all can recover from this.

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