The Journalistic Casualties of The Guardian’s Erroneous Whisper Story

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Back in October, The Guardian published a juicy multipart feature on Whisper, an anonymous secret-sharing app that the paper said was harvesting private data without users’ consent. The series of stories alleged that Whisper tracked "anonymous" users and that it had rewritten its terms of service and privacy policy after learning that The Guardian was investigating its practices.

On Wednesday, approximately five months after the initial reports surfaced, The Guardian retracted much of its claims that Whisper violated users’ privacy and even deleted an entire opinion piece that said the app shared personal information about its users with government agencies. The terms of services were rewritten before The Guardian’s investigation, the correction says, and Whisper only tracks the IP addresses of users who have opted out of location tracking if their post indicates "there is a danger of death or serious injury," which "is both lawful and industry standard."

In an oversaturated news cycle, it’s easy to tsk-tsk The Guardian for its error and quickly move on, but the inaccurate reports had a permanent impact on the reputation of the company and some of its employees. Shortly after the pieces debuted, the four members of Whisper’s news operation — the team responsible for interfacing with media teams like The Guardian to help them use the app to surface scoops — were put on paid leave. Two months later, shortly before Christmas, they were unceremoniously laid off, and Whisper’s editorial division was permanently shuttered.

"Did The Guardian cost the four people in the editorial division their jobs? Absolutely," one former Whisper employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told me. "Hell yes, they did, 100 percent." 

The four employees on the news division — Neetzan Zimmerman, Slade Sohmer, Joshua Chavers, and Jessica Daley — have moved on in the few months since their layoffs, but some have had an easier time finding their footing than others. Sohmer, who previously founded the viral-content network HyperVocal, now works as the director of editorial strategy at Mic News. In January, Zimmerman became the senior director of audience and strategy for the Hill. Both declined to speak on the record about the incident, though Zimmerman said, "Whisper put out an official statement, and I support its content." On Twitter, he called the incident "regrettable."

Daley, who had only been onboard at Whisper for two months when The Guardian story went down, did not respond to requests for comment.

The person who’s had the most to say about The Guardian feature is, unsurprisingly, the member of the news division who was hit the hardest by its closure. Joshua Chavers, the former news editor at Whisper, is a married father of five living in Jacksonville, Florida. He’s been on the hunt for a new gig since December, when he was laid off a week before Christmas, shortly after his then-pregnant wife went into labor. "So, can I have my job back? Or just funemployed forever?" Chavers tweeted yesterday after The Guardian issued its correction. "That’s cool, too."

"If you were to interview my wife, she’s had moments in the last few months upset crying on the floor," Chavers told me. "We’re running out of money. If it had not been tax season, what would we have done? We have five kids! If it weren’t for [our tax refund], we’d be out on the street flipping burgers. And I’m not too far from that."

Chavers, who worked remotely for Whisper, remains hopeful that he’ll be able to nab a position at a local news station in Jacksonville. “That’s life,” he added. “It just happens. You figure it out.”

As for Paul Lewis and Dominic Rushe, the reporters who wrote the Guardian story that cost the four Whisper employees their jobs, they’ve remained silent about the issue on social media and did not respond to our requests for comment. Chavers doesn’t wish them any ill will, but thinks the whole fracas could be used as a case study about the dangers of "gotcha" journalism.

I don’t want Dominic and Paul to be fired from their jobs,” Chavers said. “I want them to be better at their jobs and other journalists to use this case as an example of, ‘Hey, look what happened here. We need to be very cautious and careful in this gotcha journalism era.’”