Tuesday 27 August 2013, 12:01
Chelsea Manning (credit: US Army) When an individual in the public eye announces they are transgender, how should journalists report on them accurately and respectfully?
It’s an issue newsrooms were confronted with when the soldier known to the world as Bradley Manning issued a statement saying “I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female. Given the way that I feel, and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible.”
For journalists unused to reporting on transgender issues, the statement left them uncertain whether to describe Manning as ‘he’ or ‘she’; a man or a woman.
Should Bradley become Chelsea immediately - or would that leave some viewers, listeners and readers bewildered? It’s a dilemma that worried the managing editor of the New York Times, Dean Baquet.
Bradley Manning (credit: Associated Press) There were differences of opinion even within Baquet’s own newsroom. The New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan argued that, “given Ms Manning’s preference, it may be best to quickly change to the feminine and to explain that - rather than the other way around.”
Amanda Marcotte at Slate concurred. “The sooner journalists stop writing ‘Bradley’ and start writing ‘Chelsea’, the quicker everyone following this story will adapt,” she wrote.
The confusion didn’t surprise activists like Rich Ferraro from the US equality organisation Glaad. He said the debate “shows how far behind the media is (in) covering transgender people”. Alex Hayden DiLalla at the Huffington Post accused some sections of the media of “making a mockery” of Chelsea Manning’s announcement by continuing to use male gender pronouns.
I grappled with these linguistic issues recently when I wrote about Kristin Beck, a transgender woman who spent 20 years as a US Navy Seal.
The BBC News style guide has this short entry: “Transsexual - Do not refer to ‘transsexuals’, in the same way we would not talk about ‘gays’ or ‘blacks’. Transsexual people who have completed surgery to become a member of the opposite sex should be referred to as the gender they have become. Pre-operative transsexual people should be described as they wish. If their wishes are not known, and it is not possible to find out, take an informed view based on knowledge of the individual’s lifestyle. For example, it is reasonable to assume that a woman living as a man would wish to be referred to as ‘he’ rather than ‘she’.”
When researching Kristin Beck’s story, I found two other guides invaluable in helping me understand how to write about transgender issues sensitively and hopefully without causing offence.
Glaad’s media reference guide includes a comprehensive primer of transgender terminology, as well as a list of terms to try to avoid.
Trans Media Watch explains that language relating to gender is constantly evolving, and offers simple guidelines to follow.
The language used by broadcasters and print media is also constantly evolving and Chelsea Manning’s statement has encouraged newsrooms to scrutinise the language used to report on trans people. National Public Radio, the Associated Press and the New York Times have all issued new guidance to staff.
Trans Media Watch has been critical of the BBC’s coverage of the Chelsea Manning story, although it admits that understanding the issues can be confusing. The offence caused by the language used in some of the reporting is perhaps a sign of how rarely many news organisations cover transgender issues.
Trans Media Watch offers this advice for journalists approaching the subject for the first time: “If you don’t know how to describe somebody, ask them. If you can’t ask, use pronouns and gendered descriptors which most closely match their presentation.”
Jos Truitt, an editor with the Feministing online community, puts it more bluntly: “Just get it right, people. It’s honestly not that hard.”
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Thursday 22 August 2013, 10:05
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