Misinformed and Falling Short: Trans Coverage in America’s Newsrooms

by Justin Myers

On August 22, 2013, Chelsea Manning released an exclusive announcement to TODAY in which she came out as transgender.

Manning, who was arrested in 2011 for leaking classified government documents to WikiLeaks, expressed desire in her TODAY exclusive to begin hormone therapy “as soon as possible” and that she would immediately begin to be referenced by her chosen name and her choice of feminine pronouns.

The reporting that followed on Manning’s story showed just how ill-equipped newsrooms were at covering the trans community. The ledes of many news outlets, including TODAY, refused Manning’s request, misgendering and “deadnaming” her, the process by which a trans person is referred to by their birth name in place of their chosen name.

In the almost eight years since Manning’s coming out, the news media has shown that it still has not progressed much past the same failing guidelines it applied to its 2013 coverage of Manning.

In 2019, Manning’s reemergence on headlines coincided with the reemergence of her misgendering and deadnaming in several major newsrooms. The following year, actor Elliot Page, star of the movie “Juno,” announced that he was transgender and non-binary and preferred the pronouns he/they.

Page’s coming out elicited from news outlets some of the same shortfalls in their coverage of the trans community that Manning’s did. Notably, NBC Out, a section of NBC News’ website dedicated to LGBTQ issues, tweeted a post deadnaming Page on December 1, 2020 – the same day that Page came out.

What followed was a thread of Twitter users calling out the usage of Page’s deadname in the post, denouncing the news account’s action as “transphobic” and calling for greater responsibility from NBC Out when covering trans issues.

NBC Out responded to criticism, tweeting that the decision to include Page’s deadname arose from the actor’s popularity under the deadname. It further rebuked the claims by saying, “This decision also abides by GLAAD’s guidance when referring to celebrities who come out as trans.”

A media guide published by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) that morning focused specifically on how to report on Page and included the following guideline: “Since Elliot Page was known to the public by their prior name, it may be necessary initially to say ‘Elliot Page, formerly known as [Elliot] Page, …’ However, once the public has learned Page’s new name, do not continually refer to it in future stories.”

Page’s deadname has been intentionally redacted by the author of this article from GLAAD’s quoted guideline out of respect for the actor.

On June 30, 2020, the Trans Journalist Association began as a collective body to advocate for a better handling of stories related to the trans community in the newsroom. Oliver-Ash Kleine, trans journalist and co-host of the podcast “Cancel Me, Daddy,” was one of the founding members, alongside 200 other members of the trans community.

In an article written for Them magazine titled “Most Journalists Don’t Know How to Cover Trans Communities. We’re Here to Push for Change,” Kleine expressed their frustration over their experience with reporting on Manning’s coming out story.

Kleine recounted that they struggled to rewrite the script to not misgender Manning. After a long struggle with the news director at the public radio station they worked at, it was ultimately decided that pronouns would be removed from the story altogether. It wasn’t ideal for Kleine, but it’s all the station would allow.

When it came time to air the story, however, none of that mattered. The anchor, discarding Kleine’s careful bargaining and advocacy, decided it would be best to rewrite the intro how they personally saw fit, misgendering Manning in the process. It was this incident and a career-long uphill battle of fighting for better, more inclusive coverage of trans voices that led to Kleine’s involvement with the Trans Journalist Association.

Currently, the association offers a style guide and employer guide written by trans people to inform coverage of the trans community and to advocate for better treatment of trans individuals in the newsroom. Notably, unlike GLAAD, they disavow the usage of deadnames for any reason, even when reporting on celebrities such as Page.

NBC Out Associate Editor Jo Yurcaba, who identifies as trans, backed the guidelines set by the Trans Journalist Association denouncing the practice of deadnaming for any reason. Through their personal account, Yurcaba began a thread with the following: “Yes! Newsrooms that are scrambling right now: There are ways to identify Elliot Page without using his deadname in pieces.”

The thread continued with an exemplary example of reporting on Page’s story from Teen Vogue and ended with a retweet of the Trans Journalist Associations guideline against deadnaming, which was also retweeted to the original NBC Out post by Kleine.

Yurcaba further tweeted, “Also if your newsroom is scrambling maybe you should, uh, hire more trans folks,” bringing forth the importance of letting trans voices guide trans reporting.

When trans people lose the ability to advocate for their own fair and accurate coverage of themselves in the newsroom, journalists lose the ability to effectively cover their community and create harm through their reporting. While erasing the trends plaguing Manning’s and Page’s coverage will probably take years to complete, the introduction of conversations in the newsroom on trans issues with full respect given to the trans community, such as those advocated for by the Trans Journalist Association, is a start to reaching a new, more equitable horizon when stories about trans people are placed in the hands of reporters.



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