Journalists and scholars call for better journalistic coverage of the trans community that centers humanity, eliminates misinformation.
About six-in-ten Americans do not personally know a transgender person.
In state houses, however, lawmakers are pushing trans people to the center of political debate. In 2023 alone, anti-trans legislation was proposed in 49 states, with 85 bills passing.
Lack of understanding coupled with intense politicization means that journalistic coverage of the trans community is more important than ever.
“[The media] might be the primary, if not the only, basis on which they form their opinions, make political decisions and develop the prejudices that will affect everyone in their community,” said TJ Billard, the executive director of the nonprofit research organization the Center for Applied Transgender Studies.
Kate Sosin, an LGBTQ+ reporter at The 19th, has also noticed the way news media shape conversation about trans people, often at the expense of the trans community. “I think those portrayals and those conversations are really everything because that’s how we understand our world if we do not know trans people or queer people” they said.
As issues impacting the trans community continue to be politicized, journalists can and should play a crucial role in informing the public, eliminating misinformation and centering humanity in their coverage.
Misinformation is not just coming from political players or obscure hate groups online, Billard said, but also from mainstream news outlets.
The misinformation comes from the “need for balance, or artificial neutrality,” Billard said. Frequently they see journalists trying to “balance” pro-trans sentiments with something constructed as anti-trans, even when both ideas are not equal in size of support or intellectual merit.
Ultimately, they said, this call for neutrality reduces the debate over trans lives to “an issue of competition between two parties.”
Much of the proposed anti-trans legislation focuses on gender-affirming care, which is the range of social, psychological, behavioral and medical interventions used to support and affirm an individual’s gender identity.
There is medical consensus that trans health care is beneficial and even lifesaving. Where it is available, gender-affirming care is highly regulated. However, these facts are often not presented in journalistic media, Billard said.
“Journalistic media is not investigating what it looks like to get care, they are reporting on outlandish claims,” Billard said. Outlandish claims are more likely to be “newsworthy,” but they often lead to the spread of misinformation, constructing an inaccurate story about what gender-affirming care looks like.
Adam Rhodes, training director at Investigative Reporters and Editors and board secretary at the Trans Journalists Association, said they often see stories where journalists just pick out the “most salacious and the most extreme cases” and cover them without any nuance, often leading to the spread of misinformation.
“There is a lot of focus on the loudest voices in the room and not necessarily the voices with the most information,” Rhodes said. Stories focus on the most vocal opponents of trans existence, and not doctors or transgender children, they said.
Often people who detransition are highlighted in mainstream news media despite being an “exceedingly rare part of the trans experience,” Rhodes said. Only 1% of people who transition report experiencing regret.
Many anti-trans narratives appeal to people’s “common sense,” Billard said. Journalists may be under the impression publishing this information is ethical because on the surface, it makes sense. Yet when journalists avoid scrutinizing “common sense” narratives, they risk causing harm.
“They are shirking their ethical obligation to critically examine what those narratives are and whether those narratives have any validity to them,” Billard said.
When Phoebe Petrovic took on a job at Wisconsin Watch covering disinformation, they knew covering the LGBTQ+ community would be a big part of their reporting. Petrovic, who uses she and they pronouns interchangeably, says they see misinformation regarding trans youth and the LGBTQ+ community every day.
She recently published an article where she talked to trans children and their parents about the realities of gender-affirming care for youth.
“We often talk about trans youth, but rarely do we talk to them,” Petrovic said. “So it was really important for me that any story that I did about the realities of gender affirming care for trans youth center the experiences of those youth themselves and foregrounded their humanity.”
Impact of coverage
Mainstream news coverage of trans people, particularly trans youth, is creating a “moral panic,” said Petrovic. Newspapers are “focusing so much ink and newspaper on a tiny, tiny fraction of kids and people,” she said. “Kids and people who are among the most marginalized in our society.”
Less than 2% of youth ages 13 to 17 and less than 1% of adults are trans. This context is often left out of press coverage, which Petrovic says is a “failure in and of itself.”
Coverage often focuses on topics such as trans youth involvement in sports, and not on other issues impacting the LGBTQ+ youth community, such as disproportionate rates of homelessness and mental health impacts from transphobia. When journalists focus on issues that are frequently debated politically, “it can be a distraction from issues that really affect the health and quality of life of this population and others,” Petrovic said.
Kate Sosin, who has covered the LGBTQ+ community most of their career, said the most important things they have learned is to “speak truth to power” and to avoid writing the same story everyone else is writing.
“We are not speaking truth to power,” Sosin said. “We’re denigrating trans folks. And then we’re doing the same stories about trans people over and over and over again.”
If journalists were succeeding, Sosin said they would be writing “richer, deeper, better” stories that speak to the humanity of the subjects.
Many journalists, Rhodes said, “treat a vulnerable population as an issue to interrogate as opposed to people whose lives are being materially impacted by something.”
In 2018, The Atlantic published a cover story titled, “When Children Say They’re Trans.” The piece follows several trans children but focuses on one individual who eventually decided they did not want to transition.
The piece “pedals a bunch of misinformation and mis-constructed narratives about trans youth and the care that they received,” Billard said. The article, despite its misinformation, “has been frequently held up in various public and political arenas, in defense of bans on transition-related care.”
Beyond legislation, articles that include misinformation or misconstrued narratives about the trans community affect individuals across the country. When needless harm is caused by coverage, it is a direct violation of the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics, which posits ethical journalism as journalism that minimizes harm and treats all sources and subjects with respect.
“[Misinformation] affects the conversations that happen within communities, and the way people find their place in communities and affects relationships within families,” Billard said. “And it is affecting laws, policies, and practices.”
Making room for new narratives
Trans youth and adults are often left out of coverage, despite often being the most affected.
Rhodes said the journalists creating quality coverage all talk to trans people and “let trans people kind of be the masters of their own identity and destiny… They give people agency, they give people room to be complex individuals.”
“It’s always parents, grandparents, teachers, it’s never the trans youth themselves,” Billard said. Though they understand it is hard to feature children in news media due to privacy and safety concerns, they think the lack of trans youth voices in journalistic media is a “damaging thing for the quality of coverage.”
“I hope that journalists telling these stories now realize the duty that they have to tell these stories right and to tell these stories well,” Rhodes said.
They point to the Trans Journalists Association Style Guide as a critical resource. The guide covers everything from how to address a breaking news story when you are unsure of the subject’s identity to which words are appropriate to use.
Politicians are also often driving the way issues affecting the trans and queer community are framed, Sosin said. When reporting, Sosin focuses on figuring out who is affected, beyond the obvious political players. “We get better stories if we localize our stories instead of listening to the noise that is created,” they said.
It’s not only trans individuals who are left out of stories. Sosin points out that other youth may potentially be impacted by anti-trans bills, such as legislation that calls for gender verification, and they are rarely interviewed. They also mentioned the lack of coverage centering trans adults reflecting on their youth.
Petrovic, who aims to center trans voices in their stories, echoed Billard and Sosin’s call to uplift unheard voices.
One mom Petrovic spoke with shared that when she started attending support groups for parents of trans kids, she thought to herself, “Wow, my kid is going to have a really special life. And that is really cool.”
“I think about that a lot,” Petrovic said. “And I think there should be more room for that in stories. Plenty of people get a ton of meaning from being trans or queer and finding community and being resilient despite discrimination or disadvantages.”
Centering trans and queer voices could help transform current journalistic coverage. “Everyone is willing to frame queer and trans humanity as a political issue, and it’s not,” Sosin said. “As journalists, we have to just hold the line on some basic, basic ethical things and that’s one of them.”
Jane Houseal is a 2023-2024 fellow at the Center for Journalism Ethics and an undergraduate student in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
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