Coverage of the transgender community has become a major media issue in recent months, given incidents from Katie Couric’s invasive interview with model Carmen Carrera to the controversial Grantland feature that outed a transgender woman.
In light of those events, the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism’s chapter of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association hosted a well-attended panel discussion Tuesday night to address ways to properly cover transgender issues. The event, “How to Report on the Trans Community,” featured Eliza Gray, a staff writer at Time magazine who often covers transgender issues, Noah Michelson, the executive editor of the Gay Voices section at The Huffington Post, Cathy Renna, a media activist for the LGBT community, and Alex Scott, formerly of the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund.
The discussion began with a short presentation on some of the recent issues in transgender coverage, including Piers Morgan’s interview with transgender activist and writer Janet Mock, which focused on her gender transition and included a sensational on-screen graphic that read that Mock “was a boy until age 18.”
Gray argued that the biggest problem with Morgan’s interview was that he “failed as journalist” by asking Mock leading questions about her transition rather than opening a dialogue.
“By asking leading questions, he basically took away her opportunity to tell her whole story,” Gray said.
The panelists remarked that interviews like Morgan’s also limit discussion about pressing issues facing the transgender community, including high rates of violence, suicide, and unemployment.
However, it can often be difficult for journalists covering the transgender community to strike a balance between avoiding offending an interviewee and asking the questions an audience might want to know the answers to, like details about anatomy and surgeries.
“I think our job as journalists is, how do we tell these stories, and how do we let the people we’re talking to tell their stories,” Michelson said. “We have to answer questions our readers have, and also not be offensive. I think we need to zoom out a lot of times and think, ‘What do 95 percent of the people watching this show know about trans people?’ If you’ve never seen a transgender person, you’re wondering what’s between their legs.”
The discussion also addressed “Dr. V’s Magical Putter,” a long-form story by Caleb Hannan, published on Grantland early this year. Through the course of his reporting, Hannan learned that Dr. V was a transgender woman, and outed her in the story. Dr. V. committed suicide a few months before the story was published.
“When we find out things like this, it’s difficult not to report [them] in this type of story,” Gray said. “I think the mistake here is the way the story frames it.”
The panel offered some tips to the journalists in attendance, including reminding interview subjects that they are not required to answer questions that make them uncomfortable.
“The truth is that, as journalists, everything is our business,” Gray said. “Whenever I interview a trans person, or who anybody else who’s in a vulnerable context, I say at the beginning of the interview that I’m going ask a lot of questions, and it is your right not to answer them.”
They also recommended reporters ask whether a transgender person prefers to be called “he” or “she,” or by another pronoun or form of identification. Sometimes, Michelson said, this means breaking journalistic conventions in order to be respectful. He gave an example of a 2013 Huffington Post story about an agender California teenager whose skirt was set on fire. An editor’s note at the top of the story reads: “The subject of this story identifies as agender, so we are using ‘they, their, them.’”
“Even if it’s not the most beautifully crafted story, it’s about giving these people the agency to tell their own stories,” Michelson said.
The panel agreed that the most important thing journalists reporting on transgender issues can do is listen and learn as much as possible.
“We don’t have an army of trans journalists out there,” Michelson sid. “We need allies and interested people, and we need them to come humbly and to ask questions.”