After Cemia Acoff's brutal murdered, transgender activists stood up against inaccurate and insensitive reporting by Cleveland daily newspaper, The Plain Dealer. Reporter John Caniglia used the wrong pronoun for Acoff, called her feminine attire "odd," and referred to her body as "it." He then launched into a description of Acoff's arrest record, adding insult to injury by including her mug shot.
For decades, transgender murders were underrepresented because gender variance was concealed from the public and assumed sex workers were deemed unworthy of coverage. I came of age in the Boys Don't Cry era where victimization is a transgender archetype. Transgender women are especially linked with crime in the eyes of the media, whether characterized as deceptive perpetrators or tragic victims. Tragic trans women (invariably implied to be sex workers) cameoed on every popular fiction and nonfiction crime show including Law and Order, Crime Scene Investigators, and Cold Case. Transgender advocates fought hard to win media attention for our issues only to find ourselves barraged by a media landscape where transgender victims outnumber transgender leaders ten to one.
Fanfare surrounding denunciations of Caniglia marks a turning point in the transgender community's relationship with news media. In 2008, the AP Style Guide, which lists professional standards for journalists, reformed its policy towards transgender people. The guide advises reporters to investigate subjects' preferred pronouns, and when a person cannot be contacted, it offers reporters should "use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly." Increasing community pressure towards large news organizations like New York Times is creating a paradigm shift wherein offensive reporting is unacceptable and detrimental to journalistic reputations. Ignorance is no longer a viable excuse with resources like GLAAD's guide for reporters entitled Doubly Victimized: Reporting on Transgender Victims of Crime.
Let's celebrate these accomplishments without falling into the "all news is good news" framework in which we are grateful for even the worst kind of representations. The subject, content, framing, and execution of a story matters. While GLAAD published a report evaluating ten years of transgender representation in entertainment television (2002-2012), I could not find similar attempts to review news coverage. In the spirit of developing standards and holding news media accountable to them, I devised my own news analysis method by rating articles on a scale from -7 to +7. Every article starts at 0. Articles gain points for exploring themes that counteract prevalent stereotypes, showing trans people as agents of change in their own life or in society at large, supplying contextualizing information to help readers make sense of personal stories, featuring trans people speaking for themselves, featuring supportive friends, family or community members, and featuring trans people of color in respectful ways. Articles lose points for misgendering trans people, featuring a trans person as deceptive, criminal, or sexually deviant, and featuring strawman opinions, those of people with no stated or implied connection to transgender communities or issues. I evaluated the top fifteen google news search results for "transgender" on May 5th and found that:
Vast majority used correct pronouns.
One half featured transgender people speaking for themselves.
30% depicted trans people as deceptive, criminal, or sexually deviant.
Two were strawman opinion columns.
7 were positive, 6 were decent, and 2 were negative.
Several "news" results were actually opinion articles. As trans folks become part of a national debate, people who have no connection to the trans community feel entitled to comment on which civil rights and human decencies we deserve. On the other hand, these open discussions bring the issues I fear, hope, and dream into the realm of public debate and public policy. People have to argue why they think I do not deserve to play on a sports team or visit the restroom instead of expecting that everyone will understand their discomfort and support their bigotry.
After reading a weekend's worth of news, my takeaway is trans people change things. Trans people are fighters who are: protesting a bridal shop turning away a customer who wasn't women enough, challenging a historically women's colleges to broaden its understanding of female experience, calling on schools to support our children, and suing to be included in India's Civil Service sector. Trans people are fighting with lawyers in courtrooms, with picket signs on sidewalks, with family support in PTA meetings. We are everywhere and we are making demands.
Though generally positive, the news sampling was glaringly unrepresentative. All 15 articles reviewed focused on transgender women, but only 2 of 15 portrayed a trans woman of color in a positive light. Progress in this arena, as in so many others, has only reached the more privileged portions of our community.
It's up to us to figure out the difference between good news and bad news, and to let reporters know how they are doing.