In 2017, can ignorance still be an excuse for negligent reporting on trans people? With a wealth of accessible resources to refer to, it’s difficult to put unfair and sensationalised journalism down to much else than a desire to exploit the ‘sordid’ connotations that trans bodies and lives still carry for the sake of a few extra page clicks.
Last month, Victorian Equal Opportunity and the Human Rights Commission released a guide to reporting respectfully on trans people. The guide, which can easily be downloaded from the Human Rights Commission’s website, recommends against assuming someone’s pronouns, using people’s former names, and emphasising someone’s gender identity when it’s irrelevant to the story. These recommendations mostly boil down to common sense and showing fairly baseline levels of respect towards those in the trans community.
But some Australian publications are failing the grade when it comes to following even these basic procedures.
Last month, when reporting about Evie Amati, a young trans woman accused of attacking two customers at a 7/11 in Enmore, multiple news outlets failed to adhere to any of the current guidance on respectful gender reporting. Both News.com.au and Daily Mail Australia violated Amati’s privacy, focusing less on the alleged crime that had taken place and instead trawling through social media accounts to uncover Amati’s previous name and photos from before her transition. Both reports included screenshots from Amati’s Facebook posts as far back as 2012.
Neither of the papers demonstrates the relevance of Amati’s gender identity in the alleged attack. As such, it is difficult to view the bizarre focus on details of her private life as anything other than capitalising on a marginalised community for the sake of some voyeuristic ‘shock’ value.
There are other ways the media commonly mistreat trans people. Publishing the previous name of a trans person is a practice commonly referred to as deadnaming – at best an offensive oversight and at worst a complete violation of someone’s privacy. Misgendering is another; it refers to the use of a pronoun that someone does not identify with. Both of these practices make an implication of doubt about the validity of self-affirmed trans identities.
When these kinds of practices appear in news media, it indirectly affects all trans people and the manner in which they’re able to engage with the world. Studies show that how trans people are written about in the media has a lasting, and in some cases damaging impact on trans lives. According to a recent survey by advocacy group Trans Media Watch, 21% of respondents received ‘at least one instance of verbal abuse which they believed was associated with the representations of trans or intersex people in the media’.
Back in October 2014, there was public outcry when Queensland tabloid the Courier-Mail ran the lurid headlines ‘Monster chef and the she male’ and ‘Ladybody and the butcher’ when covering the case of Mayang Prasetyo, a transgender woman who was murdered by her partner. Unsurprisingly, the actual content of the articles wasn’t much better than the headlines, with the paper running multiple photos of Prasetyo in a bikini and salaciously focusing on her trans identity and sex-worker status. As Eloise Brook noted in about the tabloid in The Conversation, it’s atypical for the victim of a murder to be repeatedly shown posing in swimwear.
Following complaints and an online petition against the Courier Mail’s handling of the story, the Australian Press Council ruled it had breached press standards, including the requirement that reports be fair and balanced, and that they avoid causing distress or prejudice. The backlash generated discussion and awareness around the responsibility of the media to portray trans people with dignity. We might have hoped that the resulting discourse would set a precedent for acceptable writing about trans people in this country – yet, the relatively low benchmark for respectful reporting still seems unattainable for some.
While the gender identity guide mentioned above was only released in January, there have been easily accessible resources for journalists to turn to for far longer. For over a decade, for instance, the Associated Press style guide has included conventions for reporting about trans people, such as using preferred pronouns. GLAAD, a US non-governmental media monitoring organisation founded by LGBT people in the media whose work includes ‘holding the media accountable for the words and images they present’, have published a Media Reference Guide for years. The most recent edition was published last October and includes a glossary, lists of problematic terms to avoid (and preferred alternatives), standard practices and an in-depth guide to writing about people in the trans community. With these guides and references available, it is the duty of all journalists to maintain a consistent standard when writing about trans people in their work.
While it’s easy to categorise the lack of professionalism publications such as the Daily Mail and News.com.au display as Classic Tabloid Crassness, it’s crucial that this kind of reporting be held up as unacceptable: the approach the media takes when reporting on marginalised communities influences public sentiment and plays a role in determining how these communities are able to interact with public life.
One of the most common ways that trans people are undermined comes when they are the victims of homicide and journalists fail to report fairly on their deaths. The media must stop contributing to the discrimination, harassment and violence that trans people continue to face.