The New York Times faced some criticism recently for its reporting on transgender issues. Times public editor Margaret Sullivan addressed the criticism in two blogposts last week.
Sullivan focused on three points:
- The Times‘ decision to publish two stories on Bruce Jenner even though Jenner hasn’t confirmed in any media interview a transgender transition.
- Pronoun Use in Reporting on Transgender Issues
- Complaints about Putting Transgender People’s Birth Names first in the Times‘ reporting
Jenner’s publicist Alan Nierob declined to comment to iMediaEthics about the Times‘ reporting.
1. Bruce Jenner – Was it Fair to Report on the Rumors?
Readers questioned the Times‘ decision to report on Jenner and the rumors he is transitioning in two news stories, the Feb. 6 “The Transition of Bruce Jenner: A Shock to Some, Visible to All” and the Feb. 4 “The Bruce Jenner story goes from Gossip to News,” Sullivan reported.
Celebrity magazines and the media have aggressively followed the unconfirmed transition of Jenner, a 1976 gold medal decathalon Olympic winner, stepfather to Kim Kardashian, recent ex-husband of Kris Jenner, and star on the Kardashian reality TV shows.
Among the rumor flood waters, Jenner is said to have agreed to an exclusive interview with ABC News’ Diane Sawyer. As iMediaEthics has reported, ABC News told iMediaEthics it isn’t paying Jenner for the exclusive get and “no questions are off limits.” Jenner is also rumored to have agreed to a reality docu-series on the transition.
Despite the rumors, Jenner has never confirmed the transition in any interview, yet the Times went ahead with its reporting. Why, Sullivan asked, on behalf of readers.
1. Stuart Emmrich, Times style editor told Sullivan the Times went forward with its first story on Jenner’s reported transition, “The Bruce Jenner story goes from Gossip to News,” after unsuccessfully trying to get interviews with Jenner and his family and after two celebrity magazines, Us Weekly and People, published cover stories about the rumors and his rumored docu-series and ABC News interview.
“I decided to focus narrowly on the decision by the ‘mainstream media’ to go ahead and publish without official confirmation, and how they came to that decision,” Emmrich told Sullivan. He added, “I think we took a responsible approach and I was comfortable with the piece we published.”
2. Times editor Susan Chira told Sullivan the newspaper published a front-page story on Jenner because of his high-profile and the “new public and cultural focus on trangender issues.”
3. For her part, Sullivan wrote that the Times was sensitive in its reporting but perhaps overdid it with two stories so close together. “Two [stories] – with the second one on the front page – seemed, if not sensationalizing, then like something close to overkill,” she wrote.
She thought it was OK for the Times to report on the Jenner’s reported transition because he and his family have chosen to invite so much media attention and his family has made “significant acknowledgement” about Jenner’s decision.
In addition to the two Times news stories on Jenner, Nicholas Kristof also penned an op-ed about “Bruce Jenner’s Courage,” iMediaEthics notes. We’ve asking Sullivan why this wasn’t included in her column and if she received any complaints over this.
2.. Was it right to identify by birth name first, then new names?
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Times readers also complained that three “prominent transgender people” were referred to by their birth names instead of their new names, Sullivan reported. The sentence read:
“There have been other prominent transgender people in recent years: Chastity (now Chaz) Bono, whose parents are Sonny and Cher; Larry (now Lana) Wachowski, a producer, director and screenwriter; and Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning.”
Sullivan agreed with readers that the Times should have identified the three by their new names because otherwise the phrasing marginalizes them.
3. What Pronouns Should Times use in Transgender Reporting?
What pronouns to use in Times reporting on transgender people was the third issue tackled by Sullivan.
“I write frequently about the law, crime, economic inequality, and social policy for a variety of publications,” Slater told iMediaEthics by e-mail. “I pitched the 57 bus story to the Times in November 2013 and spent the next 14 months reporting it.”
In reporting on student Sasha Fleischman, who identifies as agender and was set on fire while riding a bus in 2013, Slater first used the pronoun “xe” which Sasha preferred, but “that approach was rejected” by the Times. Slater’s story reported:
“Telling Sasha’s story also poses a linguistic challenge, because English doesn’t offer a ready-made way to talk about people who identify as neither male nor female. Sasha prefers ‘they,’ ‘it’ or the invented gender-neutral pronoun ‘xe.’ The New York Times does not use these terms to refer to individuals.”
Times standards editor Philip B. Corbett explained to Sullivan why “xe” wasn’t permittted. The phrase is probably “confusing to the vast majority of readers” so it isn’t used in the newspaper, he said.
“We try to follow settled usage that’s familiar to a large majority of our readers. We’re not at that point,” Corbett told Sullivan, noting that the standards and practices for terminology are changing.
Slater ended up opting for no proununs at all in that story, she told Sullivan.
“I’d like to see the Times use gender-neutral pronouns for those who identify as gender-neutral, but the task will then be to figure out which gender-neutral pronoun. I like xe because it seems the most graceful and precise, but this is a conversation that has to be held with the people who will be affected by the choice.”
Sullivan said she thinks the Times should “use the preference of the individual whenever possible” and recommends the Times discuss the matter with advocacy groups. Sullivan added that the Times could also add “a very brief editor’s note” on stories to help explain to readers when necessary.
She also pointed out that the Times immediately changed pronoun use when it referred to Chelsea Manning, the U.S. Army private formerly known as Bradley Manning who was convicted of leaking to WikiLeaks, when Manning announced her news. (More on how news outlets reported on Manning in iMediaEthics’ story.)
iMediaEthics has written to both GLAAD and the Transadvocate for comment on the Times reporting.