by Sue Ellen Christian
Several months ago, Kalamazoo, Michigan, where I teach, became the latest in the awful and growing list of American cities that have experienced mass shootings. Two days after the February 20th shootings, editors at the Chicago Tribune asked me to write an opinion column about the incident in which random shootings by one man killed six people and critically wounded two others.
The shooter worked his way, literally, through the area streets as an Uber driver, conducting his spontaneous killings between rides. Murder charges have since been filed in the case, and Jason Brian Dalton, 45, of nearby Cooper Township, has been ruled competent to stand trial.
After the shooting, news outlets were looking for something fresh, something that would move the story beyond the local and put the crime, the nation’s 42nd mass shooting in 2016 alone, into national perspective. My book, Overcoming Bias, repeatedly emphasizes the importance of reporting new or underrepresented perspectives on people and events. The book cautions journalists to avoid the easy narrative, the “story that writes itself,” because such stories tend to be loaded with stereotypical characters and plot points. But, whether due to my own blind spots because the incident hit so close to home or because, simply and terribly, this is a story that plays out again and again with only slight variances, I found myself defying my own advice.
I tried three versions of the piece and all felt either too local or too expected: Can’t believe it happened here. Can’t believe how easy it is to get guns and how hard it is to keep citizens safe from them. Can’t believe things are back to normal just days after this tragedy. Even using the word “tragedy” felt cliché.
Now, three months after struggling to write that column that I never did finish (one editor called it “too Kalamazoo-centric”), I think the problem is that there isn’t much new to say about the shootings that regularly replay through U.S. cities. The details of each are different, of course, but often so much of the narrative is consistent: anti-social male, usually white; unsuspecting family, friends and neighbors; easy access to and comfort with firearms; unsuspecting victims; baffled community that then races to protect itself, too late.
Maybe some stories, this being among the worst kind, fit the stereotypes.
Currently, news outlets are covering the transgender community in a variety of ways. Some examples:
1. News-making transgender individuals, such as this story in The Huffington Post’s “Gay Voices” section about the transgender model Carmen Carrera.
2. Stories about the variety of issues involved in being a transgender person. For example, New York Magazine wrote about parents of transgender children.
3. Transgender individuals as sources in news stories that have nothing to do with transgender living or issues. These are people tapped for their expertise, period. Appropriately, that level of inclusion of the transgender community in news stories may go completely unnoticed by news consumers. In this role, the individuals are sources of information on a particular topic, and their race, ethnicity, age—or sexual orientation or gender status—has nothing to do with their contribution to the article.
Key points to think about when covering the transgender community include:
* Writing for an underrepresented community as opposed to about it. The latter objectifies and distances the people being covered; the former seeks to explain and increase knowledge about a group of people in society.
* Ensuring the most accurate description of a person is used in the news coverage, but that the description is also explained if necessary. Try to avoid ostracizing the news audience with jargon. Illuminate the news audience with clear, concise descriptions.
Here’s a good example to follow: The author of a Rolling Stone article about a rock star in a punk band who is transitioning to a female helps readers understand the terminology (in this case, gender dysphoria), which is presumably foreign to most in the Rolling Stone audience, and also gives the space to allow the profile subject to describe it:
“For as long as he can remember, Gabel has lived with a condition known as gender dysphoria. As the textbooks explain it, it’s a feeling of intense dissatisfaction and disconnect from the gender you were assigned at birth. As Gabel explains it, “The cliché is that you’re a woman trapped in a man’s body, but it’s not that simple. It’s a feeling of detachment from your body and from yourself.”
* Journalists are trained to emphasize a person’s humanity by leading with a person, as in: a person who is deaf or a person who is visually impaired. So too, personhood should be emphasized in coverage of the LGBTQ community. Word choice, as discussed in Chapter 8, The Power of Words and Tone, is essential to educating news consumers concerning a topic about which most have little knowledge.
Here are a couple examples to avoid:
The headline on the online site, AsiaOne.com: “Right to ban transgenders from clubs?”
Or, this New York Daily News headline: “Transgenders win discrimination tiff with American Eagle Outfitters, AG Andrew Cuomo forces changes.”
* “Transgender” is not a noun; it is an adjective, so use it accordingly. One tool for keeping abreast on the terminology for all LGBTQ individuals is the GLAAD Media Reference Guide.
An extremely useful discussion can take place in newsrooms and classrooms due to the recent appearance of writer and trans activist Janet Mock, on the primetime CNN interview show, “Piers Morgan Live.”
Perhaps we can stop this post right now, because the hurried, harried reader might have already quit reading, wondering: What is a “trans activist”?
As comedian Steven Colbert said on his show, The Colbert Report, when introducing Mock as a guest: “You see, as a broadcaster, when it comes to transgender issues, I don’t know what I should say to these people. Here to say what I should say to these people, please welcome transgender activist . . . Janet Mock.”
As usual, Colbert nailed it. Yes, journalists’ primary allegiance is to their audience and that means clarity and conciseness. However, in complicated matters of individual identity, gender expression and transitioning from one gender to another, the brevity of news writing does not always serve the laypeople in the news audience or the transgender community being covered.
Which brings me to the Mock-Morgan clash, a true learning moment for all. Mock, the author of the New York Times bestseller Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More, appeared on CNN to promote her book. The video is here.
After the interview, Mock tweeted that she was displeased that Morgan repeatedly described her as having been born a boy and that she used to be a man. Mock posted on her Facebook account that she and fellow transgender woman, actress Laverne Cox, “did not appreciate the lack of nuance in framing my story.”
Mock asserted that Morgan’s persistence in differentiating between the before and after of her surgical changes missed the nuanced point that she was female long before she physically took on female characteristics. This can be difficult to convey quickly in a headline or a news story, but it is important to maintain the goal of accurately representing a source.
Morgan’s response was anger that Mock hadn’t said anything to correct his depiction of her during their interview, which both agreed was a pleasant exchange. Morgan said he didn’t think he had said anything offensive or inaccurate during the interview but had emphasized his support of Mock’s identity and her work. Morgan insists he is an ally, supportive of Mock and a champion of equality for LGBTQ people. Here was his Tweet in response to the maelstrom of criticism he received from Mock supporters and the transgender community:
Morgan invited Mock to return to the show to sort out the terminology and her reaction. If you don’t have much time, watch this second appearance as opposed to the first interview. It highlights the perspectives of both journalist and source in a head-to-head exchange:
In addition, Morgan invited three guests on a later show to critique the interview and his performance. Each guest had a different take on what went wrong and right during the interview. Watch a portion here, or simply read a quick text recap at the same link.
Take a moment to think about the perspectives presented in both of the exchanges. What points do you agree with and why? What lessons are to be learned here? What stereotypes or clichés come to your mind with the topic of transgendered individuals? Try to identify your personal attitudes about this group of people; then, take the next step of addressing how you would combat unfair or biased attitudes when reporting on the transgender community. (For tips in identifying and managing stereotypes, “Ch. 4, Story Without Stereotype, may be helpful.)
Journalists can find their way through this changing landscape with a few basic tools:
* First, the Associated Press, among other style guides, advises journalists to use the pronoun preferred by the source. If no preference is given or available, then use the pronoun that reflects the gender that the person lives publicly.
* Second, always ask a source how they want to be described. If the person goes by a different name than the one on their birth certificate, use it. Madonna, Cher, Lady Gaga and other celebrities get that treatment. (In legal and crime cases, a full legal name is necessary to report the story and track the documents.)
* Third, get educated. Read up on the LGBTQ community and its issues, including proposed laws, demographics, crime stats against community members, economic issues and more.
* Fourth, only mention where the person is in his or her medical transition process if it is relevant to the story. Move beyond the before-and-after coverage of transgendered individuals. Capture their humanity in their daily living and focus on what makes them the subject of a news story in the first place.
Journalists’ first service is to their readers/viewers/listeners. Dean Baquet, the managing editor of the New York Times emphasized this when explaining that the news outlet’s decision, initially at least, was to continue using the name Pfc. Bradley Manning. Manning, who was convicted of releasing classified U.S. government documents, announced a day after the court sentencing that she was a female and requested to be called Chelsea Manning.
“Generally speaking we call people by their new name when they ask us to, and when they actually begin their new lives. In this case we made the judgment readers would be totally confused if we turned on a dime overnight and changed the name and gender of a person in the middle of a major running news story. That’s not a political decision. It is one aimed at our primary constituency—our readers.”
The Times shortly after adopted the policy of using the “she” pronoun and the wording “Chelsea Manning, formerly known as Pfc. Bradley Manning.” But in the midst of an ongoing news story, clarity ruled.
Edgar Tamayo was described in many ways in the hours preceding and following his execution by the state of Texas. The range of descriptors assigned to him captures the range of interpretations of his story.
In reading these descriptions, it is telling to note the news source, whether is U.S.-based or Mexican-based or somewhere else altogether, and how Tamayo is presented. In each case, the headlines and leads are enough to get the sense of how his story is being framed: Tamayo as a convicted cop killer or Tamayo as victim denied his rights.
These various descriptors highlight the power of words as discussed in Chapter 8 of Overcoming Bias, as well as the notion of perspective — U.S. or Mexican or global — that is discussed throughout the book. Consider the “Fault Lines” of race/ethnicity and geography discussed in Ch. 1, Context, Culture and Cognition, when looking over these examples:
— headline from The Global Dispatch (an online news site)
“The 46-year-old Mexican was controversially executed in Texas less than two weeks ago for the killing of a Houston police officer in 1994, despite outrage from human rights groups and last minute appeals from his lawyers for clemency on the grounds that Tamayo was mentally disabled.”
— headline and lead from the UK’s Daily Mail
“Texas executed Edgar Tamayo Wednesday night after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an 11th-hour appeal to keep the Mexican national from death at Huntsville State Penitentiary in Texas. Tamayo, 46, was convicted of fatally shooting Houston police Officer Guy Gaddis in 1994.”
— headline and lead from AlJazeera America
— lead from the BBC News
— lead in The New Zealand Herald, which used an Associated Press story.
— the lead from NewEurope (which describes itself as “the European Political Newspaper that mainly publishes and discusses news concerning EU politics and issues”).
The power of words to imply unintended meanings or perpetuate stereotypes is evident in the wake of the trial of Jerry Sandusky, a retired assistant football coach at Pennsylvania State University under the late Joe Paterno. On June 22, Sandusky was found guilty of 45 of the 48 charges of sexual abuse of young boys over a 15-year period. Adding to the difficulty of providing thorough, sensitive coverage of child sex abuse is that the language of criminal cases can obfuscate the horror of what really happened. Here are some points to consider:
You can see examples of problematic and appropriate language used in a real court cases at the Judicial Language Project website. The goal of the Judicial Language Project is “to identify ways in which the language used in legal opinions perpetuates stereotypes and stigmatizes victims, diminishing the severity of what happened,” according to the group’s website. The project is part of the Center for Law and Social Responsibility at New England Law/Boston. The project “seeks to open the dialog about inappropriate language in appellate level sexual assault cases and offer alternatives.”
The site is understandably graphic in its language of court rulings that used language that implied consent or pleasure on the part of a minor who was a victim of sexual abuse or assault. The site identifies problematic language in a variety of court rulings, focusing particularly on the notion that children should not be described as having engaged in any action of their own volition.
The appropriate language proposed seeks to clearly demonstrate the one-sided and non-consensual nature of a defendant’s actions.
In addition, a list of useful sites (including the Judicial Language Project) for reporters covering sexual abuse cases involving children is offered at Poynter Institute’s News University. At this site, you’ll find resources on definitions, experts and statistics.
Overcoming Bias discusses the need to avoid stigmatizing news sources by emphasizing fairness and seeking out the perspectives of all the major players involved in a news event — in this case, the victims, their families and the perpetrators (Chapter 5: “Understanding Culture, Understanding Sources”). To explore this further, download the presentation from Kelly McBride, “Truth and Fairness When Reporting on Child Sexual Abuse,” available on Poynter’s News University website. It covers using your ethical journalism tools to ensure that your coverage of sex abuse is fair, doesn’t perpetuate stereotypes and shields victims.