What the Media Learned from Chelsea Manning


Freelance writer and NLGJA member Christopher Carbone has penned a nice summary in The Advocate about media coverage of Chelsea Manning:

“I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female.” With those eight words delivered in a statement read by Savannah Guthrie on the Today Show on August 22, the former Army private and convicted WikiLeaks whistleblower once known as Bradley became the most well-known transgender person in the world, the subject of news industry angst as media grappled with how to refer to Manning and which pronouns to use.

And NLGJA got a shout out:

At the outset, several news organizations, including Reuters and The New York Times, initially referred to Manning by masculine pronouns. Within hours of the announcement, the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association issued a statement urging the media to use feminine pronouns and to respect Manning’s wish to be known as Chelsea. The next day, the Times announced that it was following the NLGJA’s guidance on the issue.

Let’s hope more mainstream outlets adopt this guidance.


Reaction to the NYT Coverage of the Death of Lorena Escalera

We are cross-posting a story from Bilerico Project by Dr. Jillian T. Weiss on the New York Times coverage of the death of Lorena Escalera in a fire.  Concerns over the coverage has prompted a response from the paper. 

NY Times to LGBT Community: ‘That Will Be All There Is From Us’

Imagine for a moment, that tragedy has struck your family or friends. A suspicious late night fire broke out, and although many people were saved, your family member, your friend, died in the fire. You read this in the newspaper as the first sentence in the story:

She was 25 and curvaceous, and she often drew admiring glances in the gritty Brooklyn neighborhood where she was known to invite men for visits to her apartment, her neighbors and the authorities said.

Curvaceous? Gritty neighborhood? Inviting men for visits? She is dead, for God’s sake, a young woman burned to death in a suspicious fire. Ah, but this is a transgender young woman of color, and the headline screams “Woman In Group Of Transgender Performers Dies On Brooklyn Fire.”

Lorena_Escalera.jpgAt least they acknowledged that her gender identity was that of “woman.” So then why these quotes?

“Called Lorena, she brought two men to her apartment…”

“According to neighbors, she was born male…”

“For a man, he was gorgeous…”

“Ms. Escalera had worked as an escort and that he regularly saw her advertising her service on an adult Web site…”

“Still, she was a nice person.”

“A debris pile outside the apartment, which is above a funeral home, contained many colorful items. Among them were wigs, women’s shoes, coins from around the world, makeup, hair spray, handbags, a shopping bag from Spandex House, a red feather boa and a pamphlet on how to quit smoking.”

“Human interest,” you say? A journalist merely reporting what was said, you say?

I think not. This story is shot through with transphobia. The issue has been raised with the New York Times by a number of journalists and GLAAD. The Times acknowledged a deficit in their “choice of words, but refused to make any corrections to the article, or indicate that their journalists will be given any information or training on how to report such stories, and their further response is in the title to this article: “That will be all there is from us.”

But that is not all there will be from us. There is a petition to sign at the end of this post.

New York Times Metro Editor Carolyn Ryan defended the Times article as follows:

“We typically try to capture the personal stories of those whose lives are lost in a fire, and we sought to do so in this case. We certainly did not mean any disrespect to the victim or those who knew her. But, in retrospect, we should have shown more care in our choice of words.”

Personal stories? Do you know what the Times has said about victims in its previous stories about deadly fires? Nothing like this, I assure you. In fact, after looking at a dozen Times stories about local fires, I noted that there’s often no “personal interest” included. But let’s take a look, shall we, at the “personal stories” included in the Times‘ previous coverage of deadly fires.

Here’s an example from May 1, 2012, which tragically killed four people.

The deaths sent waves of grief through two communities.

The Sullivan family had lived in the house for more than 10 years. They had been involved in local sports and the schools; Meaghan and Mairead attended Carmel High School.

Mayor Anne McAndrews of Larchmont, in Westchester County, said Captain Sullivan had been “the face of the department for the whole community.” She said he had been essential in organizing the annual Memorial Day parade, a 5K run coming up and just about any event that required community and police interaction.

Ms. McAndrews said she would often see his smiling face in the three-story building that houses the village government offices as well as the Police Department. “He brought his own sunshine,” she said.

“He was just part of Larchmont,” said Elizabeth Alfieri, who owns a floral shop on Chatsworth Avenue in Larchmont.

Ms. Alfieri, the florist, said Captain Sullivan would sometimes honk and wave from his patrol car or come in and buy flowers for his wife or daughters.

Ms. Alfieri said she would talk with him about their dogs. The Sullivans had just adopted a fourth Yorkshire terrier, which Donna Sullivan adored, Ms. Alfieri said. It was not immediately known if any of the family’s dogs had survived the fire.

From a February 24, 2011 story about a fire that tragically killed five people:

On Friday, mourners stood in the drizzle and gawked at the charred shell of the former farmhouse. Some left balloons decorated with Spider-Man, Barney the Dinosaur and teacups, along with stuffed puppies and yellow, white and pink flowers.

“These were wonderful people,” Andrea Thompson, 43, said as she tied heart-shaped balloons around a telephone pole and hung a teddy bear on police tape.”I was devastated.”

These are the types of “personal interest” that appear in Times articles, when it does appear. There’s nothing about the victim’s shapely figure, sexuality or gendering. It’s quotes from neighbors who reminisce about how wonderful the victims were. And that is as it should be. Such stories are panegyric obituaries to people who died in tragic circumstances. It’s not an occasion to showcase them as a zoo specimen or circus sideshow. The “personal interest” defense is not credible. It is a cover-up. Saying that the Times could have shown “more care in our choice of words” speaks very loudly about theTimes‘ failure to understand what it means to be sensitive to a fire victim who is transgender.

As GLAAD wrote in its blog post on the issue, the problem with the Times‘ article is bigger than their “choice of words” or with their attempt to “capture” her story. It’s their failure to recognize trans women as women.

Janet Mock had it right in the GLAAD post, where she was quoted as follows:

“As my city’s and our nation’s paper of record, I would expect the New York Times to treat any subject, regardless of their path in life, with dignity,” said trans advocate and journalist Janet Mock. “In Lorena Escalera’s life she was so much more than the demeaning, sexist portrait they painted of girls like us. It goes beyond a ‘choice of words.’ According to the Times‘ limiting, harmful portrait of Lorena, she was nothing more than a ‘curvaceous’ bombshell for men to gawk at. That is not the ‘personal’ story of any woman, and until we treat trans women like human beings – in life and death – with dignity, families and struggles, our society will never see us beyond pariahs in our communities.

Laverne Cox well described my feelings upon reading the description of the debris pile that included personal articles of the victim in her Huffington Post article:

Reporting on trash in articles about the deaths of transgender women enrages me in ways I can’t even explain. When I wanted to kill myself, I felt so utterly dehumanized and demoralized by living in a world that was not having me. I have struggled and continue to struggle to not only have dignity and to carve out a place in the world for myself but to treat myself as if my life matters. My life matters. Transgender lives matter. Lorena Escalera’s life mattered. Rest in peace, Lorena.

Rest in peace, Lorena.

Here’s a petition you can sign targeted towards Carolyn Ryan, the Times Metro Editor, who said their only problem was “a better choice of words”

Transgender woman’s murder raises coverage questions

The murder of a transgender woman in downtown Oakland in late April has raised several coverage questions since the news broke.

On Bay Area news sites that have covered the story, readers have left comments critical of journalists  for disclosing the victim’s male birth name. They contend the media should only refer to her by the female name she adopted.

And a press spokesman for one transgender advocacy group has asked media outlets to refrain from using the victim’s birth name in stories.

A separate question has arisen among LGBT news media professionals on the merits of publishing a photo of the murder victim at the crime scene.

It is exceedingly rare for readers of the country’s LGBT press to encounter a photo of a dead body. Unlike mainstream papers and TV stations, many LGBT papers are not monitoring police scanners on a daily basis nor do they have photographers at the ready to to rush to a crime scene.

The Bay Area Reporter published a photo (seen above) of the Oakland victim after being sent it by a friend of the person who learned about the killing and rushed to the scene. The paper’s news editor, Cynthia Laird, said she didn’t question whether to publish the photo.

As soon as I saw the photos that photographer Tiffany Woods sent me, I knew we had a powerful image for the front page, lead story of a trans woman’s murder in Oakland. Woods, who knew the victim, rushed to the scene, arriving before the coroner’s office had removed the body. At some point, she told me, the police asked her to stop taking photos,” Laird said.

“We discussed the photo and whether to put it on the cover, but it wasn’t a hard decision to make. As of Thursday afternoon, there were a couple people who commented on Facebook. “Do we really need that photo?” one asked. Other than that, I have not had a response.”

Laird added that she believes it is the first time the B.A.R. has run such a photo over the last two decades, as she couldn’t recall using a homicide photo that includes the body in the 16 years she has worked at the San Francisco-based paper.

The only other instance that is similar is when in 1998 the B.A.R. ran a photo of deceased AIDS activist Steve Michael in a coffin in front of the White House. It was part of an action that activists did, said Laird.

A query of several other LGBT newspapers found few that had run homicide photos as part of their coverage of murders. Bay Windows in Boston Publisher Sue O’Connell recalled two such times her paper did so.

We have on two occasions – the crime scene photo of a gay police officer who committed suicide, and the autopsy photos of the SF woman who was mauled by her neighbors’ dogs,” said O’Connell. “We wanted to show the extent of the wound and the nature of the attack. There was a feeling that readers did not understand the viciousness of the attack. I can’t remember how we got them…. Not everyone appreciated it.

One reader took the paper to task for its decision in a letter to the editor:

I find it very difficult to understand why Bay Windows found it necessary to display an extremely graphic photograph of dog-mauling victim Diane Whipple on its front page recently. It seems to me that the words “mauled to death” are adequate in depicting the horrible death of Whipple, and that no visuals are necessary,” wrote the person.

Kevin Naff with the Washington Blade doesn’t remember using any such photos in recent years. He said he would have refrained from publishing the Oakland murder scene photo.

“I don’t think it advances or enhances the story. Balancing the public’s right to know with the principle of minimizing harm to crime victims and their families is difficult and editors have to make those decisions on a case-by-case basis,” said Naff.

Dallas Voice news editor John Wright said that his publisher doesn’t remember using such a photo in the print edition. But Wright has used a similar photo with an online story.

“I can tell you that we’ve run one on the blog as recently as a a few months ago when the Iraq emo killings were reported,” he said.

Chicago’s Windy City News also has yet to use such a photo in its printed edition.

We have not to my recollection; i think it would depend on the news angle of it, so I would never say never,” said Publisher Tracy Baim.

While the use of the photo has drawn few complaints, a more heated debate has ensued about how the media should refer to the victim. Friends and former co-workers knew her as Brandy Martell.

They claim that Martell, who was shot by an unknown assailant early in the morning of Sunday, April 29, had legally changed her name and Martell was listed on her California driver’s license.

But Martell’s immediate family, including her sister and mother, have told the news media that they knew her as Milton Massey Jr. Both the Oakland Police Department and the Alameda County coroner’s office have used that name in describing the victim’s identity.

That has led to complaints about how the media, authorities and family members have been referring to Martell in articles and TV reports. One person left the following comment below the B.A.R.’s May 3 article:

… last night, KTVU (channel 2) News had a report on Brandy with Brandy’s sister which was basically 3 minutes of endless misgendering, calling her repeatedly by her birth name and the sister saying how ‘he’ was still called by his birth name by the parents. It was a huge mark of disrespect to a woman who can’t respond and has lived as a woman since the age of 18,” wrote the person.

“No matter how much a family loves you or what supposed rights they have as the victim’s relatives, they don’t get to go on tv and do that. And shame, shame on the station for broadcasting it. It contributed nothing to the murder investigation. TV stations and family members don’t OWN our gender identities… nor does the BAR.”

According to the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association’s Stylebook, the media is advised when writing about a transgender person to “use the name and personal pronouns that are consistent with the way the individual lives publicly.”

In the B.A.R.‘s case, it has referred to Martell as a woman and used female pronouns throughout its coverage apart from when quoting police and family members directly.

Both the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle have approached the story in a similar fashion. So has the Oakland Tribune.

While certainly there have been past cases were the news media mishandled reporting on the death of a transgender person, a review of the press coverage in the Martell case does not point to similar mistakes.

Almost all of the stories refer to her as a transgender woman and refer to her on first reference (as well as in photos) as Brandy Martell. Her given birth name is mentioned more as one of the facts in the case, which is how it should be handled.

In terms of Martell’s family members, reporters can not force them to use female pronouns during interviews. It is appropriate to inquire why they are using male pronouns or Martell’s given birth name, and those questions likely will be addressed in coverage of this week’s funeral services being held for Martell.

Doing anything more would turn the journalist into an advocate rather than a reporter covering the story.

The Trans Moment on MSNBC

Mara Keisling writes at Huffington Post about last week’s Melissa Harris-Perry show on MSNBC where they spent an hour discussing trans issues. In addition to Keisling, from the National Center for Transgender Equality, the show featured Kate Bornstein and N.Y.C. City Council Candidate Mel Wymore.

For one of the first times that I can remember, trans people got to outline to the public at least part of the trans political agenda for ourselves. From health care access, to barriers to updating identity documents, to talking about jail and detention reform and raising awareness of CeCe McDonald’s story, we finally had a chance to bring trans issues to a national audience as trans people.

Keisling says that while the show was historic, she wishes there was more time to discuss employment discrimination and the concerns of trans people of color. Keisling also said that the real sign of acceptance of trans people is when a trans person is invited on TV to talk about something other than being trans.

I’m looking forward to the day when trans people are invited to Anderson Cooper 360Up with Chris Hayes, and The Rachel Maddow Show to talk about Wall Street reform, getting our troops out of Afghanistan, and overturning Citizens United. Right now, trans people talking about trans issues is crucial. But I believe that our exceptional progress will ultimately be marked by the moment when who we are becomes unexceptional. Getting there is going to take more people like Melissa Harris-Perry helping us raise all our voices and tell America our stories.

HuffPost Gay Voices on Being Out as Journalists

HuffPost Gay Voices is conducting a series of “Voice to Voice” conversations between LGBT authors. They did a few of them for Black History Month. Among them was a conversation between Clay Cane and Janet Mock.

Cane is the entertainment editor for BET.com and the host of Clay Cane Live on WWRL 1600AM in New York City. He’s also contributed to publications such as The Root, theGrio and The Advocate.

Mock is a staff editor at People.com. She earned a GLAAD Award nomination for writing about growing up transgender. This year she was named one of theGrio’s 100 most influential leaders making history today.

In the article, Cane and Mock explore being black and LGBT, homophobia and transphobia. They also discuss their experience with being out as journalists:

Clay Cane: Being out made me a better writer. You can’t sit down with a stranger and get the truth out of them when you’re paranoid about somebody finding out your truth. The truth is, being who I am has never stopped me from getting a job. I wouldn’t have gotten my radio show on WWRL if I had been closeted. What about your coming out as a journalist?

Janet Mock: While making the decision to tell my story, I definitely took on other people’s thoughts about me, internalizing other people’s transphobia. So when I came out publicly, I was armed for people to say awful things about me. Instead, I was overwhelmingly embraced. I wasn’t expecting the love and light that actually came my way, and the opportunities that arose as well because I chose to be open about my journey.

We have come a long way since NLGJA was founded. It’s heartwarming to be reassured that being out as journalists is becoming easier for many of us, although that is still not universally true.