Reporting on Gender: Tips from Our Newsletter

Last Updated February 2024

The guidance below collects the thoughts, tips, and must-reads about reporting on gender published in our weekly newsletter, Revisions. The information is presented in roughly chronological order, has been edited for clarity, and is updated where necessary.

Language & Word Choice

October 21, 2021
How should a reporter introduce a subject’s gender-neutral pronouns in a story? 

The short answer is: the same way you’d introduce the pronouns of someone who uses she/her or he/him — i.e., you don’t need to formally introduce pronouns. You just use them where the sentence structure requires it and trust your audience. (And no, that doesn’t mean avoiding pronouns entirely and using the subject’s name clunkily throughout.) For instance, the singular “they” predates our modern pronoun conversations by centuries, so using they/them will be less confusing to audiences than you think, and even less so as the inclusion of gender-neutral pronouns increases. For further guidance, don’t miss the Trans Journalist Association’s style guide.

 

November 11, 2021
How should reporters ask sources for their pronouns in the first place?

It’s a great practice to ask the sources we interview for the pronouns they use so that we can refer to them correctly. But some of the people we talk to might be unfamiliar with the practice and might even be unsure what pronouns are. An easy way to work this into your interviews is as follows:

Just like I check the spelling of everyone’s names for my reporting, I also want to double-check what pronouns you use, like she/her, they/them, or he/him. That way, when I reference you in the story, I make sure to get it right. Could you confirm what pronouns you use?

This script a) introduces why you’re asking in the first place, b) links it to your mission to get things right, and c) provides options for anyone unfamiliar with the question. It’s also careful not to use the phrase “what pronouns do you prefer” or “identify with,” because framing respecting one’s identity as a preference we can choose to acknowledge or not is not much respect at all.

 

March 10, 2022
 What does “culture war” mean? How can journalists use it accurately when reporting on topics of increased public debate?

“Culture war” is a phrase popularized by sociologist James Davison Hunter some 30 years ago to describe conflict over culture — our values, beliefs, and how we live — playing out in the political sphere. Issues recently given the “culture war” label by news media include laws that target parents of trans children for prosecution, barring LGBTQ and racial injustice education for children, abortion rights, and COVID-19 mitigation.

Defining these as issues of “culture” is misleading. Conflict over such issues is not debate for debate’s sake. Erasing racism and queer communities from our education system is a step toward erasing people of color and LGBTQ people from existence. Eliminating gender-affirming healthcare for kids is a step toward erasing trans adults. Barring access to abortion is a step toward controlling women’s bodies and lives. Banning measures that diffuse the effects of a deadly pandemic costs lives. These issues aren’t about “values” or “how we live,” they’re about who gets to live.

Lumping debates over whose life is worthy and free into the term “culture wars” dilutes the serious and often deadly consequences of whose “values” are enshrined into law. Journalists should avoid using this shorthand and apply the language of human rights and their violations when the issue is life and death for the “loser” of said war.

 

January 26, 2023

Considering the speed at which state legislations are raising bills that target trans and other LGBTQ+ communities, it’s crucial reporters know how to write about trans people. The resources below are a great place to start.

 

June 1, 2023

This week, Graph Massara published a wonderful must-read analysis of transgender coverage for the Columbia Journalism Review. Massara suggests editors and news organizations consider the following questions when assessing the framing of their coverage as a whole:

  • Whose voices are heard, and is anyone missing?
  • What is framed as “normal” versus “dangerous”?
  • Is the story proportional?
  • What’s the political context?
  • Are sources quoted and described appropriately?
  • Would this sound bad if it were written about some other group?
  • Does the story treat trans people as fully human?

I highly recommend any writer use questions like these to take a bird’s eye view of their work. You don’t need a formal protocol to do this type of assessment, either. Check out our resources on quick-and-dirty content analysis to audit your own coverage:

Must-Reads

A life in quotes: bell hooks
The Guardian
Sadly, we lost author, poet, and feminist icon bell hooks in December 2021. There’s no better time to remember her immense impact and return to her work. I implore you to spend some time perusing her most memorable quotes via the Guardian and exploring a crowdsourced thread of her works available online.

Beyond pronouns: How languages are reshaping to include nonbinary and gender-nonconforming people
Minami Funakoshi, Reuters
If you’ve ever studied a language other than your first language, you may have noticed similarities or dissimilarities in how words are gendered around the world. This new interactive report from Reuters explores how different languages across the globe are (or are not) adapting to be inclusive of all genders, and it’s a fascinating read.

When Women Make Headlines
Leonardo Nicoletti, The Pudding
At Reframe we love impressive data visualization and talking about headlines, so this deeply researched piece from The Pudding on how women are represented in news headlines is right up our alley. The authors of this study found some fascinating similarities and differences in how women make the news in India, South Africa, the U.K. and the U.S.

How one Mexican magazine adopted inclusive language in Spanish
Hanaa’ Tameez, Nieman Lab
Using gender-neutral language can be a challenge for anyone used to masculine generalizations (think “congressman” instead of “congressperson”). But this is especially challenging in languages like Spanish where grammatical rules dictate that most nouns and adjectives are gendered by default. Nieman Lab interviewed the editors at Mexican magazine Chilango to learn how they introduced inclusive language to their audiences. The story is full of lessons for any content-focused organization.

Recent Anti-Trans Articles Miss the Point of Gender-Affirming Care
Kaiyti Duffy, Teen Vogue
The New York Times recently published two stories that are highly critical of gender-affirming care. In response, Teen Vogue published an opinion piece from Kaiyti Duffy, MD, MPH, Chief Medical Officer of the Los Angeles LGBT Center. Duffy deftly pulls apart the misleading parts of the articles from an expert point of view.

Contributors’ Letter to the New York Times on Anti-Trans Coverage
A letter signed by hundreds of New York Times contributors (and even more readers and media workers) was published in February 2023 extolling “serious concerns about editorial bias in the newspaper’s reporting on transgender, non⁠-⁠binary, and gender nonconforming people.” The letter is a solid piece of media criticism in and of itself, detailing the ways the paper’s reporting has amplified hateful narratives from a loud minority and how this is a pattern for the Times in its decades of coverage of LGBTQ people. Unfortunately, the next morning the Times continued this pattern.

The New York Times Is Repeating One of Its Most Notorious Mistakes
Jack Mirkinson, The Nation
This story from The Nation highlights the Times’ history of LGBTQ coverage. It’s not a happy history, and the paper appears not to be learning from it.

To NYT’s Peter Baker, Acknowledging Trans People’s Existence Is “Activism,” Openly Advocating for Perpetual U.S. Occupation of Afghanistan Isn’t
Adam Johnson, The Column
This column from Adam Johnson of the Citations Needed podcast dives into the work of Peter Baker, who signed the second oppositional staff letter. Johnson argues that Baker’s work could easily be considered advocacy for a different cause and explains how it camouflages itself as “analysis.”

It Is Journalism’s Sacred Duty To Endanger The Lives Of As Many Trans People As Possible
The Onion
Satire has the ability to point out patterns and habits to us that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to see. That’s certainly true with this essay from The Onion that pretends to be an editorial from an outlet defending its coverage of trans issues.

‘Under His Wings’: Leaked Emails Reveal an Anti-Trans ‘Holy War’
Anya Zoledziowski, VICE
In March 2023,  Mother Jones reported  on a trove of emails between anti-trans lobbyists and U.S. lawmakers that laid bare how the hate groups are getting  so much anti-trans legislation  on the books. VICE has taken a deep dive into those emails and talked to experts about how the language they use aligns with Christian nationalism. It’s a revealing read that draws direct connections between religious and right-wing extremism.

You Cannot Put a Human Being to a Vote
Jude Ellison S. Doyle, Medium
The way reporting on anti-trans legislation is framed sometimes, outsiders might think that voting on whether certain groups deserve to exist is acceptable democratic activity in the U.S.! Writer Jude Ellison S. Doyle’s latest column explains just how coverage of policy votes and polling is normalizing a “debate” over human rights. Key quote: “People are not poll data, and human rights are not awarded via popularity contest.”

Go Beyond the Basics to Support Nursing Parents at Work
Julia Beck, Harvard Business Review
This article illustrates how workplaces can go above and beyond the legal minimums to support nursing parents. Don’t miss it.

Critical Voices

This boggles the mind from a grammatical standpoint. You had the object pronoun sitting.right.there.

A little language levity as a palate cleanser. It was right there, Hershey!

If a male student kisses a boy, should a parent know? What if two students of different races hold hands? What about students who check out books about other faiths? Children are people, not their parents' property. The policy this article supports enables abuse.

This Twitter user refers to a recent New York Times story about students who transition at school and whether their teachers should inform their parents. The user’s extrapolation of this conversation makes clear how slippery the slope of “just asking questions” is when it comes to individual rights.

One of the primary features of polite transphobia is the weaponization of uncertainty. The obvious reason more kids identify as trans is that trans people have become more visible and accepted in society. Yet these articles always cast it as some kind of enduring mystery.

Michael Hobbes, host of the podcast Maintenance Phase, is referring to yet another New York Times story about the “trans debate.” Coverage that positions itself as “just asking questions” from a neutral stance is anything but neutral. If there is a “debate” happening, it’s over whether trans people should be allowed to exist — and when the Times or any other publication welcomes that debate, they are de facto agreeing that the answer may be “no.”

What I appreciate most about Hobbes’ comments, though, is the use of the phrase “weaponization of uncertainty.” This is a great term to describe the way politicians and ideological leaders take advantage of the unknown (or what is unknowable) to move a topic from the sphere of public consensus to the sphere of legitimate debate. If the “answer” to such a “debate” is not a scientific fact but instead an implicit agreement between members of a society, then it can always be pushed into the sphere of debate if dissenters’ voices are amplified enough.

I say this with love and respect: the word “transgenderism” is a made-up term intended to be pejorative by implying being trans is something that one chooses. It’s not. We’re seeing a lot of well-meaning cis reporters and pundits use it after the CPAC clown did. Please don’t.

Writer Charlotte Clymer wrote this good bit of advice following coverage of a speech by Michael Knowles at CPAC in which he said, “transgenderism must be eradicated.” Some newsrooms clearly debated how to report on this statement — as exemplified by Rolling Stone’s back and forth headlines — considering it implies the elimination of trans people, but Knowles very purposefully used “transgenderism” to skirt those accusations.

But, as Clymer notes, the word used in this sense counterfactually presents being trans as an ideology. That bad faith definition makes “transgenderism” a target opponents can more safely attack in public while maintaining plausible deniability for any violence they incite against trans people. Journalists must be careful not to take the bait and avoid amplifying this inaccurate and propagandistic language.

Really wish news orgs would stop referring to legislatures driving tanks through civil rights as "culture war" or "social issues." It minimizes what's happening and reinforces the idea that some people's basic rights are ... not actually rights.

Writer and culture critic Soraya McDonald is right on the money. The more journalists buy into the “culture war” frame of issues like trans rights and reproductive rights, the more we normalize that these things are up for debate. Perhaps journalists avoid calling attacks on rights what they are because that would be “taking a side” by agreeing that people have rights. But there are plenty of rights the news media feels a consensus to defend, like the right to free speech, the right to an education or the right to freedom of religion.

Reframing Headlines

June 23, 2022

New York Magazine released a cover story in June 2022 with the headline “Canceled at 17.” It tells the tale of a teen boy who shared nude photos of his ex-girlfriend with other students and was subsequently ostracized by his peers. There’s plenty wrong with this story — as many have pointed out on Twitter, there are many young girls who have been similarly abused or worse and became the ostracized ones without receiving a major cover story in their defense.

But the headline is particularly disingenuous.

According to the story, the boy in question faced few consequences for violating his ex-girlfriend besides ostracization — at his school. However he did attend four proms and is headed off to college. Moreover, the “mistake” in the subheading was the sharing of nude photos of a minor without consent, and it’s hard to track whether teenagers “never forgive” after one tumultuous year.

The real issue at the heart of the story is that young people are looking to hold each other accountable for abuse and harassment that has often been swept under the rug, and, as teens, do not yet have the wherewithal, support, or resources to do that effectively. In this case it also seems the adults in the room often spent more time consoling the “canceled” than addressing the reasons their peers were calling them out. But dismissing these attempts at peer justice, however messy, as “cancel culture” because our society hasn’t found nuanced enough vocabulary to distinguish between a desire for accountability and the weaponization of it is unfair. A better headline, for a fairer story, might look like the following:

“Canceled” or facing consequences? Teens seeking justice among peers grapple with adults who don’t know how to help

 

September 29, 2022

Earlier this week, students at over 90 schools across Virginia staged a walk-out in protest of new guidelines from Gov. Glenn Youngkin that privilege parents’ determination of their children’s name, pronouns, and gender expression in school. The guidelines also force students to use facilities that match their “biological sex” and allow school employees to reject students’ chosen names or pronouns.

Virginia Students Protest Youngkin's School Transgender Policy

The headline above, from NBC Washington, refers to these new guidelines as “Youngkin’s School Transgender Policy.” Clearly the policy does in fact revolve around transgender students — each part of it seeks to control gender expression in a different way, which will have the most impact on trans students.

But there’s no way to read these guidelines that suggests this will be anything but harmful to trans students or any students expressing themselves beyond traditional binaries. Following that logic, it is a fact that this impact will be negative.

Thus, the headline from The Cut, below, is more apt. The policies are explicitly “Anti-Trans” and journalists should not be afraid to state that plainly. The object of Youngkin’s policy is clear and the impact is wholly predictable. It’s time we call it what it is.

Virginia Students Walk Out in Protest of Anti-Trans Policies

 

February 22, 2024

Earlier this month Nex Benedict, a nonbinary 16-year-old from Oklahoma, died the day after they were beaten by classmates in a school bathroom. I use this phrasing based on an interview with Benedict’s mother at The Independent, who said “she was called to the school that day to find Nex badly beaten with bruises over their face and eyes” and that Benedict collapsed at home the next day before being rushed to the hospital where they were pronounced dead.

On Wednesday, local police released a statement which reads, in part,

“While the investigation continues into the altercation, preliminary information from the medical examiner’s office is that a complete autopsy was performed and indicated that the decedent did not die as a result of trauma.”

The Benedict family also released a statement, which reads, in part, “While various investigations are still pending, the facts currently known by the family, some of which have been released to the public, are troubling at best.”

Nonbinary Teen Nex Benedict Dies After Being Attacked By Peers in a School Bathroom

The ultimate cause of Nex’s death is unclear at this point, but it is difficult to imagine it is wholly unrelated to the bathroom altercation. The headline above, from Them, does justice to this tragedy by connecting the dots without making unsubstantiated claims.

When details like these are both murky and highly consequential (as they are for the students involved in said altercation) it is crucial that journalists revisit how they typically choose whose voices are determinative and authoritative.

Reporters must place their decisions about whose testimony is given the benefit of the doubt against a backdrop that includes the following:

1) Oklahoma’s recent treatment of LGBTQ+ youth

For this context, I turn to the report from Them on Nex’s death:

“Sue Benedict told The Independent that other students started bullying Nex at the beginning of the 2023 school year. The Independent notes that in May 2022, a bill requiring public school students to use bathrooms that match the sex on their birth certificates became law in Oklahoma.

The LGBTQ+ advocacy group Freedom Oklahoma, as well as numerous progressive and LGBTQ+ media outlets … pointed out that Benedict’s death comes as Oklahoma’s head education official, state superintendent Ryan Walters, continues to embrace anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and policy. In January, Walters pushed an emergency rule to prevent students from changing the gender listed on their school records. Last month, he also appointed Chaya Raichik, the woman behind the virulently anti-LGBTQ+ platform Libs of TikTok, to the Oklahoma State Department of Education’s advisory council overseeing the state’s school libraries, despite Raichik not even living in Oklahoma. Last year, a Tulsa elementary school received a bomb threat after Raichik shared a video with the name and school of a local librarian. In 2022, Raichik similarly targeted a teacher in Benedict’s school district for openly supporting LGBTQ+ students who weren’t accepted by their families. The teacher later resigned following harassment.”

2) Historic relations between police and LGBTQ+ communities

A brief set of relevant facts:

3) Histories of inaccuracies or falsehoods in police statements

Many publications, from USA Today and CNN to The New York Times, The Grio and Salon, have reported on the dire consequences of false or incorrect police statements. Though historically treated as a neutral source that is accurate by default, police reports should be treated by journalists like any other source. Details should be corroborated and placed in context, not amplified as if they are inherently factual.

That’s why I have an issue with the headline above from Oklahoma’s News on 6. It leads with the quote from police about the unreleased autopsy and then lists both the Owasso police and Benedict’s family. This could easily be read as if the Benedicts are the source of — or at least are in agreement with — the initial quote, when the family’s statement actually implies the opposite.

I’m not suggesting that the police statement is inaccurate. I have no reason to believe it is. But when dealing with incomplete information, reporters should not amplify any one party as the impartial, objective, single source of truth above another until there is further clarity. Doing so risks biasing the public toward one telling of events before all of the details are known.

That’s why I prefer News Channel 8’s headline, above, which focuses on reactions to the statements without strongly preferencing any singular voice. Alternatively, the version from 2 News below highlights the police statement but clearly lays out the source of the information and qualifies it by calling the report “early findings.”

No matter what further details are revealed, Nex’s death is a tragedy. To honor their memory, journalists on the story must refrain from relying too fully on any one source to provide the facts and continue to investigate.