Reporting on LGBTQ Communities: Tips from Our Newsletter
Last Updated February 2024
The guidance below collects the thoughts, tips, and must-reads about reporting on LGBTQ communities 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.
December 15, 2022
Drag shows don’t “draw” protesters
Right-wing extremists and anti-LGBTQ groups have recently made drag shows the targets of violence (as in a recent deadly mass shooting in Colorado) and armed protests across the U.S.
Let’s break down the sentence above. It has a subject — “right-wing extremists and anti-LGBTQ groups” — and a verb or action — “made drag shows the targets.” This structure puts the responsibility for that action (the targeting) squarely in the hands of the subject (these groups).
However, plenty of headlines on these events have used the word “draws” to connect the drag shows to violence and protests. One example comes from the Oregonian: “‘Drag Queen Story Hour’ at Oregon pub draws gun-carrying protesters.”
The word “draws” is a verb in this and other headlines. This definition of “draws” is to cause or attract something. Both structuring a headline so the drag show is the subject completing the action, and using “draws” specifically as the action word, places the responsibility for the action on the drag show.
But the drag shows in question and their community of performers and supporters are not the ones causing violent attacks and protest. They are just living their lives, performing, and existing. The organizers of protests and the armed protesters themselves are the ones choosing to act. Reporting on these events must accurately place the agency on them. Editors can look to the Texas Tribune for a better example: “Texas drag shows become a right-wing target amid rising extremism”
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.
- The Trans Journalists Association Style Guide
- The Radical Copyeditor’s Style Guide for Writing About Transgender People
- NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists Style Guide
- “Five tips for journalists on covering trans and nonbinary people” by Lewis Raven Wallace for CJR
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:
- Webinar: Content Analysis in the Newsroom
- Slide Deck: What Story Do Your Stories Tell?
- Worksheet: Performing a Mini Content Audit
June 15, 2023
In May 2023, ArtStreet and QNotesCarolinas released a new resource called (queer)alize. Its goal: “This online toolkit promotes story ideas and investigations for LGBTQ+ reporters and news outlets. It provides questions that reporters might consider when approaching a story — identifying key topics to (queer)alize, or make relevant for LGBTQ+ audiences.”
It offers direction to evergreen resources like style guides and photo libraries as well as how-to guides on hot news topics.
September 7, 2023
Exciting news: The Trans Journalists Association has expanded its Stylebook and Coverage Guide to include guidance on how stories are framed!
In a Poynter interview announcing the expansion, president Kae Petrin said, “The style is a starting point, but there’s also just framing: Whose voices are centered? What basic reporting logic are you applying to figure out who you’re covering and how? And what’s the real story here?” To which I say, 👏👏👏.
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.
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
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.”
In February 2022, Texas governor Greg Abbott sent a letter directing the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services “to conduct prompt and thorough investigations of any reported instances of Texas children being subjected to abusive gender-transitioning procedures.” Journalist Vivian McCall’s thread on the announcement is a must-read; she explains how politics-as-a-game coverage has led to such a terrifying moment for trans Texans.
If we’ve said it once, we’ve said it a thousand times, and now veteran broadcaster Soledad O’Brien is saying it, too. If one group wants another group to cease to exist, their argument is not about “culture,” it is about who gets to live.
Here social worker and lecturer Jessica Kant has collected a series of headlines reporting the displacement of families due to anti-trans legislation. It paints a bleak picture — but one that’s easy to miss when reading individual or episodic stories. Groups of similar stories like this help us understand systemic issues in a way that episodic stories do not. The pattern here is clear: individual and dispersed state laws that have criminalized trans healthcare have collective effects that stigmatize, threaten, and displace trans people across the country. And yes, this should be a much bigger deal.
In this tweet, YouTube creator Lily Simpson added emphasis to a clip from a recent New York Times story on puberty blockers. The framing of this behind-the-scenes tidbit directly positions doctors against Republican politicians, as if both groups’ statements hold the same weight in medical discussions. This is the type of absurd “bothsidesism” that normalizes attacks on marginalized groups. Illuminating dissenting opinions on high stakes topics is an important part of journalism. But partisan opinion should not be presented, visually or textually, as equal to subject expert opinion and scientific fact.
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.
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.
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.
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.
April 21, 2022
The headlines below refer to the bill signed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) which, as the Washington Post reports:
“…[bans] instruction or classroom discussion of ‘sexual orientation or gender identity’ for kindergartners through third graders in public schools. It also empowers parents to sue school districts over teachings they don’t like, and requires schools to tell parents when their child receives mental health services.”
After the bill passed, the Walt Disney Co. released a statement condemning the bill and asking for it to be repealed. Both of the headlines below frame these events very differently.
The headline above, from a Los Angeles Times story syndicated by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, combines two harmful tropes of political coverage. First, it uses the word “feud” to describe a very uneven conflict. As MSNBC’s Mehdi Hasan and NYU’s Jay Rosen have discussed on Twitter, calling this a “feud” creates a false equivalence between Disney and DeSantis’ actions. DeSantis and his party have led a bad-faith campaign accusing the company of being “groomers” who support child abuse and made moves to remove the company’s self-governing status in the state. Disney, on the other hand, put out a late, three-sentence statement. These actions are not proportional.
Second, the use of the term “culture war” to vaguely refer to the long fight for equal rights for the LGBTQ community is delegitimizing. As I’ve written previously in this newsletter, “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.”
The headline above, from Vanity Fair earlier in the month, gets it right. It calls DeSantis’s actions “threatening” and refers to Disney’s actions as “spoke out.” These terms accurately describe those actions without implying they are of equal weight. The headline also refers to the bill as “Anti-LGBTQ,” putting the true goal of the bill in harsh relief rather than referring it to as a “culture war.”
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.
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.
May 25, 2023
How would you define a “backlash?” To me (and to the dictionaries I consulted, just in case I was wrong) it is a broad and/or strong negative reaction from an affected population. As I understand from news reports, the recent confrontations that have taken place in some Target stores over their LGBTQ+ Pride merchandise have been relatively isolated, if disturbing and violent. That’s why I was so taken aback by the Associated Press’s use of “backlash” in the headline below.
The word implies a wide cultural force. Yes, anti-LGTBQ+ hatred is a pillar of current right-wing ideology and needs to be eradicated, but it is by no means mainstream in the U.S. Even Target’s own statement about recent events — which have included the vandalizing of merchandise and displays, confronting workers, and posting threatening videos online — did not describe them as sweeping or frequent. They said, “we’ve experienced threats” and “significant confrontational behavior.”
In reporting, these events need to be put in the context of other coordinated attacks on this community. A recent Washington Post analysis found that the majority of recent book bans (which largely target LGBTQ+ themes) were filed by just 11 people. And much of the anti-trans legislation gaining ground around the U.S. comes from the same few hard-right interest groups, the Associated Press found. What these campaigns have in common is that they are organized by a noisy but small population that does not represent broader U.S. sentiment but is supported and stoked by powerful political forces.
It’s crucial that journalists carefully distinguish between widely-held beliefs and loudly-held beliefs precisely because of what we know about media effects. Look to recent research on climate change, for instance: people don’t act on climate change not because they don’t feel its effects, but because they believe others aren’t acting. News media must make clear where these harmful, impactful attacks are coming from to prevent their normalization in wider society.
I don’t intend to minimize the unacceptable threats to employees’ safety — that, in fact, is the most important part of this news event. The fact that people are creating a dangerous and hostile environment in retail stores simply because they sell clothing for LGBTQ+ people is the story. A politically-motivated faction organizing a campaign of violence and threats in order to undermine the safety and inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in society (which, in any other country, would be described as domestic terrorism) is the story. How it impacts Target isn’t the story.
The headline below successfully names the real issue and includes the problematic action, “threats to workers.” Ironically, this is the Associated Press’s first headline for the same story. It was later changed to the example above. Sigh.
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.”
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:
- As the Urban Institute wrote in 2020, “American sodomy laws and laws regulating gender presentation perpetuated LGBTQ oppression for decades. Throughout the 20th century, it was common for police across the country to infiltrate and attack queer community spaces and businesses.”
- According to a 2020 poll, “71% of LGBTQ+ people between the ages of 13 and 24 say that they trust the police ‘not too much’ or that they have no trust at all. That compares with just 25% of cisgender, white, straight, male respondents.”
- The Prison Policy Initiative reported in 2021 that LGBTQ+ people “are overrepresented at every stage of criminal justice system, starting with juvenile justice system involvement.”
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.