IPSO has commissioned an independent report to find out how newspaper coverage of transgender issues has changed over time and why. The report found that the volume of newspaper coverage has increased significantly over the last decade, with notable changes in language, focus and tone.
Where trans coverage used to be disrespectful and pejorative over a decade ago now it is not. In recent years we have also seen an increase in coverage of trans-related policies and law and the potential impact on others – while maintaining this respectful approach to individual trans people. Both of these are very welcome changes.
Importantly, the report also confirms that coverage today is done broadly in line with editorial standards dispelling the myth that the media is transphobic in its approach.
Generally, it is our perspective that most of the debate around these serious and contentious issues, while heated at times, is conducted broadly within the parameters set by the Codes and Guidance. (p14)
Claims by trans activists that journalists “make generalised statements to wilfully mislead” have also been investigated and dismissed.
In our analysis, we looked for instances of poor research and inaccuracy and identified these where possible, but would be unable to attest (given the extent of our own research) any particularly high level of ignorance manifested in the coverage we examined. (p71)
While coverage of trans issues has undoubtedly improved for transgender people a number of problems were raised in the report that have an adverse impact on women and girls.
1) Journalists fear a backlash from social media and transactivist groups
Interviews with editors and journalists reveal that fear of a negative response can influence what they write on transgender issues and the implications of these on other groups in society.
Journalists feel this pressure. (p73)
I felt completely besieged by social media after my stories. If I were in my 30s with my whole career ahead of me, I wouldn’t say what I say. (p73)
If my writers don’t say the right thing they get trolled very badly indeed. They get kept in check by the audience. We really have to be careful otherwise we get held to account. This applies to subjects and to language equally; there is an unspoken language that’s unacceptable amongst these readers. (p73)
We’re nervous about doing coverage. I also have a lot of younger people working for the team and they’re particularly nervous about toeing the Twitter line. (p73)
It’s very hard to keep up with language. We’re very worried about online reprisals so generally the writers avoid using the subject or avoid using anything contentious. (p74)
This elicited extraordinary emails from groups and individuals, for example comparing the questions I raised about trans women gaining access to female spaces as the same as raising questions about black people being allowed into white changing rooms. I have never seen anything like the trouble my publication had over this article. It made them extremely reluctant to address these issues going forward. (p78)
I’m freelance and a lone parent. I need to support my family and so if I step out of line too much, I could lose work. So, I self-censor and do what I can anonymously. (p78)
2) Using language that is misleading to readers
The report found that some publications are neglecting to provide readers with a full understanding of the facts and concepts underpinning the debate. This was largely around preferred pronouns and use of ideological concepts such as ‘sex assigned at birth’.
When referring to an individual’s birth sex the report found that 25% of articles in 2019 used the term ‘sex assigned at birth’ rather than the more commonly understood language of being ‘born’ male or female (p46). This has happened despite the fact that newspapers have not been guided to use it (this phrase does not appear in the IPSO guidance).
‘Assigned at birth’ is the language of an ideology. (Feminist group, p47)
It is a worrying sign that this abstract phrase has found its way into newspapers to such an extent. Interestingly an editor clarified why they’ve chosen not to use it – because readers can’t understand it.
The language we use has definitely changed. Before we used to have to explain what a ‘trans man’ is and some readers still are confused. We have had guidance but don’t follow it slavishly. For example, we write ‘born male’ rather than ‘assigned male at birth’. But respectful language doesn’t prevent us from a discussion of the issues. We frequently respectfully disagree, and our number one priority is to make sure the reader understands what we’re talking about. (p51)
IPSO’s guidance to always use preferred pronouns was singled out frequently in interviews. There were concerns from feminist groups about situations in which the use of personal pronouns can create confusion for the reader, for example in relation to reporting on violent or sexual crimes carried out by transgender women. Where the publications use the preferred pronouns, such reporting can give the impression that females have committed violent / sexual crimes when in fact the incidence of this is low.
“The pronoun issue is particularly difficult. If it’s an article that has nothing to do with their biological sex, then using the preferred pronoun of the person is fine. But if it’s an article about male violence, sexual assault, or the representation of women politically, then it does matter to the reader that that person is a natal male, then it’s important that this information is part of the article so they understand what’s being said. (p80)
“By not being clear about what you can do with pronouns, they’re confusing coverage. IPSO is siding with a particular ideology; ‘mis-gendering’ is a concept developed by a particular view of the argument. In fact, calling Karen White ‘her’ is ‘mis-sexing’. IPSO is complicit in promoting one view of the sex-gender issue. (p80)
Editors and writers share these concerns:
IPSO’s preferred pronouns guidance is a huge issue. I completely get where they’re coming from, but when you use ‘she’ for a transgender woman, everyone is imagining a fully-imagined, transitioned person. Instead, it’s hard to use pronouns for people who have not transitioned. (p79)
In a piece about Karen White [a transgender woman who was admitted to the female prison estate and sexually assaulted inmates], I wanted to put a footnote about IPSO guidance on pronouns so my readers understood why I was referring to White as ‘she’ but the editor said it was confusing. So, I wrote around the pronouns, which made for a difficult read. (p79)
There are lots of examples of where we aren’t able to report properly because of the pronouns guidance. (p80)
If a pronoun is confusing, then the paper needs to explain the complexity. Writers are often nervous about explaining stuff. (p80)
The idea at the heart of using people’s preferred pronouns and calling them ‘women’ or ‘men’ according to their self-identity is that all that matters about a person is what they think about themselves. But when you’re reporting their use of single-sex spaces, or violent or sexual assaults they have committed – what matters to everyone else is their sex, not their innate gender feelings. (p80)
When you write, as a journalist, that a woman has lunged at another woman and had to be restrained by security guards – EVEN if you’ve said that person is trans – you are painting a word picture that is simply not reality, when the reality is that this is male violence against women. (p80)
Obviously the IPSO guidelines are voluntary. But I work in a busy newsroom, and I see the strain and stress our editor is under all the time, from all directions. When there’s a guideline from an official body, and it seems superficially reasonable – it will be followed. Because it’s too much time to think about it deeply, and too much grief to break it. (p80)
3) Not reporting trans status
IPSO’s transgender guidance suggests writers should only mention someone’s trans status if relevant to the story.
Dr Kate Stone, transwoman on the Editors’ Code of Practice Committee, makes reference to the increasing number of stories that don’t mention someone’s trans status as a sign of improved editorial standards.
“Now, however, most of the good work done as a result of their improved editorial standards is unseen: people don’t understand that the editors are working hard to be respectful. This is because there are stories about trans people that don’t mention that they’re trans, but these stories are invisible. Things are better but it’s hard to know that they are.” Dr Kate Stone, transwoman on the Editors Code of Practice Committee.
Newspaper editors are clearly cautious about ‘outing’ anyone as trans with one saying they would “have to think very carefully” before including trans status now and other referring to getting sued for privacy.
We are respectful of privacy. We agree that someone’s status as trans is not necessarily a story and we would certainly never ‘out’ someone (as we wouldn’t if they were gay). But there was a period in which there were a series of ‘firsts’ and we did carry profiles of the first in some senior positions. This backfired once when the subject, the first senior [redacted] sued us for privacy, despite the piece being a respectful and admiring profile. We learned then that trans status should be ignored unless in some way central to the story. (p69)
However, there is no mention in the report of any problems associated with not revealing trans status when someone’s birth sex is relevant and important to the story (possibly because the project team only evaluated articles identified in a search for ‘transgender’ stories so would obviously miss any coverage where trans status was omitted).
Transgender advocacy groups do not wish gender identity, sex or transgender status to be reported where it is not relevant to a story. However, women’s sex-based advocacy groups, such as ours, do not wish the male sex to be misreported or misinterpreted as if it were the female sex, where sex is relevant to the story. The needs of both stakeholder groups should be considered and fairly balanced in any future update of the Editors’ Code of Practice.
Clarity on the language used around sex and gender identity matters to everyone, especially women, in the context of our sex-based rights. All readers of newspapers deserve clear wording.
This is something we covered in our own submission to the Editors Code Committee in March 2020.
We submitted evidence to the Committee that by presenting the individual’s gender identity as if it were an individual’s sex the public is being misled (breach of Clause 1 Accuracy) on the occasions when an individual’s sex is relevant and important to the story.
We concluded that IPSO is conflating sex and self-declared gender identity as if they are synonymous and interchangeable. In contrast, when the majority of the public reads words like ‘man’, ‘woman’, ‘male’, ‘female’, ‘him’, or ‘her’, they will understand them to refer to an individual’s sex and not a self-declared gender identity. This mismatch between IPSO and mainstream public opinion is undermining the ability of IPSO to deal effectively with complaints relating to the accurate reporting of an individual’s sex.
UK Equality law considers sex and self-declared gender identity to be different and sets out the circumstances when someone’s sex is considered relevant and important. The law is clear that sex matters and it can take priority over an individual’s self-declared gender identity when necessary to uphold dignity, safety and fairness for women and girls.
We recommended a similar approach should be reflected in the Editors’ Code of Practice and IPSO trans guidance. New guidance should clarify when an individual’s sex is relevant and important in a press report. This would assist IPSO to fairly balance the right of the individual to keep their sex, gender identity and/or transgender status private with the right of others to accurate information regarding an individual’s sex.
Read more about what Fair Play For Women is doing to protect the integrity of our sex-based language.
If we don’t have the words to describe our sex we can’t talk about our sex-based rights. Words matter.
You can help to defend female rights by making a donation. Fair Play For Women receives no formal or government funding to support the vital work we do. We rely completely on donations made by our supporters.