On Jan. 9, media outlets reported on a homicide in a Fern Valley hotel. A mugshot of the victim, who appeared to be female, appeared in several news reports. Some assumed from the photo that the victim, whom reporters identified as male, was actually a transgender woman.
Publishing a mugshot of a murder victim is cause for concern, as it may unfairly tarnish the reputation of the victim and family. In “How not to report on a transgender victim” from the Columbia Journalism Review, Jennifer Vanasco states that publishing mugshots of murder victims is not standard practice in general — and using the mugshots of transgender victims is even more disturbing, considering their history as an oppressed group that’s already a target of violence.
Even more widely derided by bloggers and social media users was the perceived misgendering of a transgender woman in the coverage, and for good reason. As transgender awareness grows, more people are apt to point out problematic language in reporting, sometimes caused by ignorance of changing language styles. To make matters worse, some news outlets have a history of deliberately or even maliciously misgendering trans people.
“Misgendering” is the act of referring to anyone by the wrong gender, accidentally or otherwise, and it is insulting and dehumanizing. The media contributes to broader cultural narratives which influence individuals’ perceptions and behaviors and should be sensitive to such issues — even more so when dealing with a murder victim, especially if there’s a possibility that the victim was murdered because of their trans identity. (In the case of the recent victim, Sherman Edwards, police have not declared a motive.)
Social media posters and bloggers viewed the media’s labeling as a final indignity callously inflicted upon someone who had already been victimized. But in Edwards’ case, the appropriate gender terminology was unclear — not just for journalists, but also for LGBT blogs like Elixher, which first published a post about a “Black transgender woman killed this month” but then later appended a note clarifying that the victim might have “identified as a gay man.”
The Associated Press and New York Times both have clear guidelines on dealing with the terminology of transgender: They both recommend using the terms that correspond with a person’s preference. If that is not known, then pronouns must correspond with the subject’s consistent public presentation of gender. The Indianapolis Police Department photo used by WHAS and other outlets seemed to suggest that Edwards identified as a woman — and so, based on those guidelines, should reporters assume that female pronouns would be appropriate? It seems like a big decision to make on the basis of a single photo, and many wrong conclusions can be drawn from a single photo — for example, imagine a reporter identifying Rudy Giuliani as transgender based on this photo.
As it turned out, the Edwards case wasn’t very clear-cut, as Buzzfeed noted in a recent article:
“BuzzFeed News, however, was unable to confirm Edwards’ gender identity and spent several days investigating. In interviews, local LGBT advocates, Edwards’ family, and the Louisville Metro Police Department said Sherman Edwards identified as a man.”
And additional photos provided by Edwards’ family and published by other media outlets depict Edwards as a man.
Former Louisvillian Harper Tobin, who now serves as the Director of Policy at the National Center for Transgender Equality in Washington, D.C. (and, full disclosure: a longtime friend), suggests reporters ought to tread carefully in circumstances like these.
“Why run the female photo if that’s not consistent with the way the person generally presents themselves and talks about themselves?” Tobin said. “On the other hand, if there’s evidence someone might have lived and identified as a woman, why refer to them as a man without finding out more? The guiding question should be: How did this person live, and how would they wish to be regarded in death?”
One of the most fundamental principles of journalism is verification. Journalists have an ethical obligation to “verify information before releasing it” and to never distort facts or context, according to the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics.
But such verification could take days. What should reporters do in the interim when faced with conflicting information in a breaking story about a subject’s gender if details are not immediately available?
In Edwards’ case, the photo seemed to conflict with the gender and pronouns used in the coverage. If reporters cannot confirm the correct gender identity before either using the wrong pronouns or publishing inappropriate or misleading photos, they could announce their uncertainty or inability to confirm these facts, as they would with any other story where facts weren’t clear. Reporters could also use gender-neutral pronouns, or even avoid using pronouns altogether, if possible.
The stakes are high in these cases. According to a report from the National Center for Transgender Equality, transgender people face “insurmountable challenges and devastating outcomes,” including extreme poverty, suicide attempts, harassment, physical assault, and murder. This isn’t a matter of mere “political correctness” — for many, it’s a matter of life and death. In the case of potential hate crimes, a misgendered story may inadvertently give authority to the transphobic views that led to the crime.