Covering trans issues well just means doing journalism well
We need more accurate and nuanced stories, and the Trans Journalists Association is building a community and resources to help
Here’s a thought experiment: Imagine a story about a new vaccine. The medical consensus is that it’s incredibly effective for the tiny population that needs it, but a small group of vocal fringe doctors oppose it. You dig into the “controversy.” You humanize the story with profiles of two patients who got the vaccine: one who had a good outcome and one who experienced devastating side effects.
The people who didn’t or couldn’t get the vaccine? You don’t talk to them at all.
Probably not the best editorial call, right?
Welcome to trans coverage 101. Substitute “puberty blockers” or “cross-sex hormones” for “vaccine” above. You’ll get a good sense of how trans issues are often covered, even (and sometimes especially) by legacy media outlets.
That’s not how we cover vaccine stories.
Journalists generally ask, What’s the science say? not Whose voices are loudest? We ask if the people we profile fairly reflect the prevalence of reactions, positive or negative. And, critically, we ask about the people who don’t get the vaccine.
Otherwise we miss the entire story while chasing the “controversy.”
Maybe this feels like one of those angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin j-school exercises. But getting this coverage right is critical—and urgent.
When my Trans Journalists Association colleagues and I attended the NLGJA conference in Philadelphia this month, we could all safely use the bathrooms. But the IRE conference earlier this year was in Orlando, where wandering into a government-owned toilet stall could now come with a one-year prison term. Missouri, where I lived for a decade, passed bills to prevent its Medicaid plans from covering my gender-affirming medical care. And the courts have been debating whether I should be banned from launching a drag king act in Tennessee — which, to be fair, would probably not be a great career decision, anyway.
This raises a lot of questions. Is anyone actually arresting people under that bathroom ban in Florida? Which insurance companies in Missouri are cutting coverage, and how do my friends know if their plans are among them? With how vague Tennessee’s drag law is, when exactly do I count as a “male impersonator”?
Unclear! If I want to know more about any of this, there are few answers in many go-to publications.
And that’s a huge part of why this year, the Trans Journalists Association is evolving.
Why this, and why now?
In 2020, when the TJA launched as a volunteer-led collective of trans journalists on Slack, most newsrooms didn’t have to cover trans communities. Reporters’ most common concerns were about language and sensitivity: how to describe gender respectfully, when to ask for pronouns, why not to print a deadname, or which verbs to use with they/them.
But that isn’t enough. That’s a huge part of why we’ve incorporated as a nonprofit, expanded our board, and found a fiscal sponsor. This year, with costs mostly shouldered by volunteers and the board, we brought coverage resources to industry conferences and newsrooms across the U.S.
Goodwill and elbow grease can only go so far, though. We’re working to secure more resources: to directly fund coverage of issues impacting trans communities, to place fellows in newsrooms covering crucial beats, to send trans journalists to speak to the journalistic field at large.
This year, there’s news breaking that impacts trans communities on almost every single beat. Legislators have introduced more than 500 bills that would restrict the participation of trans people in public life. And it’s bigger than us. The same bills also have implications for school staff, cisgender student athletes, hospital administrations, medical professionals, restaurant and bar owners, gay nightclub patrons, adoption agencies, librarians, army veterans, incarcerated people — and employees at every single state department in Montana. Even national defense policy reporters need to know something about gender-affirming surgery, right now.
This has enormous consequences for trans people, and sometimes-surprising implications for every aspect of society we touch. The political and cultural rhetoric has become more strident as well, and public support for LGBTQ communities in general is falling.
Our industry has to cover this, and cover it well.
But it hasn’t.
I won’t recap the public or private blowups at newsrooms big and small. At worst, the coverage is rife with misinformation. But even factually sound journalism produced by well-resourced, award-winning outlets asks lazy questions and relies on thoughtless framing.
Certainly, there has been a flood of stories on trans issues at large. For example, publications have run tens of thousands of words in the form of special reports about the possible costs and consequences of delaying puberty for trans youth. What if they regret it? What if there are unforeseen medical or personal consequences? What if they’d just waited and they could’ve been “normal” instead?
Interestingly, these are more or less the same questions that journalists have repeatedly asked in enterprise stories for years. Those answers haven’t changed much.
For this scale of news story, just nailing the stylebook or the pronouns doesn’t cut it. Some of this year’s worst offenders have no faults in their language. They refer to trans people thoughtfully, carefully, and respectfully—while entertaining questions about whether we deserve civil rights and autonomy.
As reporters and editors, we have to ask better questions.
The TJA has tried to prompt this kind of rethinking and reframing. We’ve spoken on covering anti-trans legislation; we’ve led talks on planning better trans coverage. We’re developing workshops on accurately using the often-misrepresented data about trans people.
And at conferences across the U.S., we’ve heard many common themes:
- If my newsroom doesn’t have anyone with statehouse experience, and we might not have the resources to cover this accurately, how do we cover it at all?
- I don’t know much about trans people, and I don’t have key beat expertise for this story. How can I catch up on the basic best practices and facts across all the beats that converge in this single story?
- I’m having trouble cutting through misinformation to identify how this news impacts our audience. What can I ask while planning, reporting, and editing to make sure I’m covering the most important issues?
The thing is: The answers to these questions shouldn’t be any different for covering trans people. Don’t make assumptions; ask questions in all directions, not just the directions that are familiar and obvious; consider whose voices you’re prioritizing, how they reflect proportionality, and what sort of expertise they do (or don’t) have; make sure your audience understands the topically relevant beliefs, political activities, and financial motivations of your sources; be specific; do your research; publish only what you know; and don’t publish what you can’t confirm, can’t contextualize, and can’t explain.
In short, covering trans issues well just requires doing journalism well.
That seems, on the surface, entirely uncontroversial. Why, then, do so many journalists seem to practice something else when they cover trans issues?
Stopping to think
Bear with me through one last thought exercise.
There’s a medical treatment. If you qualify for it after extensive screening, it gives you extra time to decide whether you might pursue an optional follow-up treatment. If it turns out you’re misdiagnosed, it gives you the option to simply not pursue follow-up treatment at all. Studies show that 98% of people who take the treatment pursue the follow-up.
What does this mean?
Well, there are a few logical options, right? Maybe the screening is so good that only 2% of patients are misdiagnosed. That would make it a pretty well-targeted medical intervention. Or maybe the screening is in fact too strict. Maybe the 98% rate indicates that many people who should get the treatment are screened out; if we loosened the rules, more people would pick the treatment, and that 2% misdiagnosis rate might increase, too. Or perhaps, as some critics charge, just starting the treatment locks people into the follow-up, even when they shouldn’t have it. After all, 98% is a pretty high rate.
As journalists, we’re expected to consider all of these possibilities, right?
This is not theoretical, actually—it’s a real statistic about puberty blockers, and one that I often use a real story to illustrate.
Spoiler alert: only one of those three possibilities ended up in the story. Guess which. It’s a great example, I think, because you don’t even have to know anything about trans communities to spot the oversight.
In a recent training, when I walked through this anecdote, an audience member asked, “If you had to say to me, ‘you have to reframe the way you think logically,’ what would be the first thing for me to consider when I’m sitting down to edit or write a story on trans issues?”
And that’s a great example of the core issue in this coverage area. Why would anyone need to reframe logic? You don’t need to reframe the way you think about logic. What is it about trans people that would require someone to reconsider logic?
It’s just about making sure you ask the question in multiple directions.
Sure, we might bring biases to our starting points — but that’s why stopping to think through the options logically is so useful. That will save you on a lot of topics, if you just take the time to step back and ask questions.
Core tenets of journalism.
Earlier, I asked, Why do so many journalists not seem to do that when they cover trans issues?
Say a journalist frames a story about trans rights differently from how they might frame one about abortion, or another group’s civil rights. Say when they substitute other analogous terms in place of “trans” or “puberty blockers” or “drag shows,” the story would raise some concerns with an editor. Is it perhaps because the journalist, consciously or subconsciously, believes trans people are different enough that the usual rules don’t apply?
We shouldn’t be exceptions. No more than women should have been when papers campaigned against their right to vote in the early 1900s; no more than when newsrooms ignored the deaths of gay men early in the AIDS pandemic; no more than as mostly white news organizations have failed to recognize ongoing discrimination against Black communities.
And since we aren’t exceptions, that means the starting questions aren’t, Do trans people really deserve all these rights? Do they really need those treatments? Why are there suddenly so many trans people? The starting question is, How can journalists hold power to account?
Let’s all ask better questions.
How the Trans Journalists Association can support your work
- Keep up with our work by following our newsletter (we’re on Twitter, Instagram, and Bluesky, too, but most of the news is in the newsletter or on LinkedIn)
- Talk to us about bringing a custom training to your newsroom
- Bookmark our recently updated style guide, or email the editor if you encounter an issue that’s not in it
- Watch out for forthcoming public trainings and conference sessions
- Reach out to chat about issues your newsroom is encountering
How to join us in doing this work
- Join our email listserv for journalists of any identity who want to discuss trans coverage and trans-inclusive employment policies in newsrooms
- Join our online communities for trans, nonbinary, and gender-expansive journalists
- Learn more about joining our organization (and watch for membership updates)
Want to support us?
Kae is a data & graphics reporter on Chalkbeat’s data visuals team, where they collaborate with local reporters to tell data-driven stories about education. Previously, Kae created graphics, built newsroom-wide tools, and produced investigative reporting for St. Louis-based radio and print publications. Kae co-founded the Trans Journalists Association in 2020 with a collective of transgender and nonbinary media-makers.