Freelance Journalist

November 29, 2021 (Updated )

Responsible and accurate reporting on transgender people is vital. Statistics suggest that one per cent of the UK population is trans – that’s around 600,000 people. Or, to put it another way, it’s about the population of Glasgow. Almost all of us will end up covering stories about trans people. It’s essential we do it right.

Transgender people are people whose gender identity is different from the gender they were assigned at birth, and are part of the LGBTQ+ family. Transgender is an umbrella term for a plethora of gender identities, all of which help people explain their identity best. For example, Facebook offers people almost 60 ways of recording this information, such as genderqueer, transmasculine, non-binary, agender and genderfluid. All of these terms are valid, but for the uninitiated audience can be explained as transgender. ‘Trans’ is often used a shorthand.

Since 2015, media coverage of trans issues has increased exponentially. In 2009, analysis from IPSO across key news publications at both a national and local level, showed there were generally less than 50 stories about transgender people or policies published each month. Fast forward to 2017, and there are some 300 a month. While many might think this is a positive shift trans people and allies would welcome, only a handful are actually written by trans people and too many ignore best practice from the community, or lean towards sensationalist, hurtful reporting.

The Importance Of Accurate, Honest Media Coverage

Many people won’t knowingly have met a trans person, so will look to the media for information. This makes it even more important for us to get coverage right. “Media coverage is critical in shaping how the public talks and thinks about transgender people,” the Trans Journalists Association explain in their style guide. “While many outlets have published some thoughtful, accurate stories, too much of that coverage has failed their audiences and trans communities.”

This all leads to real world consequences – the public develop a misplaced fear around a group they either don’t understand or have only read negative information about. Around two in five trans people experience a hate crime or incident each year and the same number say healthcare staff lacked understanding of specific trans health needs when accessing general healthcare services. One in eight trans people have been physically assaulted by work colleagues or customers in the past year and one in four have experienced homelessness.

It’s clear the media plays a big part in both public perceptions and policy relevant to trans people. So, how can how can journalists report on this group ethically and responsibly?

Journo Resources
“Trans people are people. We’re not an ‘issue’ or a ‘debate’ and it is dehumanising and genuinely harmful to our rights when the media treats us that way. My identity is not a ‘debate’ and trans people are real people whose lives are affected by transphobia every day."
Quinn Rhodes

Putting People At The Heart Of Every Story

“Trans people are people,” says Quinn Rhodes, an agender journalist. “We’re not an ‘issue’ or a ‘debate’ and it is dehumanising and genuinely harmful to our rights when the media treats us that way. My identity is not a ‘debate’ and trans people are real people whose lives are affected by transphobia every day.”

This is one of the most important guiding principles to remember when it comes to reporting on stories around trans people. It might sound basic, but taking a people-first approach is crucial to navigating away from sensationalist and harmful reporting.

“An honest article on trans people, from my experience, is one that centralises the fact that trans people don’t exist in a bubble or in any particular demographic,” adds Ayla Holdom, an advisor at All About Trans. “As part of natural human variety, people from every conceivable background may just happen to also be trans and are choosing to be open with the world about that.

“Honest reporting remembers that trans people are as connected as anyone, with lives, jobs, friends, communities and loved ones, and with the hopes, responsibilities and potential that come with our society. They are everyday people first and foremost, not a secret sect or philosophical conundrum.”

This also means making an effort to cover trans stories outside of the narrative of pain or policy. “Reporting on trans civil rights, homelessness, and other issues facing trans communities is important,” says the Trans Journalists Association style guide, “but so is telling stories of trans people thriving.” Seeking out stories and diverse voices across all of your coverage is good journalism.

Balance Does Not Mean Platforming Everyone

Coverage of trans people and their rights (which are enshrined in law, as part of the human rights act) is often highly charged, pitting trans people against “gender critical” people. It’s important to remember that journalistic balance does not mean platforming hate, or people who deny trans people their rights or existence.

“You do not need to give equal weight to transphobes or gender critical people when reporting about trans people as you do trans people,” stresses Quinn. “It is not ‘balanced’ to give an uncritical platform to someone spouting unfounded hate speech: it is harmful and bad journalism.”

If you do include voices critical of a particular policy, do make sure to fact-check these contributions for common tropes and myths about trans people. While people might have different views on specific areas of policy, people’s human rights are non-negotiable. You can find a list of some of the most common myths here. Generally, just taking a step back to consider why you want to include these views, and if they’re made in good faith, is one of the most important checks.

Top Tips For Writing About Trans And Gender Diverse People

• In many cases, there’s probably no reason your audience needs to know a person is trans. If the story doesn’t require the readers to know that the person is trans, you don’t need to mention it!

• “Do not say ‘identifies as non-binary’ or ‘identifies as a woman’,” says Quinn. “I do not identify as a man, I am one.” Being trans is not a lifestyle choice, and this language invalidates people’s identity.

• “Similarly, do not say [in your piece] ‘whose preferred pronouns are they/them’ or ‘who uses he/him pronouns’,” adds Quinn. This isn’t something you would write about a cis interviewee [someone whose gender identity is the same as their sex assigned at birth], so you shouldn’t do it when writing about trans people.

• You should never assume someone’s pronouns. Normalise the process of asking all interviewees how they should be referred to in a story and follow their instructions.

• Avoid using the phrase ‘born a man’ or ‘born a woman’. People are born as babies. Think very carefully about whether this information is necessary to your story, and don’t use it without explicit permission from an interviewee. Preferred terms are ‘assigned female at birth’.

• While these are generally regarded as best practice, always be led by your interviewee.

‘It’s Okay Not To Know Things’

“If you identify as the gender you were assigned at birth, there will be parts of the trans experience that you just don’t understand,” says Caitlin, a non-binary journalist. “This is okay! It’s okay to not know things. All I ask is that you’re curious when you don’t know things.

“Do your research: speak to trans people, listen openly, and compensate us for our time if we’re collecting sources or doing research for you. Sometimes you’ll get a better story if you just pass the mic to us and let us tell it ourselves.

“I’m so tired of cis people talking amongst themselves about hypothetical trans people without ever listening to them. If you’ve not taken the time to hear us, you’ve not done your job as a journalist, and you don’t deserve a platform to spread misinformation that gets in the way of our collective liberation.”

Journo Resources
"Do your research: speak to trans people, listen openly, and compensate us for our time if we’re collecting sources or doing research for you. Sometimes you’ll get a better story if you just pass the mic to us and let us tell it ourselves."

Quinn adds that cisgender reporters should also think about whether it would be better for a trans person to write about stories affecting trans communities.

While it’s important to avoid pigeonholing trans writers to only being able to write about their identity, it’s important to assess whether you really are the best person to write the piece. In general, newsrooms need to do better at hiring (and paying) trans journalists and leadership, across all areas of the newsroom.

“Cis[gender] people should not always be the ones to report on stories or write features on trans people – we’re often not allowed to speak about our own experiences while transphobes are given columns and platforms and are allowed to publish false and misleading claims about trans people.”

The media is a powerful force, with huge potential to shape public opinion and it’s important that we get it right. Be a journalist helping to turn the tide against transphobia and protect people’s human rights.

Additional Resources For Reporters

• All About Trans has lots of resources to help journalists, such as tips for writing and editing stories about trans people and tools you can use to set boundaries when telling your story as a trans journalist.

• Trans Media Watch has lots of handy guides on their website, including cliches to avoid and tips to specifically report on non-binary people.

The Trans Journalist Association has a regularly updated style guide specifically on trans terminology.

Lowie Trevena
Lowie Trevena

Lowie is a queer journalist living and working in London. They currently work for Girlguiding and have bylines in publications including Bristol24/7, DIVA, and Bella Media Channel.

They have a deep interest and knowledge in the UK’s LGBTQ+ community, Government policy and media rhetoric, especially in regards to trans and non-binary issues.