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December 10, 2020updated 30 Sep 2022 9:50am

Report charts UK press coverage of trans issues becoming more respectful yet ‘heated’

By Charlotte Tobitt

There has been a 400% increase in coverage of trans issues in UK newspapers over the past decade, according to new research commissioned by the primary press regulator.

The tone of stories had evolved to use more “respectful” language, although the report found that coverage has since become “heated” and “strident” as it focuses more on the debate to reform the Gender Recognition Act.

Offensive terms like “tranny” or “gender-bender” were used in 10% of stories on trans topics in 2009/10 but by 2018/19 this had dropped to less than 1%.

The managing editor of one national tabloid told the Mediatique researchers, commissioned by the Independent Press Standards Organisation in 2019 to explore the issue, that “we don’t need to tell our writers not to use the term ‘gender-bender’; it’s obviously pejorative”.

Journalists have also dropped the phrase “sex change” in favour of “gender reassignment”: their prevalence in stories has almost exactly reversed since 2010 with a 30-70 split between them.

Another tabloid journalist said: “In the bad old days our terminology was unforgivable. Ten years ago, we used all the wrong terms – ‘gender-bender’, ‘tranny’ etc. – but now we’re careful about language. It’s been a learning curve for us all.

“We want to be decent people, nobody wants to hurt anybody, we have a social conscience. Yes, we sometimes make a mistake, but we admit it when we do; we try to rectify it and try not to repeat it.”

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There is some resistance against terms perceived to be less explanatory to readers, however, with some national publishers expressing reluctance to use “non-binary”.

One national newspaper journalist told the study “there’s no point putting something in a story if the reader doesn’t understand it” while another said their writers would “have a hard time” with gender-neutral pronouns.

The report considered that a number of interrelated factors had led to editors and writers evolving their tone and type of trans content over the past decade, including:

  • the evolving news agenda
  • social media pressure
  • notable news events
  • specific groups influencing and educating publications
  • the introduction of specific guidance by IPSO in 2016

[Read more: Why Suzanne Moore resigned: Says Guardian editors removed views on trans issues from comment pieces]

However one trans individual told the study the more respectful language was a “trivial” change, while another said stories were actually worse than ten years ago as they have become “actively malicious”.

“Writers have shifted to using language that seems less harmful, such as ‘biologically male’, ‘born male’ or ‘male-bodied’, but these terms dehumanise the person, treats trans people as objects,” they said.

“Maybe the words are no longer obviously offensive and wrong but they have undercurrents that suggest an idea of trans people being dangerous, similar language to that used during the Section 28 debates such as ‘ideology’, ‘propaganda’, ‘promoting’.”

414% growth in trans stories

There has been a “dramatic emergence” of stories about trans issues in the UK press, according to the report.

It found that an average of 34 stories were published per month in the UK in the five years to April 2014 and that this figure jumped 414% to 176 per month between May 2014 and 2019.

In the last year of the analysis, there were 224 stories published per month.

This coverage has gone from being split 80% broadsheet and 20% tabloid ten years ago to about 50/50 today.

One national newspaper journalist said: “The amount of content we use that relates to transgender issues of people has definitely increased, no question.

“It’s difficult to say if this a conscious decision or because people are talking about it more. There are also more [news] agencies selling stories on it. And since the GRA consultation it has become more of a topic.

“At an editorial level, we haven’t said, get me a transgender story. Yes, it’s quite possible we’ve done this at a feature level – keep an eye out for something interesting in that field. But we haven’t said overtly we need to up the number of transgender stories.”

[Read more: Transgender ex-Times journalist loses discrimination claim against paper]

A representative of a transgender community group said there had been a “trans zeitgeist” in 2014 when it was seen as a cultural phenomenon, with articles asking in an open-minded way what this means for the future of society.

But after the summer of 2017 they claimed to have seen an increase in the questioning of trans rights.

“There is a darker tone and you get ‘trans rights activists’ who are portrayed in the negative. Suddenly the frequency went up. Weekly, every other day these reports would appear.”

From ‘prurient’ to ‘educational’ to ‘heated’

The report concluded that the nature of coverage “changed quite dramatically as the public became more familiar with transgender-related stories, typically focused on celebrities, but then the tone changed again as the relevant real-world events became more focused on policy and legislation”.

“The first type of coverage was prurient and disrespectful, typified by the use of terms such as ‘tranny’, which as we have seen has almost died out,” it said.

“The second coverage type focused more respectfully on the human interest in the transgender experience, typified by high-profile stories such as Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out or Riley Carter Millington’s casting in EastEnders. This coverage was generally respectful, descriptive and educative.

“The third type of coverage relates to discussions of policies (e.g., in the treatment of children who present as transgender) or laws (e.g., in proposals to reform the GRA) and is typified by a more heated debate, and sometimes a more strident tone.”

The report found that the debate had generally met editorial standards set out in the Editors’ Code of Practice and IPSO’s guidance on trans reporting with the exception of a few opinion pieces “that allow passionate views to cross over into the rare use of disrespectful language”.

IPSO said it will use the report’s findings to review its guidance and consider ways it can act as a convenor bringing together people to talk about reporting on complex or challenging issues.

IPSO chief executive Charlotte Dewar said: “Some of the most contentious and sensitive issues handled by IPSO relate to the reporting of transgender matters. Coverage generates broad, sometimes heated debate, and raises complex questions around balancing reporting freely on important societal issues with the potential impact on vulnerable individuals.

“As the independent regulator of most newspapers and magazines in the UK, IPSO is particularly interested in the research’s findings on drivers of change for improving editorial standards.

“It shows that changes in societal attitudes and notable news events can have a real impact, but it also demonstrates the value of engagement that many groups and organisations have undertaken with the press.

“We are glad to play a role in helping to shed light on questions of why and in what ways reporting has changed in this area, and we will feed the conclusions into our own work.”

Since the report was published, the Editors’ Code Committee which oversees the Editors’ Code of Practice used by IPSO, decided not to make any further restrictions on reporting of transgender issues as suggested by campaigners on both sides of the debate.

Neil Benson, chairman of the committee, said: “… provisions in the code, including Clause 1 (accuracy), Clause 2 (privacy) and Clause 12 (discrimination), allow editors to report and debate this issue, while still protecting the rights of individuals.”

Read the full 132-page report here.

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