After Pfc. Bradley Manning asked to be called Chelsea and announced hopes of having gender-change hormone therapy in prison, media outlets struggled with how to tell the story. A number of organizations focused on LGBT issues offered insight.
When Pfc. Bradley Manning revealed a change in gender identity on Thursday (and a name change to Chelsea as well), it created a challenge for many media outlets.
The disclosure put news organizations already dealing with a weighty story—Manning’s conviction on 17 charges relating to transmitting classified information to WikiLeaks—in uncharted territory. And as a result, many journalists in the mainstream press struggled to find the right balance in their coverage.
Several LGBT groups have raised concerns and offered insight to media outlets to help them better cover the story. More details:
Even if you disagree with Manning’s actions and believe she deserves the harsh sentence she received, her gender identity had nothing to do with her crimes.
A Problem of Pronouns
In the wake of the news, outlets struggled with whether to identify Manning using her new, chosen name—and even with which pronoun to use. One story, published by The Washington Post, used the headline “Bradley Manning says he will live as a woman and seek hormone therapy in prison” and used the pronoun “he” to refer to Manning throughout. CNN’s Jake Tapper said the network “will continue to refer to him as Bradley Manning since he has not yet legally changed his name.”
This is despite the Associated Press Stylebook‘s entry on the topic, which is fairly clear-cut:
“Use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth.”
The confusion over the naming conventions drew substantial commentary. New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan noted that the paper’s website had used Manning’s original name and the masculine pronoun in a Thursday story, but she recommended a different approach. “It’s tricky, no doubt,” Sullivan wrote. “But given Ms. Manning’s preference, it may be best to quickly change to the feminine and to explain that—rather than the other way around.”
And Slate‘s Amanda Marcotte, a noted feminist critic, offered this take on the situation: “Even if you disagree with Manning’s actions and believe she deserves the harsh sentence she received, her gender identity had nothing to do with her crimes.”
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The media-monitoring group GLAAD (formerly known as the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) has long offered a media reference guide on LGBT issues, including an entry on “transgender” that recommends media outlets “always use a transgender person’s chosen name.”
In the wake of the Manning news, GLAAD emphasized the importance of following the AP Stylebook‘s standards and focusing on the significant issues it raises, rather than stereotypes: “The charges and verdict against her, as well as the U.S. Army’s policy denying transgender-related healthcare to inmates, are not a justification for misgendering, or resorting to stereotypes about transgender women.”
The National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA) also spoke up on the issue, noting that it “recognizes the challenges some newsrooms may face” in covering Manning’s transition but that “words matter” in situations such as these.
The group also referred further issues on the topic to its stylebook, but in a press release it was careful to balance its stance: “NLGJA is not an advocacy group, but a group of working journalism professionals dedicated to ensuring fair and accurate coverage of the LGBT community.”
When questions about media coverage arise over issues relevant to your association, how have you reacted? Let us know your take in the comments.