On April 24, ABC will air a two-hour interview between Diane Sawyer and Olympic gold medalist and reality television star Bruce Jenner. The interview is expected to address rumors that Jenner is transgender.
Given the tremendous amount of media attention the interview is expected to receive, here are a few reminders for media outlets who want to avoid making some of the most common mistakes found in coverage of major transgender news stories:
DO Highlight The Realities Of Being Transgender.
Jenner's story is a powerful opportunity to bring national media attention to the transgender community, but it's important to remember that Jenner's experiences are also unique. Most trans people are not famous, wealthy, white reality television stars. The transgender community -- and trans women of color in particular -- faces high levels of discrimination, harassment, and violence, which in turn contributes to higher levels of poverty, homelessness, and economic marginalization. Media outlets should recognize the particularities of Jenner's experiences and use them to initiate broader conversations about what life is like for transgender people in America.
DON'T Fixate On Jenner's Appearance.
Some of the ugliest, most exploitative coverage in the lead-up to the ABC interview has been speculation based on Jenner's appearance. Given Jenner's public profile as a reality television star, it's easy to fixate on the star's physical and cosmetic characteristics. But focusing on transgender people's appearances -- especially on how well they “pass” -- is degrading and objectifying. It turns trans people into spectacles and denies their basic humanity. The media has an important role to play in exposing cisgender audiences to transgender people and their stories, but nobody benefits when transgender people's appearances are made topics for public consumption.
DO Use Proper Terminology.
Groups like GLAAD and the NLGJA have clear guidelines for how media outlets should talk about transgender individuals and stories. Don't misgender trans people, use the correct pronouns, don't say “transgendered,” etc. Similar guidelines have been adopted by The New York Times and the Associated Press, and they should be common practice for news networks.
DON'T Focus On Surgery.
Getting surgery is not a prerequisite for being transgender. Many trans people don't undergo any kind of gender-confirming surgery when they transition. Focusing on body parts -- especially on genitalia -- is a common practice in conservative media because it similarly objectifies trans people and reduces their lives and experiences to a list of medical procedures. Even mainstream journalists like Katie Couric have fallen into the trap of asking about surgeries rather than focusing on the lived experiences of transgender people.
DO Explain The Benefits Of Transitioning.
The decision to transition isn't an easy one, but it comes with significant health benefits. Major professional medical organizations like the American Psychological Association and American Psychiatric Association recognize the benefits of transitioning on the mental, physical, and emotional well-being of trans people. Given that some have already suggested that Jenner may be transitioning as a "publicity stunt," it's important to remind audiences of the real, compelling reasons trans people choose to live in accordance with their gender identity.
DON'T Conflate Sexual Orientation And Gender Identity.
Gender identity and sexual orientation are two distinct characteristics, and transitioning does not affect who a person is sexually or romantically attracted to. Unless Jenner reveals otherwise during the interview, there's no reason to speculate about Jenner's past or future romantic relationships.
DO Invite Transgender People To Share Their Stories.
The easiest way to avoid the common traps that come with reporting on transgender stories is to allow transgender people to speak for themselves. Some networks are getting better about inviting transgender guests and highlighting transgender testimony, but others continue to exclude actual trans people from their coverage. Transgender people are the experts when it comes to talking about their experiences, and excluding their voices from a major national conversation about the transgender community is just bad journalism.