Experts in journalism ethics have criticized NOLA.com's repeated misgendering of Penny Proud, a transgender woman who was shot and killed in New Orleans this week, calling it “dismissive” and “inflammatory.”
NOLA.com has come under scrutiny for its coverage of the murder of Penny Proud, a transgender woman in New Orleans who was shot and killed in New Orleans on February 10. Some of the site's initial reports referred to Proud as a “male” and a “man” while focusing on where Proud was shot, noting that the area has a reputation for prostitution and drug use.
NOLA.com, along with The Times-Picayune, is owned by the NOLA Media Group Division of Advance Publications. The website also serves as a hub for Times-Picayune's online content.
Misgendering a transgender person violates journalistic guidelines established by the Associated Press, New York Times, GLAAD, and the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, which all instruct journalists to refer to transgender people by their preferred pronouns.
NOLA.com's coverage has since been updated to accurately identify Proud as a transgender woman, citing “new information from NOPD,” which identified Proud as a male in its initial press statements.But in an interview with BuzzFeed, NOLA.com reporter Prescotte Stokes III defended his decision to misgender Proud:
In a phone call with BuzzFeed News, Stokes explained that he chose how to report his story after speaking to people in the area who may have known Proud.
“They called her a girl but said he was a man,” said Stokes "I assume he parades around as a transgender woman, but he is actually a man.
In comments to Media Matters, experts in journalism ethics criticized NOLA.com's repeated misgendering of Proud.
Michael Giusti, Instructor of Mass Communication at Loyola University New Orleans, said Stokes “was wrong on a couple of levels,” citing the AP and NLGJA guidelines for referring to transgender individuals. Giusti stated that journalists should avoid doing “harm” in their reporting, adding that intentionally misgendering transgender people “injur[es] someone in a very vulnerable place in their life.”
Lauren Klinger, NewsU producer at the Poynter Institute, stated that intentionally misgendering a transender subject is “an aggressive act, essentially saying that the reporter knows the truth about someone's gender, regardless of what the person asserts or how they present themselves.” “The best practice” she added, “is to use the pronouns and names with which the subject identifies.”
“I think that's a fair, reasonable request that minimizes damage to those being covered,” wrote Kevin Smith, former chair of the Ethics Committee of the Society of Professional Journalists. “I also think this needs to be dealt with using a sense of compassion and understanding, void of stereotyping and categorizing.”
Smith raised concerns about Stokes' defense of misgendering, including his statement that Proud “parades around” as a transgender woman. “That language is powerful on my ears and seems dismissive of her feelings and almost inflammatory and stereotypic of transgender people.”
Tim McGuire, journalism professor at Arizona State University and former editor of The Star-Tribune, agreed. “That smacked of bias. I think ethicists are still trying to work their way through the pronoun issue. But if a woman declares herself a man I think there has to be a damn good 'journalistic reason' to countermand that choice.”
This post originally identified Kevin Smith as the chair of the Ethics Committee of the Society of Professional Journalists. He is the former chair of that committee.
This report originally described Lauren Klinger as stating that NOLA.com's misgendering was an “aggressive act.” She was speaking generally about the practice of misgendering news subjects, not specifically about NOLA.com's reporting. The post has been updated accordingly.