National News Networks Are Failing The Transgender Community

New Report Raises Concerns About Cable, Broadcast Coverage Of Transgender Issues

Major broadcast and cable news networks are failing in their coverage of the transgender community, prioritizing sensational depictions of transgender people while ignoring important transgender stories, including the recent murders of seven transgender women of color, according to a new Media Matters report.

Broadcast, cable, and national Spanish-language news networks struggled to appropriately report on stories related to the transgender community -- when they choose to discuss those stories at all. A Media Matters report tracking transgender coverage on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, NBC, Telemundo and Univision in the first two months of 2015 raises concerns over the types of transgender stories being told in news media and the extent to which transgender people are allowed to speak for themselves on national television.

Which Transgender Stories Are Newsworthy?

Coverage of transgender stories on national news networks varies greatly. MSNBC and CNN, for example, devoted significant coverage to stories involving the trans community, while Fox News, ABC, and NBC largely avoided substantive discussions of transgender issues:

Of the cable and broadcast Sunday news shows, only MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry featured a discussion of trans issues:

When networks did discuss transgender stories, coverage was largely focused on the unusual circumstances of high-profile transgender individuals, rather than the shared experiences of the transgender community. Though CNN spent forty-six minutes discussing transgender issues, for example, over 80% coverage was centered on TV personality Bruce Jenner's transition.

MSNBC's transgender coverage, on the other hand, spotlighted more substantive issues, including the military's ban on transgender service members, Smith College's rejection of a transgender applicant, and shifting representations of trans people in the media:

While a few news hosts, including MSNBC's Melissa Harris Perry and CNN's Don Lemon, used these stories as opportunities to talk about broader issues affecting the transgender community, the norm was overwhelmingly in favor of focusing on the particularities of already sensationalized news events.

This kind of sensationalized focus on trans issues is both misleading and disempowering. In a March 2015 study of transgender representation in the media for the World Professional Association of Transgender Health, Jamie Colette Capuzza wrote

[T]ransgender people are largely “symbolically annihilated” by the mainstream news industry. Such invisibility makes this population more vulnerable to the power of other types of media images. Consumers may encounter transgender people more often than in the past, but these images lay primarily within entertainment media; even within the news genre, transgender people are featured more often in entertainment, arts, sports, and lifestyle sections. Audiences learn that transgender people are sources of entertainment more than they learn that transgender people face consequential and newsworthy obstacles as a community. [emphasis added]

 The “Epidemic Of Violence” Nobody Talks About

The media's focus on stories like Jenner's can't be blamed on the lack of substantive trans-releated news events.

During the first two months of 2015, seven transgender women of color were murdered in the United States, in what the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs called “an alarming epidemic of violence against LGBTQ communities, and particularly against transgender women of color."

But their deaths went unnoticed by national media outlets. According to our report, not a single cable, broadcast, or national Spanish-language news network hosted a discussion about the murders in the first two months of 2015.

That finding confirms a trend that many have already documented: the extreme levels of violence targeted at the trans community, and especially at trans women of color, isn't typically considered newsworthy. The media's silence on violence against trans women of color sends a powerful message about the acceptability of that violence. As Asam Ahman noted in an article for Youngist:

Who gets to be mourned publicly is always a political question with very real political and material consequences. Paying attention to who gets front page coverage of their grief, whose life is counted as grievable, and whose life is even “worth” grieving publicly helps illuminate which deaths remain invisible and which lives are rendered ungrievable altogether.

The invisibility of violence against trans people also helps reinforce the conditions which produce transphobic violence in the first place. As the Media Diversity Institute explains, the media plays a “major role in upholding the cycle of violence transgender people face by ignoring the disproportionately high number of trans murders and thereby making trans lives invisible and silencing trans voices.”

Beyond stories about transphobic violence, news networks also largely ignored the emergence of several state bills aimed at denying transgender individuals access to places of public accommodation, including measures that would institute harsh penalties for trans people who try to use public restrooms that correspond with their gender identity. These measures are almost exclusively motivated by the right-wing myth that sexual predators will pose as transgender in order to sneak into women's restrooms. But the only mention of any such measures on English cable and broadcast news was a 30-second mention on the February 10 edition of NBC's Early Today.

Letting Transgender Guests Speak For Themselves

National news outlets often failed to invite transgender people to participate in discussions about their own community. Fox News and broadcast news networks largely excluded trans voices from segments involving guests discussing transgender stories:

The absence of transgender people from trans-focused segments is baffling. As GLAAD has noted, “transgender people are the experts to talk about transgender people.” The absence of trans individuals makes it easier for networks to create negative, misleading, or dehumanizing depictions of trans people with impunity. Fox News, for example, didn't invite a single self-identified transgender person to participate in their coverage. It's not surprising, then, that Fox's trans discussions typically adopted a critical or disparaging tone:

CNN and MSNBC, on the other hand, included trans guests in nearly all of their substantive segments about transgender issues. When those guests were allowed to speak about their experiences and community, the impact they had on the tone and content of media coverage was nothing short of transformative.

During the February 6 edition of CNN's New Day, transgender woman of color and fashion model Geena Rocero steered a segment focused on Jenner's transition toward a powerful discussion of violence and discrimination against the transgender community:

While CNN's guest list was still overwhelmingly white, inviting transgender guests -- and especially trans women of color -- to participate in discussions about trans issues should be standard practice for any news network. As the Media Diversity Institute wrote, “responsible media coverage gives a voice to those who are being silenced and oppressed.”

Accurate Representation Of Trans Stories Matters

The media plays a pivotal role in educating Americans about transgender people, making it vitally important that national news networks provide accurate and fair coverage of the trans community's stories and obstacles. As GLAAD has noted:

[O]nly 8% of Americans say they personally know someone who is transgender. Given this reality, most Americans learn about transgender people through the media. So when the media talks about transgender issues - it is imperative that they get it right.

Getting it right means reporting on the lived experiences of trans people, and giving the most marginalized members of the community -- not just transgender celebrities -- a platform to educate viewers about the issues that affect them the most. It means refusing to perpetuate myths and stereotypes about trans people, and exposing lawmakers and activist groups who use scare tactics to lobby against basic protections for the transgender community.

But sensationalizing stories like Bruce Jenner's transition or Chelsea Manning's hormone therapy creates a wildly unrealistic depiction of what it's actually like to be trans -- a problem that's aggravated when transgender people aren't invited to speak on behalf of their community and experiences. 

To read the full report, click here.