Major print outlets including The New York Times and papers reprinting Associated Press content faced widespread criticism from LGBTQ advocates for publishing trans Supreme Court plaintiff Aimee Stephens’ deadname, or former name, following her May 12 death. But this transgression is actually part of a broader pattern in coverage across top U.S. newspapers.
In fact, the 10 U.S. newspapers with the largest circulation numbers have all needlessly used deadnames in reports on either Stephens or former U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning since January 2019.
Deadnaming is the act of referring to a trans person by “the name they used before they transitioned” rather than their affirming name. It is a form of harassment that can undermine a trans person’s identity. It also goes against journalistic standards, including those set by the Times and The Associated Press (AP), which both subsequently apologized and removed Stephens’ deadname from their reports.
Stephens was the transgender woman who was fired from her job after coming out and is at the center of a landmark Supreme Court case that will decide whether it’s legal to fire someone for being trans.
Top U.S. newspapers have repeatedly deadnamed Stephens since the Supreme Court decided to hear her case in 2019. They have also repeatedly made this error when reporting on whistleblower and former U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, even though she came out as trans in 2013 and has explicitly told members of the press to not use her former name.
All of the top 10 newspapers in the US have deadnamed Stephens or Manning since January 2019
A Media Matters review of the top 10 U.S. newspapers by circulation, as identified by Cision, found that every outlet has deadnamed Manning or Stephens in its original reporting or reprints from January 1, 2019, through May 14, 2020. These newspapers are:
- The Boston Globe
- The Chicago Tribune
- The Los Angeles Times
- NewsDay (New York City)
- The New York Post
- The New York Times
- The Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
- USA Today
- The Washington Post
- The Wall Street Journal.
Nearly all of the top 10 newspapers have deadnamed Stephens in the past
Though major newspapers apologized for deadnaming Stephens following her death, nine of the top 10 newspapers had already done so many times in past reports; The Boston Globe was the only outlet that did not make this error during the time period studied. There were at least 19 articles across those outlets that used Stephens’ deadname; 10 were original reports, and nine were reprints of AP stories.
The Washington Post published five articles that deadnamed Stephens, more than any other paper studied. Three of them were AP reprints. The New York Times, the New York Post, and USA Today each published three articles, including reprints, that made this error. Newsday, the Star Tribune, and the Chicago Tribune did not publish original content using Stephens’ former name but did publish stories from the AP or Washington Post that did so. Overall, there were three distinct AP reports that deadnamed Stephens and were published in the top 10 papers.
The missteps occurred in multiple types of content. Two of the articles were op-eds, one by Supreme Court journalist Linda Greenhouse in The New York Times and another by Ryan T. Anderson in the New York Post. (Anderson is a senior research fellow at the right-wing Heritage Foundation who has used his position to attack the rights of the LGBTQ community and advocate for the discredited practice of conversion therapy.) The Wall Street Journal and New York Post’s editorial boards deadnamed Stephens as well.
Top newspapers have also repeatedly deadnamed Manning, including when reporting on a suicide attempt
Eight of the top 10 newspapers have deadnamed Manning in their reporting since January 2019. Newsday in New York and the Star Tribune in Minnesota were the only outlets of the 10 that did not. There were at least 36 articles that did so across those outlets; 30 articles were original reports, and six were reprints from the AP, New York Times, Washington Post, or Baltimore Sun.
Several outlets made the error in five or more articles, all of which were original reports. They were:
- The Washington Post, with nine;
- USA Today, with eight;
- The New York Times, with seven; and
- The Wall Street Journal, with five.
USA Today’s Kevin Johnson was the author or co-author of four of these articles, and the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board deadnamed Manning as well.
After Manning survived a suicide attempt in jail in March, The New York Times, USA Today, and the Wall Street Journal all published her former name in their reports. It’s worth noting that referring to trans people by their correct name can reduce their risk of suicide and depression. The New York Times appears to have updated an April 2019 article to remove Manning’s deadname, though it did not issue a correction or update in the piece.
News outlets’ deadnaming problem underscores the importance of intentional reporting and editing when covering the trans community
In addition to guidelines in the AP Stylebook and created by The New York Times, leading advocates have commented on why journalists must respect an individual’s current name and pronouns. As Chase Strangio, a trans activist and staff attorney at the ACLU who represented Stephens, explained in a May 14 NBC News op-ed:
If you want to know (or write) about someone and then go in search of their deadname or an old picture to use or disseminate, think long and hard about why that's important to use. Your prurient curiosity shouldn't get to trump our right to dignity and respect, and we are going to assume that your self-serving desire is more about hurting and exposing us trans people than accurately describing the people we are.
As GLAAD and the Human Rights Campaign have stressed, news outlets should never print a trans person’s former name without their explicit consent, especially when doing so runs contrary to the outlet's own guidelines. Even when reporting on official court documents that include a person’s deadname, as is often the case in Manning’s past legal battles, outlets should avoid deadnaming. Media outlets have often extended this baseline courtesy to cisgender people when reporting on legal matters, such as when The Washington Post and New York Times report on legal disputes involving Lizzo (Melissa Viviane Jefferson).
Outlets often under cover or fail to cover trans issues, and stories about Manning and Stephens are some of the highest profile coverage in the area. It is clear that some outlets, including The New York Times, are making strides to clarify their guidance and have been responsive to inconsistencies in enforcement. Through this process, it is important to listen to members of the community, who have made it clear that deadnaming is unnecessary and harmful.
As a means of preventing these missteps in future reporting and editing, newsrooms should represent the diverse populations they report on. Media should hire trans and queer people to work in journalistic positions across the board, including gender and LGBTQ issues. In doing so they must also confront the structural barriers facing trans people working in news media.
Media Matters searched the top 10 U.S. newspapers as compiled by Cision for any reporting that deadnamed Chelsea Manning or Aimee Stephens from January 1, 2019, through May 14, 2020. These newspapers are:
- The Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, NewsDay (New York City), the New York Post, The New York Times, the Star Tribune (Minneapolis), USA Today, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal.
We conducted Google site searches of each paper for any mention of Manning’s or Stephens’ deadname, and we also conducted searches within the Nexis database for any reporting that included those names. We searched the Factiva database for the same terms for reporting in The Wall Street Journal