Language in transition: How student journalists cover transgender issues

Nick Wilkins had achieved a high honor — becoming a semifinalist for the National Merit Scholarship. But when the student newspaper published an article about the accomplishment, Wilkins noticed a detail that wasn’t quite right. Wilkins prefers to use the pronouns “they/them,” but the newspaper used “he.”

Wilkins, a senior at Ooltewah High School in Ooltewah, Tennessee, identifies as gender non-binary, a category that is not exclusively male or female. Some gender non-binary people prefer to use gender-neutral pronouns, such as “they/them” or “ze.”

Student reporters are increasingly covering their transgender and non-binary peers, but sometimes they stumble. With other issues of language, reporters can turn to a style guide for quick answers — capitalize this noun, abbreviate this term — but with more complex and dynamic terminology surrounding gender and sexuality, they sometimes find more room for misunderstanding. Non-binary and transgender students — those whose gender does not match their sex assigned at birth — can face challenges being covered in student media, even with concepts as simple as their names.

Wilkins said they didn’t correct the student newspaper on their pronouns because they thought the reporters wouldn’t understand.

“I knew there wouldn’t be a good reaction,” said Wilkins, who founded their school’s chapter of the Gay-Straight Alliance. “When it comes to sexuality, there’s a lot of hostility. It isn’t something people understand.”

Wilkins said both advisers and student journalists should be trained to ask all sources which pronouns they prefer, and teachers should receive training on transgender issues.

“Every time they’re interviewing someone, it should be common practice to ask for name and pronouns,” Wilkins said.

Gabriela Rossner, a senior and editor of the Perspectives section of Palo Alto High School’s Verde magazine in Palo Alto, California, said she had to pay close attention to the language she used when telling the stories of non-binary students.

The AP Stylebook doesn’t include alternative pronouns like “ze,” but in the case of transgender people, it advises reporters to use the pronoun that the source is comfortable using, and, if unsure of that, to use the one that corresponds to how the person presents themselves publicly. Still, the use of the singular “they” has been controversial, with copy editors debating during the 2015 American Copy Editors Society conference whether that pronoun is acceptable to use in newsprint (according to Poynter, about half of the ACES board members have no objection to it). In December, the Washington Post announced it would use “they” to refer to people who identify as neither male nor female.

In the last few years, trans issues have moved to the national forefront. Trans celebrities — like “Orange is the New Black” star Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner, whose “coming out” story was highly publicized and is now the basis of a reality TV show — have become the faces of the movement towards equality and acceptance. In November, the U.S. House of Representatives launched a task force focused on transgender issues.

And stories about the issues transgender teens face have also become more prevalent, as according to The Trevor Project — a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender suicide prevention non-profit group — nearly half of transgender youth have seriously considered suicide and one-quarter have made an attempt. The suicide of 17-year-old transgender girl Leelah Alcorn made national headlines in December 2014, igniting a national conversation about the needs of transgender young people.

Statistics say there are about 700,000 transgender people in the United States, although most experts say the true number is probably higher. The increased publicity has caused high school journalists across the country to consider tackling the stories of trans students at their schools, which has led to more coverage of trans issues, said Stan Zoller, the diversity chair of the Journalism Education Association.

Zoller said the association doesn’t have a specific policy regarding coverage of transgender issues, but he would encourage student publications to cover them — and encourage advisers, despite potential controversies, not to hold back on that coverage.

“You, as an adviser, have to decide how you’re going to cover something — not if you’re going to cover something, but how you’re going to cover something,” he said. “I talked to one student who was coming under some scrutiny … Teachers were told not to talk about it, which was wrong.”

He said that students are taught not to shy away from other sensitive stories, such as the protests of police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri and the November terrorist attacks in Paris, and shouldn’t shy away from covering transgender student issues, either.

“Don’t put a gag order on a news story,” Zoller said. “We strive for responsible journalism.”

Telling ‘a story that hadn’t been told’

Rossner, who co-wrote the story on non-binary students with student reporter Brigid Godfrey, began the writing process with some background knowledge of the LGBT community and its issues, but the story taught her even more about the challenges faced by non-gender-binary students. Many of her sources wanted to remain anonymous for privacy reasons, which presented some issues; journalists tend to avoid anonymous sources except as a last resort. Still, despite the sensitive topic, Rossner had no shortage of sources — many students were eager to talk about their experiences.

The main challenge in writing the story, she said, was balancing clarity and readability with sensitivity to her sources’ preferences in pronouns and language.

“The editors and adviser found the story unreadable because of the vague pronouns,” Rossner said. Her role as a journalist expanded to the function of an educator, as she explained each unfamiliar term in detail so that readers would understand easily.

Rossner, who has also covered gender issues in other stories, said the language surrounding LGBT issues is not always clear to the typical reader at her school. Without meticulous editing, the meaning of the story can get lost in translation.

“We had to define every term we used several times,” Rossner said. “Like cisgender, transgender, non-binary, agender. That kind of made the story very wordy, and even throughout the story, the editors would be like, ‘I forgot what this word means; I’m still confused by the pronouns.’ It was an issue of introducing a whole new vocabulary set.”

The story, published in December 2014, met with positive reception, Rossner said. “I was grateful to tell a story that hadn’t been told,” she said.

Rossner, who passed out surveys in class, wrote that 4 percent of Palo Alto students identified themselves as being “outside the gender binary” or are “questioning their gender.” About 1.9 percent of surveyed Palo Alto students identified with a gender other than male or female — 33 out of 1,727. Rossner estimated that the actual number is probably even higher.

Verde also published a story in 2013 on transgender students. The story, entitled “I’m a He, Not a Question Mark” and written by Jack Brook and Alyssa Takahashi, is preceded by an editor’s note that explains the mid-story switch from female to male pronouns.

But across the country, the issue of how to balance clarity with sensitivity in language has presented challenges in student coverage of LGBT issues. Some critics nationwide have decried the practice of using alternative pronouns as too politically correct, sacrificing meaning and conciseness in the name of oversensitivity.

GLAAD (formerly the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), a nonprofit organization advocating for the LGBT community, attempts to address the issue with its Media Reference Guide, which outlines best practices for writing about LGBT issues.

A section on transgender terminology explains the difference between sex and gender and advises reporters to ask, whenever possible, which pronouns a transgender or non-binary person prefers. It also includes a list of offensive terms, such as “sex change,” “transgendered” and “transvestite.”

Rossner said she feels it’s important not to sensationalize stories about the transgender experience. Some profile pieces centered around transgender individuals tend to mark them as outsiders, she said.

“These stories try to shock the reader with the premise of ‘being transgender’ as a hook,” she said, adding that reporters should focus on the issues facing the LGBT community, not merely the existence of LGBT people.

Lessons in vocabulary 

The question of whether to grant anonymity to sources can also present challenges to student reporters, especially when those sources are minors. Marie Miller, adviser of The Falconer at Fauquier High School in Warrenton, Virginia, said the issue of anonymity was the biggest roadblock her students faced when they published a story about transgender students this past school year. One of the sources for the story was granted anonymity upon request, “which was fine,” Miller said — but although another source felt comfortable being identified, the source’s mother did not want her child to be named.

“We have a requirement here that if the story is potentially controversial, I have an obligation to notify the principal,” Miller said. “My concern was telling the students that they couldn’t own their own story, and I know that that argument did not carry weight with the principal. So when we went back and talked to the source, the source said, ‘Fine, I don’t care if you identify me in the story [or not],’ and so the issue went away.”

Miller said she was uncomfortable with shielding that source’s identity when the person felt comfortable identifying publicly as transgender, but she also had concerns about the potential consequences of the source “coming out” at such a young age.

She said using gender-neutral pronouns also presented an issue in the coverage. “The pronoun thing is a very sensitive issue, and we tried to be sensitive to the student sources,” she said. “It confuses the reader to use the pronoun ‘they.’ As an English teacher, I have an issue with that.”

Shane Windmeyer, executive director of the LGBT college advocacy group Campus Pride, said student reporters should receive more training on how to report effectively on LGBT issues and individuals. Reporters should ask transgender or non-binary sources what pronouns and name they prefer to use, he said.

He decried the lack of representation of transgender and non-binary reporters in student newsrooms, but said that cisgender people — those who identify with the sex they were assigned at birth — can effectively tell the stories of transgender and non-binary sources if they allow their voices to guide their narrative.

“A good reporter will allow the voice of a trans or gender non-binary person to come through in their story, but sometimes they don’t know the right questions to ask,” he said.

Windmeyer praised GLAAD’s media guide, but said it should be updated more often to reflect the constantly evolving language of gender minorities.

“Our language is changing, our definitions are evolving,” Windmeyer said. “We’re trying to make a place for the evolution of communities that have always existed but have sometimes been invisible.” 

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