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Reporting and researching stories involving transgender individuals

Introduction

The Commission has, from time to time, made public its position on themes related to the Editors' Code of Practice that have arisen in the course of its work. In June 2013, it took the decision to issue new editorial guidance on transgender issues and sought input from interested members of the public and groups that work with or on behalf of individuals of transgender status. It is grateful to all those who responded.

This guidance has several purposes:

  • To highlight to editors common areas of concern for individuals of transgender status and their friends and family members;
  • To draw together relevant rulings by the Commission;
  • To explain how the Commission is able to assist transgender individuals who are experiencing harassment or are concerned about press coverage that has been or may be published; and
  • To direct journalists and members of the public to further resources on these topics.

Protection from intrusion and harassment

Individuals who are undergoing or have undergone gender transition have the same desire to protect their privacy and be free of press harassment as other members of the public, but their experiences also raise concerns that are specific to the condition of gender dysphoria and the process of beginning to live with a different public gender identity. Although some individuals of transgender status will be happy to discuss their experiences with the media, others feel extremely vulnerable when their circumstances are brought to public attention through press coverage or are concerned about the prospect of such coverage.

A number of clauses in the Editors' Code of Practice are relevant to concerns about intrusion.

Clause 3 (Privacy) affords everyone the right to respect for his or her private life, home, health and correspondence. While the Commission will always consider individual complaints on their merits and in the context of the broader principles by which it applies the Code, editors should be aware that issues which may give rise to concerns from individuals about intrusion in this context include prominent, repeated or irrelevant references to previous identities, including names; the publication of photographs of individuals pre-transition; and references to medical details of an individual's transition or speculation about such details, including whether an individual has undergone surgery or hormone therapy as part of a gender transition. The protections provided by Clause 3 are also relevant to the situation of family members or friends of individuals at the centre of such coverage, who may be concerned about potential intrusion. Clause 8 (Hospitals) may be relevant when an individual is undergoing medical treatment, which could relate to their physical or mental health.

Clause 4 (Harassment) provides protection to individuals from harassment, intimidation and persistent pursuit. In addition, it makes clear that if asked to desist, journalists must cease telephoning, questioning, pursuing or photographing individuals, unless an overriding public interest justifies the activity. The Commission's staff are available to talk through urgent concerns about journalistic activity and operate a 24-hour emergency advice service. More information about this service, and what to do if you are concerned that you are being harassed, is available on the PCC's website. The Commission is able to provide hard copies of this information on request. Detailed information for the public about particular media-related concerns that may arise following the death of a loved one was published by the PCC in 2011 and is available on the PCC's website.

Where appropriate, the Commission is able to issue a private advisory notice on a confidential, not-for-publication basis. This enables members of the public to make clear to UK newspaper and magazine editors that they do not wish to be contacted about a particular issue or that they have concerns about potentially intrusive coverage, either to an individual publication or to the industry more widely. The system also includes some UK broadcasters and press agencies who voluntarily cooperate with the PCC. Notices may be issued on behalf of individuals at the centre of a story, or other friends or family members who have experienced unwanted press attention.

Protection from discrimination

Under the terms of Clause 12 (Discrimination), (i) "the press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability". In addition, part (ii) makes clear that "details of an individual's race, colour, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story". While the Commission does not regard transgender status or gender dysphoria as constituting an "illness or disability", it does consider that the terms of Clause 12 - parts (i) and (ii) - encompass transgender status and gender dysphoria.

Editors should consider carefully the language they employ to refer to individuals of transgender status, taking care to ensure that it is not pejorative or discriminatory. PCC staff members are available to provide Code advice on this issue, including guidance on previous rulings. Groups with expertise in this area have produced specialist guidance for journalists and are available to advise on individual cases (see below), although it is important to note that there is a range of views within the community on terminology issues.

Editors should also be aware of the issue of relevance. It may be useful to assess whether a story would be considered newsworthy if it did not concern an individual of transgender status, and if so, whether the individual's status is genuinely relevant.

In addition to the requirements of Clause 12, Clause 1 (Accuracy) is often relevant to concerns about discriminatory coverage, because inaccurate, misleading or distorted reporting can reflect or encourage prejudice and hostility. Some issues that have recurred in PCC complaints framed under Clause 1 (Accuracy) and were raised by individuals who provided feedback to the Commission in preparing this guidance are as follows:

Pronouns: The Commission considers that it is generally best to refer to an individual using the pronouns that they use to describe themselves. If in doubt, ask the individual how they prefer to be known, if this is possible. Nonetheless, the Commission recognises that there are instances in which the gender with which an individual identifies is unclear or evolving, and this can present genuine difficulties in preparing a story. It considers each case on its merits and emphasises that the terms of Clause 1 apply in this instance, as in all other contexts: publications must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information.

Terminology: The processes of gender transition - including hormone replacement therapy and surgical interventions - can be complex and difficult to explain, particularly if space is limited. Editors should be aware that shorthand references can create a misleading or inaccurate impression to readers, which may give rise to a complaint. Briefings on these issues are available from the organisations listed below. Editors may find these helpful to ensure that coverage is accurate.

Costs of surgery: The Commission has received a number of complaints about the accuracy of coverage that includes claims or speculation about the costs of gender transitions, either for individuals or nationally. One concern that has recurred is that such coverage has failed to distinguish between the costs of public and private treatment. Editors should be wary of generalisations; individual circumstances and treatment plans vary widely.

Numbers of individuals of transgender status: Estimating the number of individuals in the UK with gender dysphoria or who have undergone gender transition is difficult; editors should present such claims with care.

Cases involving children

The Editors' Code contains stringent requirements that are intended to ensure that children are protected from unnecessary intrusion. Children who are experiencing gender dysphoria, or undergoing a gender transition, may be particularly vulnerable. Any coverage of their personal circumstances must be contemplated with extreme caution and due regard for the requirement that "in cases involving children under 16, editors must demonstrate an exceptional public interest to over-ride the normally paramount interests of the child."

Where an editor believes that an exceptional public interest does justify coverage of a particular story, it will often be appropriate to take steps to limit the intrusion posed by the coverage by omitting details that could contribute to the identification of the child or, where relevant, the school they attend. Editors should be aware, however, that this is not a panacea. Such coverage has the potential to intrude into a child's time at school even in cases where he or she is not readily identifiable. In at least one instance, such steps resulted in a local community misidentifying a child as concerned in coverage - causing upset to her and her family - when in fact it related to another child in a different part of the country [see A married couple v The Sun, 2010, below].

Members of the PCC Secretariat can provide Code advice to editors as required.

Relevant complaints

As this guidance has tried to show, reporting and researching stories involving transgender issues involves the same fundamental concerns - particularly about intrusion, accuracy and discrimination - that apply to many other areas of journalism. As such, many of the Commission's rulings have potential relevance to such cases. However, the below is a brief selection to illustrate how some of the issues discussed in this guidance have arisen in complaints to the Commission.

Adjudication: A married couple v The Sun (2010)

The article reported on the gender transition of a young child and the arrangements made by her school to accommodate this. The Commission upheld the complaint under Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 3 (Privacy), ruling that a series of inaccuracies about the child gave a misleading impression of her, and that the newspaper's provision of the family's contact details to a TV production company when it knew that the family did not want further contact from the media amounted to a failure to respect their private lives.

In addition, the complainants said that the coverage represented an unnecessary and unjustified intrusion that had caused their daughter great distress. They considered that the details in the piece had enabled her to be identified. The Commission acknowledged the complainants' deep concerns, while noting that the newspaper was entitled to discuss the issues raised by the story, including the actions of the school and the reactions of other parents. It made clear that identifying the child - directly or indirectly - would have breached the Code, but did not consider that the newspaper included details sufficient to identify her to those who were not already aware of the situation, including through the school's decision to inform other pupils. Against this background, the Commission did not consider that the newspaper's report of the facts of the case represented a further intrusion into her time at school. It did not uphold these elements of the complaint under Clause 3 (Privacy) or Clause 6 (Children). In addition, contacts by the newspaper to the family did not breach Clause 4 (Harassment).

While the article made a number of references to the child's gender identity, the Commission did not agree that the coverage was discriminatory. No specifically pejorative terms had been used, and no attempts made to make light of the situation. The Commission acknowledged that the coverage's use of masculine terms to describe the girl was "difficult" and suggested that it may have been more appropriate to refer to her as a girl, but it concluded that this did not breach the Code, taking into account that the child had not been identified. The complaint under Clause 12 (Discrimination) was not upheld.

The parents of another girl who had attended secondary school as a girl, having gone to primary school as a boy, made a separate complaint under Clause 6 (Children). Their daughter was the same age as the child in the story. The complainants said that the publication of the article had led to members of their community and the media mistakenly identifying her as the child featured in the piece, which had caused severe disruption to her life. The Commission regretted that the publication of the article had inadvertently caused problems for the complainants' child at school. However, its ruling that the coverage had not breached Clause 3 or Clause 6, relied in part on the efforts that the newspaper had made to protect the child's identity. In the view of the Commission, an "inevitable" consequence was that speculation about her identity could arise, and the Commission did not see how this could be avoided. As the article had not related to the complainants' child, the Commission concluded that it could not establish that it had represented an unnecessary intrusion into her time at school. The complaint was not upheld.

Adjudication: Ms Keira McCormack v Sunday Life (2010)

The article under complaint reported that a transgender woman worked as a rape counsellor in Belfast and reported concerns about her suitability for the role, describing her as a "tranny". The complainant said this term was deeply insulting and represented a pejorative reference to her gender. Although the newspaper said that no offence had been intended in the use of the word, the Commission upheld the complaint under Clause 12 (Discrimination), ruling that the complainant's "gender identity should not have been open to ridicule". The use of "tranny" in this instance was pejorative and breached the Code.

Resolved complaint: Ms Jackie Green v Reveal (2013)

This resolved complaint concerned a magazine story about beauty pageant contestants that referred to those who had undergone or were undergoing gender reassignment surgery and were participating in beauty contests as "men". The complainant, one of the contestants, said it was both inaccurate and discriminatory to refer to her as a "man". The complaint was resolved when the magazine published a correction, acknowledging that its use of the word "man" was "incorrect, and that the individuals featured in the article [were] women and should have been referred to as such".

Resolved complaint: Ms Helen Belcher v Daily Mail (2012)

This resolved complaint related to the claim by a columnist that twenty years ago, the condition of those with "Gender Identity Disorder" did not exist. The complainant, the Treasurer of Trans Media Watch, confirmed that the American Psychiatric Association changed its definition from "transsexualism" to "Gender Identity Disorder" in the 1990s, but denied that this justified the claim that the condition did not previously exist. The complainant also disputed the claim (made by a doctor quoted in the article) that the effects of puberty blockers on brain development, bone growth and fertility were unknown. The complainant said that the suggestion that it was unwise to allow 13-year-olds to attend meetings with 25-year-old transsexuals was discriminatory. The complaint was resolved when the PCC negotiated the alteration of the online article - including the removal of the reference to the wisdom of meetings between 13-year-olds and 25-year-old transsexuals - and the publication of the following clarification: A feature on 25 February said that the condition Gender Identity Disorder did not exist twenty years ago. We are happy to clarify that, prior to this, the condition was identified as "transsexualism".

Other resources

Below is a list of some of the main organisations and resources that can provide information and guidance to editors and journalists.

FTM London

Composed of trans guys, genderqueer people, and all those who were labelled female at birth and are questioning their gender identity, FTM London offers peer support, information and literature as well as regular guest speakers who are experts in gender identity issues and trans culture and a group for "significant others, friends, family and allies". BCM FTM, London, WC1N 3XX. Email: f2mlondon@hotmail.com; telephone: 07948 250 778.

The Gender Identity Research and Education Society (GIRES)

GIRES is a charity. Its trustees and most of its members are trans people, or their relatives or friends. GIRES provides detailed literature and background materials on many trans issues. It provides a helpline for trans people and others, maintains TranzWiki.net, and operates a national system for reporting transphobic crime. GIRES, Melverley, The Warren, Ashtead, Surrey KT21 2SP. Email: info@gires.org.uk; telephone: 01372 801554.

Gendered Intelligence

Gendered Intelligence is a community interest company, principally with educative aims, that looks to engage people in debates about gender. It works with young transgender people from the ages of 13-25 from across the UK, predominantly within their own settings. Visit website for contact details.

Mermaids

Mermaids is a support group for gender-variant children and teenagers and their families. It offers support to parents, families, carers and others, raises awareness about gender issues amongst professionals such as teachers, doctors and social services, and campaigns for the recognition of the issue and an increase in professional services. BM Mermaids, London, WC1N 3XX. Email: info@mermaidsuk.org.uk ; telephone: 020 8123 4819 (Monday to Saturday, 3pm-7pm).

Press for Change

Press for Change provides legal advice, training, and research to trans people, their representatives, and public and private bodies. It is one the leading agencies in the UK providing legal advice and support to Trans and other Gender Variant people. Press for Change, BM Network, London, WC1N 3XX. Email: office@pfc.org.uk; telephone: 08448 708165.

Scottish Transgender Alliance

The Scottish Transgender Alliance works to improve gender identity and gender reassignment equality, rights and inclusion in Scotland. 30 Bernard Street, Edinburgh, EH6 6PR. Email: sta@equality-network.org / info@scottishtrans.org; telephone: 0131 467 6039.

Trans Media Watch

Trans Media Watch is a charity dedicated to improving media coverage of trans and intersex issues. It has published a number of resources for journalists including a detailed style guide, and can provide telephone or face-to-face support to journalists preparing features or programmes involving trans or intersex issues. BM TMW, London, WC1N 3XX. Email: info@transmediawatch.org

TranzWiki

Maintained by GIRES, TranzWiki is a directory of the groups campaigning for, supporting or assisting transgender people and their families across the UK.

Summary

The Editors' Code of Practice recognises that there is a public interest in freedom of expression itself, and that applies equally to stories that touch on the issues discussed in this guidance note. Nonetheless, when preparing such coverage, editors and journalists should not lose sight of the fact that individuals who are experiencing gender dysphoria, or are undergoing or have undergone a gender transition will often be in a particularly vulnerable position. This will form part of the context in which the Commission considers any complaint framed under the Editors' Code of Practice about such issues.

15 November 2013



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