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Reporting on deaths of trans people in breaking news situations

by on December 8, 2016

As we all know, there was a warehouse party that went ablaze in Oakland this past week. It was a party thrown by a very alternative artist’s scene, and from that, we lost a member of a small time, yet still nationally known band. I had never heard of Them Are Us Too before this, but they were popular for all people that are fans of the 80s dream pop revival genre (somehow I hadn’t gotten to them).

That member, Cash Askew, faced a lot of misgendering in the reporting of her death. Two other trans women also suffered the same fate, in the incident and in their media memorial.

GLAAD came out and published a piece warning journalists about the handling the deaths of trans people. When I first read this, I was questioning how a journalist is to know if someone they are reporting on identifies differently than how the police reports.

In these cases, all you can do retract your information and leave an apology edit note which is sad. But, for cases like these, where the information was out there that the specific victims were transgender, it’s harder.

GLAAD made a good gesture with this article in saying that if you are getting confirmation of a trans person’s death, whatever name and pronouns you are publishing should be attributed to whoever is confirming this.

It’s almost counterintuitive to have to attribute the use of a name and pronoun, but with transgender victims, it is where the information could be wrong and a source for this information would leave the families and friends knowing why things went the way they did.

With this said, it’s important to take the reporting one step further and ask. If there is a name that you will be publishing of a transgender person, it is more than likely that there will be other identifications used out there for them, so even if you do get one route and attribute it, you should always ask that source if there is anyone who would know them differently.

For one of the women, Feral Pines, she was known by a few different names which made for trouble in getting an absolutely correct account. This is the kind of situation that can be avoided by simply asking your source for the name if there is anyone who would know the victim in another way. The police may not know this, but if there is time and availability, a point should be made to contact friends and family to get that further information.

The trouble is with breaking news situations, there often isn’t that much time to do these things. At the least, an attribution to explain the possible misinformation is definitely best in my opinion. Having information like that attributed leaves the issue a step further from having it displayed as full fact. Once death is factually associated with a name in the media, that’s when it changes to sympathetic “in memoriam” type voice. Just like we try to not confirm the death of anyone who is speculated to have died in an incident, but is at the moment missing, we should avoid confirming the death of a person by an incorrect designation, if we know that this could be an issue. Of course, it’s not just trans people, there are many people who could change their names or prefer to be called something else entirely, but when you know a victim is transgender, more often than not, their given name is not the one we should be using.


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One Comment
  1. I agree that with transgender people getting for the first time in history proper dilligence by some journalists in ther reporting of their news, there are lots of areas in which journalism remains unfair. There are many journalists including those on this campus that in trying to earnestly report on events involving trans people or on issues directly related to trans people, may either implicitly or obviously damage certain persons’ identity with incorrect language usage. I think that this is an important issue that deserves attention by journalism schools (including ours) in the form of formalized mandatory education for journalists on what terms are appropriate and steps to take in the event that a trans person is involved in a story, to ensure that person’s likeness is not wrongly portrayed. This, at least until society at large grows more aware of how to refer to people justly. I agree as well that in the meantime it certainly makes sense for reporters who are unsure to always leave some sort of explicit warning stating just that in their articles, so that once corrections or verification occurs of a person’s name and preferred pronouns, editing can occur without having to also deal with apologizing for any harm done to the trans person and the trans community.

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