Journalists have toppled governments, exposed criminals, kept officials honest and educated the public since the inception of modern media. Movies like Spotlight make journalists look heroic – using the small means they can to expose a massive and heartbreaking cover-up. Absence of Malice makes a journalist’s job look nuanced and complicated – a young Sally Field finds herself navigating the ethics of her job and defining integrity. Never Been Kissed makes journalists look stupid – you know what you did, Drew Barrymore.
Sally Field and Drew Barrymore are not journalists, and journalism doesn’t operate within the confines of a script. The way that the public may view journalism is not how journalism operates. Media portrayals of journalists often romanticize journalism as a career for underdog superheroes because we want to believe that journalists are a crucial force for good. They can be. But, the vision of journalism so neatly constructed for us in movies and television shatters if it is used to keep the marginalized on the margins. I would argue it frequently is.
It wasn’t a script featuring stars Barrymore, Field or McAdams that defined the tangible, unbridled power journalists have. It was political scientist Daniel C. Hallin. Academics refer to his concept of concentric circles in the study of media coverage as “Hallin’s Spheres.” These circles help the public begin to understand the cycle of influence that journalists have. It showcases a journalist’s ability not just to report current events, but to educate. However, that distinct power affords journalists the ability to demonize and delegitimize bodies, communities and ideologies. Hallin’s three Spheres of Consensus, Legitimate Controversy and Deviance demonstrate how newspaper and television media legitimize or delegitimize groups or issues.
The Sphere of Legitimate Controversy is described by Hallin as the “sole province of objectivity.” This is the journalist’s sweetspot, where both sides are heard on an issue and the reader becomes educated enough to form their own opinion.
The Sphere of Consensus holds the groups or issues that journalists do not need to investigate or report on because the majority of the public agrees it is a public good or represents the public’s values. The example Hallin gives for the Sphere of Consensus is motherhood. We all agree that mothers are good and good for the public and thus journalists do not need to report both sides on the topic of motherhood.
The Sphere of Deviance is reserved for topics that journalists are “expected to either disregard or denounce,” according to Hallin. This sphere highlights the worst parts of journalism: outright slander and/or apathy. This is where most members of the LGBT community have fallen within journalism. Before the 21st century, it was normal to see major publications condemn or inaccurately report on sexual and gender identities. Some still do.
The end of the 1980s brought the end of Reaganism, Thatcherism, and a decade marked by the anti-intellectualism of the Moral Majority. In the face of a plague that was thought to only infect gay men, prostitutes and intravenous drug users, anti-intellectualism thrived. We are still facing the same problems of 1989, partially because of the inaction of politicians representing the Moral Majority. HIV/AIDS now devastates people of all walks of life, all genders, all occupations, all sexual orientations, regardless of drug use, regardless of what the Moral Majority, or many major publications, would have told us in the 1980s.
“At last the truth can be told,” the editorial board of London’s The Sun wrote on Nov. 17, 1989:
The killer disease AIDS can only be caught by homosexuals, bisexuals, junkies or anyone who has received a tainted blood transfusion… FORGET the idea that ordinary heterosexual people can contract AIDS. They can’t… the risk of catching AIDS if you are a heterosexual is ‘statistically invisible.’ In other words impossible. So we now know – anything else is just homosexual propaganda. And should be treated accordingly.
The editorial board at The Sun used their power as journalists to condemn and demonize gay male bodies as well as the efforts by the government and activists to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS. It can be argued that through this demonization of gay male bodies that HIV/AIDS was able to rip through communities before entering “ordinary heterosexual” society, to quote The Sun. Through lack of education and misrepresentation of facts, gay male bodies were trapped in the Sphere of Deviance during a time of critical need.
However, gay bodies have found their way into the Sphere of Legitimate Controversy recently, following the state constitutional bans of same-sex marriage in 2004, and later the Obergefell v. Hodges SCOTUS decision. Now 55 percent of public opinion is behind same-sex marriage, according to a Pew Research study from May. The American transgender community has had less support in matters of the law and the court of public opinion. A study by the Williams Institute found that approximately 1.4 million adults identify as transgender in the United States, but a Pew Research study found that only 51 percent of people believe that transgender individuals should be “allowed to use the public restrooms of gender with which they currently identify with.” This American fixation with transgender bodies, and specifically genitalia, serves as a marker for the failure of journalism as a whole to speak objectively about transgender individuals and their community.
Thomas J. Billard conducted a 2014 study in which he coded 200 articles from “13 of the 25 most circulated daily newspapers in the United States…in an effort to understand the extent to which the transgender community is legitimized or delegitimized by news media.” Billard came to the conclusion that journalism does delegitimize transgender bodies in four specific ways. The first way is through misnaming and misgendering transgender people, calling them by the name they were assigned at birth and using pronouns that do not correspond to their actual gender identity.
Misrepresentations of transgender identity were found to be another problem. Equating transgender identity with drag performance or transvestitism or focusing on the “wrong body discourse” surrounding transgender narratives, restricting transgender identities to a heteronormative world. The misrepresentations of transgender identity, especially coupled with the third problem Billard found: the common practice of sexualizing of the transgender body, helped advance the “trickster trope.” News media also has often “misrepresented women as ‘deceptive gay men’” furthering the “trickster trope” and equating sexual and gender identities, according to Billard.
A general fascination with transgender sexual attraction and practice leads to the stereotyping and marginalization of the transgender community, reducing them to either sexual deviants or sexually confused people. The transgender community is routinely fetishized as well as marginalized. Searches for niche videos on Pornhub, the Internet’s largest pornography site, include “tranny surprise,” “ts seduction,” “tricked by shemale,” “shemale babysitter,” and more. Searching for “transgender trick” brings up 1,521 relevant videos alone. While transgender bodies are marginalized through stigmatization and legal discrimination, they also serve the purpose of sexual interest for their oppressors, making it nearly impossible to shed stereotypes in media.
The final way that Billard identifies journalist’s power of delegitimization is through use of the transgender “trickster trope,” justifying violence against transgender people by blaming the perceived hiddenness of non-normative gender identity as warranting violent acts when the identity is discovered. This trope has led to the formation of what is called a “panic defense,” which was last used to justify the murder of a gay man in Illinois in 2009.
One form of journalism, the obituary, has long been a site of contention for transgender people. Jennifer Gable was a transgender woman living in Boise, Idaho who died of an aneurysm. Her obituary used the name she was assigned at birth, Geoffrey Charles Gable, and made no mention of her gender identity or transition.
In an article in The Idaho Statesman titled “Friends say Idaho transgender woman’s memory not honored at funeral,” the details of Gable’s death certificate and funeral were revealed. The death certificate read “Geoffrey AKA Jennifer Gable” and, at the funeral, Gable was laid in an open casket in a suit and with short hair. She was presented as Geoffrey.
Crime reports also give us a glimpse into how transgender identity can be delegitimized through reporting. Last year, the Kansas City Star published a short crime report that said “a 36-year-old who died after being struck several times by a vehicle early Saturday in a Northeast Kansas City neighborhood has been identified as Jesus E. Dominguez.”
The victim in this brutal murder was not Jesus Dominguez. Her name when she died was Tamara Dominguez and she was a woman.
The report continues: “the SUV ran over Dominguez, who was lying on the pavement, two more times. Police said that Dominguez is also known as Tamara Dominguez. The victim was taken to a hospital, but later died.”
The late addition of Dominguez’s name in the piece, a name she chose for herself when she transitioned to reflect her identity, reflects a carelessness by the journalist in reporting the story. The outright exclusion of pronouns reflects a disrespect of the victim’s identity, which contributes to further confusion and misunderstanding in the public sphere about transgender identity. She may be known as Tamara but she is not Tamara, this report implies. The Sphere of Deviance finds another tenant.
Schilt and Westbrook conducted a study on transgender representation and media, including a case study on “all available nonfiction texts by the mainstream news media in the United States between 1990 and 2005” about the murders of Americans that were perceived to be presenting their gender in a way that they were not assigned at birth.
Westbrook says that journalists “more often than not framed violence as a response to actual or perceived deception of the perpetrator by the transgender person.” This framing of violence by journalists directly contributes to Billard’s findings: one way that transgender people are marginalized through media is the use of the “trickster trope.”
The “trickster trope” has far worse implications than just labeling transgender individuals as deviant or dishonest. The panic defense is a legal strategy that was first used in Illinois in 1972 and is used to protect a perpetrator of a violent crime against an LGBT person. The defense rests on the basis that a discovery of a victim’s sex or sexual orientation, or the non-violent actions of the victim, was frightening enough to justify violence against the victim. The LGBT Bar Association says that these panic defenses blames a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity “for the defendant’s excessively violent reaction.” This is still legal in Illinois, though Senate Bill 3046, sponsored by Illinois Senator Daniel Biss, seeks to outlaw the specifics of the panic defense. On April 22, 2016, the bill was re-referred to Assignments. No action has been taken since then. The Sphere of Deviance grows.
Chelsea Manning’s coming out was a high-profile example of delegitimization of identity. In August 2013, the day after she was sentenced for leaking classified information, Manning wrote in a press release: “as I transition into this next phase of my life, I want everyone to know the real me. I am Chelsea Manning. I am female. Given the way that I feel, and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible. I hope that you will support me in this transition. I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun…”
New York Magazine’s Maureen O’Connor gathered all media coverage from the day of the statement’s release and analyzed how media outlets used their platform to cover the news, but also to educate the public.
“Most news outlets who wrote about that request denied it,” O’Connor said.
‘He intends to live out the remainder of his life as a woman,’ both Today and USA Today reported. ‘Bradley Manning says he wants to live as a woman,’ the Associated Press announced. CNN, ABC News, the Boston Globe, the New York Daily News, the New York Post, Politico, the Telegraph, the Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times used masculine pronouns. The Washington Post only used proper nouns, a tactic the Times used last year in a profile of transgender performer Justin Vivian Bond, who prefers the pronoun ‘v.’ Reuters, the Guardian, and the Daily Mail used female pronouns, as did Daily Intelligencer.
Creating spaces in which individuals can use words to describe their identities in the purest form is something we should all strive for. Trans women of color are being murdered at alarming rates and education about transgenderism and the rights transgender people deserve are crucial in this moment in history. Leelah Alcorn, the transgender teenager who made headlines when she committed suicide in 2014, wrote in her suicide letter:
The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights… My death needs to mean something. My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year. I want someone to look at that number and say ‘that’s f***ed up’ and fix it. Fix society. Please.
While Leelah is gone too soon, there is time to improve the lives of transgender individuals. Now is that time, especially under a newly-elected presidential administration that will likely not respect non-normative gender identities (considering his vice president’s history of attempting to legalize discrimination against LGBT communities in the name of “religious liberty”) Journalists must work together to report objectively and fairly to make sure that when transgender kids are reading or watching the news, regardless of what print, online or television media is covering, they see that journalists are respectful of them, and everyone, in how we report. There’s room in the Sphere of Consensus for them.
Header image courtesy of Nina Thomas
Thomas is a University of Virginia graduate. She lives in Charlottesville, VA, where she creates drawings, prints, and paintings of things both real and imagined.