In light of Chelsea Manning—formerly known as Bradley Manning—announcing her name change and preferred gender last week, news outlets were stumbling over themselves in stories reporting on the convicted Army private’s transition. Only a handful, including NPR, have revised their policies to refer to Manning as a woman.
Although almost all of the news stories on the name change have included Manning’s words, “I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun,” most decided to interpret the statement in their own, unique way. Some outlets, like the initial interview with The Today Show, alternated awkwardly between masculine and feminine pronouns. Many media outlets decided to completely ignore the statement they quoted and just stick to “Bradley,” “he,” “him,” and “his” as if nothing had ever happened.
The worst policy of all came from National Public Radio. On Friday, after major outcry from listeners, cultural critics, and activists, NPR announced “we have evolved” and NPR’s Managing Editor for Standards and Practice Stu Seidel issued new guidance on referring to Manning. Apparently, NPR will rethink how its stations refer to transgender people in the future:
On the pronoun front, the best solution is the simplest: If we’re going to use a new name for a transgender person, we should change pronouns as appropriate. In this case, we should refer to Manning as a “she.” This is a matter of clarity and consistency. We just can’t tie ourselves in knots trying to avoid pronouns every time we tell the Manning story.
While we need to have clarity, we also have a responsibility to tell full and complete stories, whether we’re reporting on an artist using a stage name or a prominent transgender person making a public request for a name change. If the person’s earlier identity is relevant to a story, we have a responsibility to make that clear for our audience.
This policy makes a lot more sense than their previous system, which was explained thusly in The New York Times:
National Public Radio will continue for now to refer to Private Manning as “he,” according to a spokeswoman, Anna Bross. “Until Bradley Manning’s desire to have his gender changed actually physically happens, we will be using male-related pronouns to identify him.”
What does this statement even mean? How exactly would NPR want Manning to validate the worthiness of her preferred prounouns? Would NPR want periodic photographic evidence tracking Manning’s physical transition from male to female? Would they be requesting exclusive access to her medical records so they can determine when she undergoes gender reassignment surgery? At what point will Manning’s body be traditionally feminine enough to merit a feminine pronoun?
Add to that messed up logic the fact that the military won’t pay for Manning’s hormone or gender-reassigment surgery in prison. When her “gender change physically happens,” as NPR clumsily put it, is something that depends largely on unfair policies that Manning has virtually no control over.
This defense of intentionally misgendering Manning triggered an onslaught of understandable outrage from many people. Paul Constant at The Stranger summed up the problem well:
This is some draconian bullshit, right here. Gender is not just physical. And anyway, the content of Chelsea Manning’s underwear is none of NPR’s business. Is an editorial board going to demand photographs of her crotch before they agree to switch pronouns? I can understand some news organizations having some difficulty yesterday as they transitioned from using “he” to “she” with Chelsea Manning. An announcement of this scale has never happened before, and I don’t think it’s happened to these kinds of reporters—the ones covering breaking national and international news (thanks to Chaz Bono, entertainment and gossip reporters are actually ahead of the curve on this issue). But for a whole organization to demand proof of a physical change in gender before they respect someone’s wishes is more than just institutional ignorance; it’s outright aggression.
It’s fantastic that NPR has “evolved” so quickly and come to recognize the error of its reporting on Manning.
But now it’s strange that NPR is among only a handful of news organizations to change their policies and admit that they should improve their language. Will it be years before NBC, ABC, CBS, and CNN come around? CNN’s policy is just as unfair as the one NPR scrapped: “CNN’s policy is to reference Manning with masculine pronouns since he has not yet taken any steps toward gender transition through surgery or hormone replacement therapy.”
It’s understandable that media is scrambling over this issue. Manning’s public change of gender identity is the first transition that has received this much attention. Therefore it makes sense that news organizations might have some trouble figuring out how to report this kind of story. But that’s why GLAAD and the National Lesbian Gay Journalists Association have policies to help inform coverage of trans* folks.
Both GLAAD and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association issued statements instructing journalists on how to report on transgender individuals. Sources like MSNBC and Salon who previously misgendered Manning have admitted their mistake and tried to make amends by not only updating their stories but instructing fellow reporters on how to follow suit.
Neglecting to consult with widely accessible information delegated by experts on gender identity and the trans* community was definitely a douchey move. But moreover, the lack of action from major news outlets to listen to a community that has actively tried to reach out and guide them into making significantly-less-douchey missteps is reflective of how the media’s relationship with marginalized demographics operates as a whole. Voices that are already struggling to be heard are being flat-out ignored by those who have the power and platform to amplify them. When this happens, others feel entitled in continuing to ignore the experiences of trans* individuals.