The New York Times building in New York City, October 2022

The New York Times building in New York City, October 2022

The New York Times had a chance to earnestly grapple with a serious critique of its trans coverage by a serious group of professionals, including journalists The Times believed were credible enough to have a byline in the paper or contribute in other ways. Instead, it decided to demean them as activists who aren’t truly interested in the goal of quality journalism. It’s a tired tactic, one that is often trotted out to brush back groups who have long been left out of such discussions but are demanding a rightful place at the table.

The Times did not have to take that route. It could have pointed to some of its recent decisions to show that they were trying to produce equitable coverage even if they don’t always hit the mark. They made a tin-eared decision to push forward with a column defending billionaire author J.K. Rowling’s comments on gender the day after being presented with a letter from more than 1,000 contributors to the paper accusing the paper of anti-trans bias. The column was neither brave nor illuminating and wasted some of the most valuable real estate in opinion journalism to stick up for a woman with one of the biggest platforms on Earth while comparing her predicament to Salman Rushdie’s. It was a perfect illustration of one of the letter writers’ primary concerns, that the work of “plenty of journalists” at The Times who cover the issue well is often eclipsed by work that isn’t.

In their letter, the contributors were specifically referring to front-page coverage, but their critique also applies to the opinion section. A week before the Rowling column, The Times did something extraordinary. It elevated the voices of trans people from various walks of life. In its “America in Focus” section, the paper published a several-thousand-word transcript, complete with graphics, from a focus group titled “These 12 Transgender Americans Would Like You To Mind Your Own Business.”

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“In the course of our conversation, it became clear that while our participants had some common experiences — 11 of them said they’d experienced discrimination or harassment as a consequence of their trans identity, several said they’d had fraught experiences choosing which restroom to use, and some knew they were trans at a very young age — no two trans experiences are exactly the same,” The Times wrote. “Some participants had families supportive of who they are; others did not. There was no uniform perspective on when or whether children should be allowed to transition or on whether there was too much or not enough media coverage of trans issues (and whether that coverage was getting it right). But fundamentally, all participants wanted basic respect — to be seen as people, not stereotypes or caricatures or a minority to be lectured to.”

In response to the letter, The Times could have pointed to that as well as other deeply-reported and contextualized work on trans, non-binary, and gender nonconforming issues in the news sections. It could have invited in some of its harshest critics, to listen, learn, and have a substantive back-and-forth about an issue that is vexing many Americans. It could have acted like the grown-ups in the room knowing it has an outsized voice as the paper of record. Instead, it took the route too many high-profile highly-influential journalists and outlets take when challenged.

The paper reduced its critics to just a bunch of radical activists. It did so by conflating them with actual activists, like those at GLAAD. It’s the kind of demeaning dodge Black journalists also know well. When we’ve demanded a higher-quality journalism, we’ve been demeaned as just being social justice warriors who don’t care about the craft we’ve dedicated our adult lives to perfecting.

The Rowling defense, written by Times columnist Pamela Paul, appeared a day after the letter. Whether coincidental or intentional, that timing had the effect of strongly hinting that The Times has no plans to seriously consider the complaints raised. That became even more apparent when word spread that Times editor Joe Kahn had admonished Times journalists who dared weigh in on the controversy.

“We do not welcome, and will not tolerate, participation by Times journalists in protests organized by advocacy groups or attacks on colleagues on social media and other public forums,” Kahn wrote in a memo obtained by the The Hill.

He could have saved a few words and just officially slurred them as “woke”, because that’s the way it comes across. Some defenders of The Times have done something similar, referring to the paper’s critics as “progressive journalists” who are supposedly demanding “silence” on these issues.

Those “progressive” journalists called for better journalism. They referred to an analysis that found that The Times used more than 15,000 words of “front-page Times coverage debating the propriety of medical care for trans children published in the last eight months alone.”

That’s where the letter is its strongest. Why have so many words been dedicated to an issue about a “tiny percentage of the population … and an even smaller percentage of those people face the type of conflict the Times is so intent on magnifying.” Has the paper dedicated that much prominent space to any other issue? Why or why not? Have those in charge even asked?

The Times must know trans people, and in particular trans youth, have been used by bad actors to conjure up fear for political and other purposes. It must know that whatever it focuses on will heavily shape the overall narrative. In an environment such as this, the volume of journalism can swamp quality. Why is this issue worthy of so much front-page coverage? And repeated columns on the opinion page? And 11,000 words in New York Times Magazine? Or 3,000 words about trans athletes in women’s sports? Or a 1,200-word story asking whether the word “woman” is being banned in some circles?

Times editors and reporters can’t be so naïve as to believe their work hasn’t contributed to what feels like a moral panic about trans people. I’ve felt a similar frustration with crime coverage. Politicians increase the number of times they mention violent crime the closer voters get to the ballot box, and journalists dutifully follow suit and increase the number of times they write about it. While that unfolds, journalists deny critics who say they are helping politicians conjure boogeymen for nakedly political purposes and by declaring each article they produced was evenhanded. Only after the election does it become clear to them that the specter of violent crime was used to gin up votes, and that they helped politicians do just that. It’s a frustratingly-obvious cycle.

This is in no way a suggestion to avoid coverage of trans issues any more than it would make sense to declare violent crime coverage off limits. It’s the how and how much that are in question, much like what happened with Hillary Clinton’s emails. Getting it wrong is more likely to bring confusion rather than clarity, including to those most directly affected. Part of our responsibilities as journalists is to not do unnecessary harm, especially to vulnerable people.

I won’t get into the efficacy of medical care for trans youth. But I see a glaring hole in the coverage. It, likely unintentionally, treats uncertainty about the long-term effects of care as unique to the treatment of trans youth. A certain level of uncertainty about the effects of medical intervention — for anyone — is standard. No treatment, no matter how well designed or researched, will be perfect. Should you risk allowing your child to undergo treatment for which the research is not yet fully settled? Or risk losing that kid to what is an ungodly high suicide rate for trans youth? The difference, though, is that if your kid has a bad life-altering reaction to a cancer treatment, it’s unlikely your story will be used to fuel a crusade against all cancer treatment.

Journalists on this issue, as with all others should make clear what the risks are, what the science can and can’t tell us, if doctors and regulators are being honest with the parents of trans kids. If there are medical professionals providing unethical treatment, of course journalists should expose them. Not one “progressive” or “activist” journalist I know disagrees with that.

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