When the media fails to sufficiently and accurately report on issues affecting a marginalized community, who does it harm? Everyone, says Kae Petrin, co-founding member of the Trans Journalists Association. They compare it to the coverage of the HIV epidemic, a time when mainstream media organizations were slow to pick up on a story that at first affected a small group of people and ultimately became a global crisis.
In the most acute and imminent sense, trans people’s lives are on the line. And Petrin feels that media organizations have a duty to raise awareness about the anti-trans legislative landscape and to curb the use of harmful and outdated language.
These concerns were the driving force behind the creation of the Trans Journalist Association in 2020. The group started as a conversation between a few hundred trans journalists on a Slack channel and grew into a formal network that is in the process of becoming a nonprofit.
As anti-trans legislation proliferates across the United States, the TJA’s work is more salient than ever. It has spent the last three years advising news outlets with its style guide for ensuring accurate and sensitive coverage of trans communities. It also co-launched a Race & Gender Hotline with the Society of Professional Journalists to provide live advice to reporters and has provided quick response coverage guidance for news events involving the trans community. The group also continues to be a virtual community and professional development space for trans media professionals.
Petrin, who works at Chalkbeat as a data and graphics journalist, spoke to Nieman Reports about the urgency of improving coverage of trans communities and what’s at stake if the media doesn’t get it right. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What’s the problem that TJA is trying to solve?
There needs to be better, more accurate, and more nuanced coverage of trans issues in the community. We’ve seen a lot of not just bad coverage where the language is bad, but coverage gaps where publications are focusing on the same stories that we’ve been reading for the last four years. They’ve been missing huge, important stories about this legislation and the way it’s impacting people’s lives, even before it goes into effect.
There’s a really big need to support trans and gender expansive journalists in their careers [and] in journalism work. Journalism is already a really high burnout field. I think trans journalists are often in so many different intersections of being queer and being trans and people of color in newsrooms that a lot of us are dealing with those issues that push people out of the field. And many of us can’t make it into newsrooms in the first place because we’re freelancing or have non-traditional educational backgrounds.
What does TJA do to tackle these problems?
What we do is sort of twofold: [Create] community for trans journalists. And we define that really broadly — trans, nonbinary, gender diverse, gender expansive. And we have a big Slack community that talks about industry issues [as well as] a listserv community.
And we’ve also been increasingly offering coverage trainings. We’ve been sending people to conferences as TJA members to talk about best practices inside newsrooms. I’ve been doing a lot of conversations with people involved in standards at various national news organizations — on and off the record — about best practices during news events. For instance, the Nashville, Tennessee, shooting [a school shooting in March 2023 that led to media headlines emphasizing the purported transgender identity of the shooter] — how the police have said this person is transgender, but this person doesn’t appear to have said that they’re transgender anywhere. And it’s our job to report the facts.
Why is it important to formalize and expand TJA?
When we started planning this, I was the only out trans person in my newsroom. It meant that I was having a lot of the editorial conversations on my own. It meant that if something did come up, I didn’t know what to do or who to ask for help. And the fact that I had this Slack channel of like 200 people who could be like, “how do people deal with this?” was really instrumental for me. So, TJA being able to formalize and expand that, I think is a really powerful tool, even just to help people be like, “Oh, wait — 20 other people have also run into this. How can we solve this and how do we push this forward and have conversations about these coverage issues and these quality-of-life issues in the industry?”
What’s at stake if the media doesn’t get trans coverage right?
Trans issues are sort of in this weird space where they have suddenly become something that every journalist in the country should really know about, because there is a bill in [almost] every state that could be relevant to your audience, cis or trans. It seems to affect only a small marginal community, [but] if you look at states around the country, some of these bills are either unconstitutional by their state reckoning or, if they pass, could jeopardize federal funding that affects everyone in the state.
You can see early coverage of the AIDS epidemic [when] a lot of legacy media was like, “we don’t need to cover this,” and covered it really late because it seemed like it only affected a small, marginal community. Well, it became a huge, long-term story, and it still actively requires coverage.
I often just go back to: What’s the journalistic code of ethics? We’re supposed to seek the truth and report crucial stories about human and civil rights. And this is a rapidly changing, high-conflict political moment. To some degree, if you don’t cover trans issues, you’re failing to meet the basic purpose and ethics of our profession.
Do you feel hopeful?
I’m really excited about the amount and scope of work that I think the association is going to be able to do over the next few years, especially as we incorporate and can access more resources. I think even this year, there have been improvements in publications in places that really matter — seeing how many publications incorporated the style guide. Go look at the AP’s new transgender topics guidance. They released some really good guidance.