Monday, September 30, 2013

How should the media handle gender/sex changes?

Scott Proietti

A little over a month ago, Private Bradley Manning stirred up quite a bit of controversy when the natural male at birth decided that he would like to be considered a woman and referred to as "Chelsea." What? A male named Bradley now wants to be considered a woman by the name of Chelsea? When Manning's lawyer uttered those words to "The Today" Show" reporters, producers and editors were at a loss of words. Manning is an army private who was sentenced to 35 years in prison over the largest leak of classified information in U.S. history.
Manning poses in a recent photo wearing a wig and lipstick

We all have to wonder how the media should handle this situation, given that Manning has not undergone any gender transformations to date and is still physically a male from birth. He wants to begin hormone therapy, but no one is totally sure how the military will handle Manning's request.

The Associated Press, National Public Radio, The New York Times, Glaad and The Huffington Post have all weighed in on the issue. Anna Bross from NPR said that until Manning's desired gender change physically happens they will be using male-related pronouns to address the former army private. Rich Ferraro, a spokesman for Glaad, a gay-rights group, stated that nearly every major style guide today says the media should use the pronoun preferred by the subject and that the media is behind in covering transgender people.  The New York Times decided to cater to their readers on the issue. Dan Baquet, managing editor of The Times noted that the company generally caters to whatever name a subject may prefer, but in this case a sudden name and gender change would confuse the readers too much. The Huffington Post followed Manning's wishes and referred to the private as "she."

NPR, The Huffington Post and The New York Times all offered differing opinions on how to handle Manning's gender transformation in the media. NPR saying that Manning is still a "he" until his gender is physically changed is quite different than The Huffington Post granting Manning's wishes immediately and referring to the private as "she." The New York Times seemed neutral on the issue, but chose its readers' understanding as being more important than Manning's desired name and gender change.

If I were a spokesman or worked for any of these media outlets, I would most likely agree with Dan Baquet from The New York Times. He's completely right in saying their readers are the newspaper's primary constituency. Without an audience, a newspaper cannot survive. All due respect to Bradley Manning in his wishes to become a female and live the rest of his life as "Chelsea," but his wishes are not as important as keeping an audience and making sure money continues to flow through a company. Whenever Bradley Manning officially completes the legal process and physical procedures required for his gender change, he can be referred to as "she" or "Chelsea." However, until those things happen for Manning, the media owes the reader much more than it owes a criminal. Manning should be referred to as a "he" or "Bradley" to keep the audience informed and less confused about what is going on surrounding the former Army private.

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