transgender reporting
(Image: Getty/Llewellyn Chin)

Anecdotally, there’s been an increase in the number of complaints to the Australian Press Council about news articles describing people as “transgender”, and the tabloids aren’t happy.

This week, Nine.com.au and Daily Mail Australia were found to be in breach of the press council standard that says publications shouldn’t put undue emphasis on characteristics including gender.

Both websites reported in May last year on a manslaughter charge against Jade Walker, whose brother is Manly Sea Eagles rugby league player Dylan Walker. They both responded to the complaints by saying their references weren’t excessive or derogatory, and referred to her repeated public references on social media to being transgender.

But the council found that Walker’s status as transgender wasn’t relevant to the story, and “identifying her as such in the headline and again in the article could lead some readers to conclude that this characteristic was either the cause of, or a factor in, the alleged crime and could contribute to substantial prejudice against transgender people”.

Daily Mail transgender press council

Reacting to the council’s adjudications, Daily Mail Australia and News Corp’s news.com.au have claimed the complaints are part of a campaign to restrict the use of the word “transgender” in news reports entirely. The Australian has reported that interest group Rainbow Rights Watch has regularly lodged complaints with the Australian Press Council, and was also taking the council to the NSW Civil and Administrative Appeal Tribunal for not treating their complaints as favourably as others. Rainbow Rights Watch did not respond to Crikey’s request for comment.

News.com.au editor-in-chief Kate de Brito told Crikey via email that she’d noticed an increase in the number of complaints about the website’s use of the word, and that she currently had three still awaiting adjudication. One complaint last year was about a story from November 2016, which she said showed “someone was clearly searching for a reason to be offended”.

“We have had a flurry of complaints over the last three to four months and only one in the 12 months prior … This is the single topic that attracts the most complaints,” she said. “I don’t think they are frivolous, but I do believe they are part of a campaign by a small group to discourage the media from using the word transgender … Recognising this is a drain on us becomes a form of pseudo censorship with an interest group like this trying to wear down media organisations by tying them up in complaints. It definitely makes us reconsider even using the word transgender, but in the end we are serving our readers and the greater community and our job is to report facts.”

Daily Mail Australia’s managing director Peter Holder told The Australian on Wednesday that the council was “being held to ransom by a small but well-drilled group which appears to oppose any use of the ‘T word'”. 

RMIT journalism senior lecturer Dr Alex Wake, whose research interests include gender and mental health, said there was increasing public awareness around transgender issues in Australia, and transgender groups were becoming more organised with formal lobbying.

“There’s also an increasing understanding among journalists in Australia and beyond that inappropriate use of gender descriptors do cause damage,” she said. “There’s a lot of evidence around about the need to ensure that trans people are not singled out for derision in the media. It can have a deadly impact on lives.”

She said that despite the editors’ protestations that they were just including “transgender” as a describer, or relevant fact, it contributed to stigma if it was just included as a “titillating” detail.

“Just in the same way it is derogatory to call someone a ‘woman journalist’ as opposed to a ‘journalist’, or a ‘woman doctor’ instead of a ‘doctor’, it’s derogatory to call someone a trans-something,” she said. “What’s the point, if not to single them out as different?”

The press council would not comment on specific cases or the number of complaints made about reports about transgender people, but a spokesperson told Crikey that the council was currently developing an advisory guideline that will deal with reporting on LGBTIQ-related issues, which will involve community and industry consultation, and will be completed in the next 12 to 18 months.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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