Words matter. They can be weapons. Or they can heal.
For those of us working in media, the language we use is powerful. It sets a standard, and should be informative, accurate and fair.
But when it comes to reporting on trans and gender diversity issues, all too often journalists and commentators are failing miserably. Some do so out of ignorance. Others appear to enjoy treating transgender people as the punchline to a joke.
Take this piece of “reporting” from The Daily Telegraph’s Tim Blair, who earlier this month described a trans woman accused of carrying out an axe attack in the following way:
“Having been chopped herself, Sydney tranny Evie Amati allegedly sought to share the experience. The previous he apparently doesn’t like people who buy pies or milk.”
And who could forget The Courier Mail’s appalling front page story on the murder of a trans woman, which ran with the salacious headline Monster Chef and the She-Male, and carried another story under the banner Ladyboy and the Butcher.
But it’s not only the tabloids that get it wrong. Newsrooms all over the country have been slow to educate staff on appropriate reporting of gender identity issues. When I worked at The Age, we were inundated with complaints after the headline Gender Bender was used on an online story about Caitlyn Jenner’s transition.
The headline was removed and an apology issued. It came from a place of ignorance, not hatred. Unless they specialise in LGBTI issues, many reporters and editors are flying blind when it comes to covering gender diversity.
That’s why we should welcome gender identity media guidelines, released this month by the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, which aim to address this knowledge gap.
This is not - as the conservative commentators will no doubt claim - an attempt to police language but merely a resource to help journalists be more inclusive of a community with one of Australia’s highest suicide rates.
These shocking mental health outcomes are as a direct results of the systemic discrimination trans and gender diverse people face in schools, workplaces and when accessing healthcare. When media mock and misgender, it only perpetuates and legitimises this lack of acceptance.
Even those who are charged with holding journalists to account stuff up. Media Watch host Paul Barry caused outrage in 2015 when he tweeted: “FFS, why do I have to keep (not) reading stories about Bruce Jenner. Why in heaven’s name is he such big news?”
The fact that a senior ABC journalist whose job is to monitor the media for inaccurate and irresponsible reporting was oblivious to the hurt and offence caused by misgendering, is indicative of how far we have to go in educating the general public.
It is a steep learning curve. But some are, at least, willing to learn. Karl Stefanovic issued a heartfelt on-air apology after he laughed and used the word “tranny” seven times during a segment on the Today Show last July.
Perhaps if the Channel Nine newsroom had been issued media guidelines on gender identity, he would have known that “tranny” is a slur, and trans people would not have been reduced to the butt of a joke.
The guidelines are simple, helpful reminders of how to report in a way that fosters respect and minimises harm.
For example, don’t ask about someone’s genitals or whether they’ve had surgery. But do respect the name and pronoun a person provides, and don’t treat trans and gender diverse people as curiosities.
Just as the Mindframe National Media Initiative has gradually shifted attitudes, leading to more responsible and sensitive reporting of mental illness and suicide, this resource could similarly remove stigma and promote acceptance. And it could save lives.
Language is often used by a privileged majority to subjugate, bully and silence those who are different. The impact of that can be devastating. That’s why it matters.
Words do not change laws, but respectful media reporting can help break down the ignorance that entrenches discrimination. It is every journalist’s responsibility to be mindful of that.