Will the press really change on trans reporting?

Helen Belcher of Trans Media Watch examines the changes needed after the coroner blasted the UK press for their hounding of trans teacher Lucy Meadows, who later committed suicide
29 May 2013 | By Helen Belcher
The original coverage of the Lucy Meadows story in the Daily Mail: She later committed suicide.

Transgender woman Lucy Meadows was, by all accounts, a highly respected teacher who valued her privacy. Her family has asked for that privacy to be respected. But it was inevitable the media would report the coroner’s comments at her inquest, which found she had committed suicide.

That’s where the contrast starts – between an individual who obviously cared about those around her and a press that loves conflict, even if it has to fabricate or magnify it.

Michael Singleton was the coroner who ran Lucy’s inquest yesterday – and he didn’t exactly hold back in his criticisms of the press who hounded her during her life, although he accepted she hadn’t cited the media in her suicide notes.

In Singleton’s own words: ‘It seems to me that nothing has been learnt from the Leveson Inquiry [into standards in the British press] or subsequent report [which highlighted trans discrimination in the media].

‘Lucy Meadows was not someone who had thrust herself into the public limelight. She was not a celebrity. She had done nothing wrong.

‘I would like to think that the reporting of this inquest would be sympathetic and sensitive. I do not hold my breath. To date they have been sensational and salacious.’

It is, perhaps, educational to see how different media outlets have reported the inquest.

British tabloid the Daily Mail was definitely in the coroner’s firing line. Their coverage during her life had said she was ‘in the wrong job’ by transitioning while still remaining a teacher for young students. So, not surprisingly, the Mail highlighted the lack of any direct link between Lucy’s suicide and their coverage of her.

Most papers reported Lucy’s former name, some giving it more prominence than her actual name. Some news sources insisted on the ‘before’ picture. A number of local papers have run a piece which appears to have been sourced by the Press Association, which ticks all the stereotypical checkboxes that Trans Media Watch highlighted as problematic at the Leveson Inquiry last year.

My verdict – still some considerable way to go – and this on a story where the coroner has slammed the press for its behavior.

There now seems little doubt that the sad death of Miss Meadows has become some kind of pivotal point around which the media representation of trans people has revolved.

Trans Media Watch has gained a level of cross-party parliamentary support, even being mentioned in a House of Commons debate.

The Press Complaints Commission has indicated it wants to issue new guidelines on how trans and intersex issues should be reported, and work with Trans Media Watch to derive them. Again, a welcome step – but is more regulation really what’s needed?

The tabloids have generally toned down the more outrageous parts of their coverage in the last couple of months. Whether this is because they’ve genuinely turned over a new leaf, or whether it’s because they think that the historic way they have covered trans issues is too politically sensitive right now, only time will tell.

After all, the tabloids modified their behavior between March and November last year, only to return with full fury once Leveson had reported.

That’s not to say all reporting of trans people and issues is horrendous – it isn’t, and some journalists do a sterling job. But it’s often the editing of a story, to fit in with some preconception of readers’ views, which causes the problems.

I, along with many others, have called for a culture change within editorial boards – that ‘being trans’ simply stops being seen as newsworthy or an opportunity to sell more copy. Why report on a trans person not paying a taxi fare if you wouldn’t do this for any other private individual? Why refuse to run a story on a prominent trans person unless you can have before and after pictures?

And, at the same time, it’s imperative that newsrooms start treating trans people as people. That the issues we face, such as the current issues with the equal marriage bill for England and Wales in the UK parliament, or concerns over the way the medical professions treat trans people as highlighted by #TransDocFail, are given a fair hearing.

In order to gain this culture shift, it is imperative that editors, among others, actually meet trans people. To this end, the All About Trans project (which Trans Media Watch is involved in) is to be applauded as a hugely positive step. I’m looking forward to a meeting next month myself with a few editors of a well-known national newspaper, discussing ways forward.

Let’s hope that no other coroner will have cause to condemn the press for ‘ill-informed bigotry’ or utter the words: ‘And to you the Press, I say shame. Shame on all of you.’

 

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