Bradley Manning news raises questions about how to refer to transgender people in stories

The New York Times

Television reporters “weren’t immediately sure how to tell” the story of Bradley Manning’s announcement on “Today” that he identifies as a woman and will seek hormone therapy, Brian Stelter writes.

Savannah Guthrie, who broke the story, “used the pronoun ‘she’ to refer to Private Manning throughout most of the interview, but used ‘he’ when trying to emphasize the change had just been announced.”

Manning picked a bad time of the year to send journalists running to their stylebooks: The New York Times’ associate managing editor for standards, Phil Corbett? “[A]way until Tuesday, Aug. 27,” according to an auto-reply email. Washington Post standards editor Tracy Grant? “[O]ut of the office until Monday, August 26.” Los Angeles Times copy overlord Henry Fuhrmann? “I will be away from the office this week.”

“I think that’s being discussed,” says Washington Post copy editor Bill Walsh (who says  he’s “away for a few days”) when asked about Post style. What’s a media reporter to do? In a later email, Grant confirmed the discussions: “We’re in the process of reviewing our style in light of the Manning situation,” she wrote.

Corbett’s email refers reporters to Greg Brock, the Times’ senior editor for standards, who sent Poynter the Times’ stylebook entry, which he says he’s sending “to those who might be working on the coverage.”

transgender (adj.) is an overall term for people whose current identity differs from their sex at birth, whether or not they have changed their biological characteristics. Cite a person’s transgender status only when it is pertinent and its pertinence is clear to the reader. Unless a former name is newsworthy or pertinent, use the name and pronouns (he, his, she, her, hers) preferred by the transgender person. If no preference is known, use the pronouns consistent with the way the subject lives publicly.{new 3/05}

A few minutes after that email, Corbett emailed to say pretty much the same thing: In general, he writes, “We use the names and pronouns preferred by the subject. And we would refer to someone’s transgender status only if it is relevant to the story.”

Here’s the Associated Press’ style:

transgender: Use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth.

If that preference is not expressed, use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly.

And here’s GLAAD’s style, from its media reference guide:

Transgender An umbrella term (adj.) for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. The term may include but is not limited to: transsexuals, cross-dressers and other gender-variant people. Transgender people may identify as female-to-male (FTM) or male-to-female (MTF). Use the descriptive term (transgender, transsexual, cross-dresser, FTM or MTF) preferred by the individual. Transgender people may or may not decide to alter their bodies hormonally and/or surgically.

Some more from GLAAD:

Problematic: “transgenders,” “a transgender”
Preferred: “transgender people,” “a transgender person”

Transgender should be used as an adjective, not as a noun. Do not say, “Tony is a transgender,” or “The parade included many transgenders.” Instead say, “Tony is a transgender man,” or “The parade included many transgender people.”

Problematic: “transgendered”
Preferred: “transgender”

The adjective transgender should never have an extraneous “-ed” tacked onto the end. An “-ed” suffix adds unnecessary length to the word and can cause tense confusion and grammatical errors. For example, it is grammatically incorrect to turn transgender into a participle, as it is an adjective, not a verb, and only verbs can be used as participles by adding an “-ed” suffix.

Problematic: “sex change,” “pre-operative,” “post-operative”
Preferred: “transition”

Referring to a sex change operation, or using terms such as pre- or post-operative, inaccurately suggests that one must have surgery in order to transition. Avoid overemphasizing surgery when discussing transgender people or the process of transition.

Here’s the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association’s stylebook entry:

transgender: An umbrella term that refers to people whose biological and gender identity or expression may not be the same. This can but does not necessarily include preoperative, postoperative or nonoperative transsexuals, female and male cross-dressers, drag queens or kings, female or male impersonators, and intersex individuals. When writing about a transgender person, use the name and personal pronouns that are consistent with the way the individual lives publicly. When possible, ask which term the subject prefers.

Fuhrmann, who is attending the Asian American Journalists Association’s annual convention in New York City, emailed as this post was being published:

We’re in the process of drafting an update to our guidelines, which date to about 2003. Not having a copy of either version at hand, I can say generally that we refer to subjects by their chosen gender identification, in line with the guidelines recommended by GLAAD and NLGJA and with AP style. We use the name and personal pronoun that conform with how a person lives publicly.

Later in the afternoon, I heard from Valentina Djeljosevic, the Chicago Tribune’s deputy editor of Editing & Presentation. “The Chicago Tribune follows AP style,” she wrote in an email. “We’ll say Bradley Manning on first reference since that’s the name readers know. We’ll add that Manning identifies as Chelsea, and we’ll use ‘she’ when a pronoun is needed.”

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  • Jono

    I wish to be referred to as “Your Eminence.”

  • Doug

    It’s nice that you intend to do things correctly going forward, but you didn’t have to refer to her by the wrong name and pronoun to make it clear that she is the person people will have previously known as Bradley Manning.

    See how the Guardian did it for an example: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/aug/22/bradley-manning-woman-chelsea-gender-reassignment

    In your case you could just as easily have used her correct first name in the headline, or no first name at all, and your lede could have been something like “Television reporters ‘weren’t immediately sure how to tell’ the story of Chelsea Manning’s announcement on ‘Today’ that the soldier, formerly known as Bradley Manning, identifies as a woman and will seek hormone therapy, Brian Stelter writes.” Sure, maybe that is a bit more aesthetically awkward than what you actually wrote, but that is a small price to pay for not doing something offensive.

  • Peter Harris

    He did something wrong, I agree, but he is not a traitor and 35 years is a punishment that is horribly disproportionate to his crime. (To be clear, I believe an open government is incredibly important, but the fact that he indiscriminately leaked hundreds of thousands of documents was wrong—He had no way of knowing if there was anything that needed to be a state secret.)

  • BrotherMatthias

    Well, except for riots in Tunisia. And harm may not be immediate, and doesn’t even have to be shown. This was the largest breach in U.S. history. He needs to serve the full 35 years.

  • Peter Harris

    Manning is not a traitor. Her intention was not to harm this country and no harm came from her actions.

  • BrotherMatthias

    Manning is a traitor. That’s the story. He was convicted and got 35 years. This is why the people dislike us, the media. This is why they cancel subscriptions. He is a traitor, and yet most media betray their biases and instead debate how to treat the poor guy — err, I mean girl — with the proper pronouns.

  • Justin Sanak

    It isn’t. It’s a standard downpage wire story, edited for length, that just gives the basic facts. If it was making him out to be either a demon or a saint we wouldn’t run it in the news section.

    The story keeps the mention of Manning’s wishes to be known using a female name and pronouns, of course, but when the grammar forces the use of a pronoun the story chooses masculine. Thankfully Manning’s conviction let’s us get out of using honorifics, so we only have to use gendered terms twice.

  • abeaujon

    Thanks so much for your feedback. If you’d like to discuss this more, I’m at +1-703-594-1103 or abeaujon@poynter.org.

  • crash2parties

    So the article is just meant to demean Ms. Manning in front of a conservative audience, then? Nice.

  • crash2parties

    So just like acronyms, you explain it with the first usage…and then use the preferred pronouns and names for the rest of the piece. It’s really simple if you think about it from the pov of the person you are ostensibly writing about.

  • rochefoucauld

    Thanks for replying, but I don’t think your response is adequate. If you were really concerned about getting it right, there are many ways you could have worded things so it’s clear who she is, without the need to use her old name and incorrect pronouns.

  • Justin Sanak

    The decision at The National in Abu Dhabi is that Manning is not yet living as a female and hasn’t started hormone therapy, so we will still refer to him using male pronouns. The decision also takes into account our audience, who are much more conservative and likely to be offended at gender issues than most Western media.

  • BrotherMatthias

    Also make sure to note Bradley “Chelsea” Manning is a traitor and a basket case.

  • abeaujon

    Hi, rochefoucauld, thanks for your comment: This news story forced me to tread an awkward path, copy-wise — readers may not know Manning by her preferred name yet, hence the headline, and in the first sentence I used the masculine pronoun in an attempt follow the course of events. Not saying I got it right, but that was my thinking. We’ll refer to Manning by her preferred name and with appropriate pronouns going forward.

  • rochefoucauld

    OK so you quote authorities on getting it right re names/pronouns, so why does your tweet, headline, AND article get it so so wrong? Manning has quite clearly stated how she wishes to be referred to – as Chelsea Manning – yet you utterly ignore that. Bizarre and unprofessional.