September 5, 2023

When the Trans Journalists Association first developed its style guide in 2019, the world was in a very different place — and not just because it was pre-pandemic.

“It was a totally different media landscape,” said Kae Petrin, president and interim executive director of TJA. Coverage of trans people back then often involved tropes or inaccurate language — a bad story here or there — but it was a far cry from the “misinformation deluges” that Petrin is seeing today.

In the years since TJA first launched, conservative legislators around the country have pushed a blitz of bills designed to restrict trans people’s access to health care and public life. In 2023 alone, state lawmakers have introduced hundreds of anti-trans bills.

“This degree of legislation is a really big story, and newsrooms need to do it right,” Petrin said. “We just want to be here to help people understand the nuances of the language and how to tell these stories accurately … (with) thought and care for the communities that are impacted by them.”

That’s why Petrin is leading the Trans Journalists Association through a significant expansion, beginning with the launch of a greatly updated style guide. The organization has also expanded its board of directors, added a new strategic mission and secured fiscal sponsorship for the first time, from the Tiny News Collective (up until this point, TJA has been entirely volunteer-led).

The efforts are meant to address what Petrin sees as a shortfall in the coverage of trans people and the legislative attacks on their communities.

“The biggest thing I see is there’s just such big omissions,” Petrin said. For example, news organizations will often cover proposed bills that would restrict gender-affirming care. But they tend to focus on a narrative — put forth by conservative legislators — about “protecting children,” without mentioning that these bills often restrict care for adults as well, and expose medical providers to legal liability.

Petrin also notes “a lot of really big framing gaps,” especially in who is quoted as an expert source in this type of coverage. Stories about gender-affirming health care often rely on cisgender doctors as the main (or only) source, and neglect to speak to trans people affected by the legislation.

These types of errors underscore the motivation behind TJA’s more ambitious goal: training newsrooms to refine their coverage of trans people on a broader level.

“The style is a starting point, but there’s also just framing: Whose voices are centered? What basic reporting logic are you applying to figure out who you’re covering and how? And what’s the real story here?” Petrin said.

The TJA has already seen a strong appetite from newsrooms for this type of training. “It is something that people have been requesting,” Petrin said. Historically, TJA has not always had the resources to send a trans journalist to a newsroom, for example, to conduct a workshop. But as TJA works to secure more funding, it plans to create a rigorous, formal training program it can take on the road.

In the new style guide, TJA has directly addressed many of the requests it has fielded over the past several years. “There were a lot more specific questions, especially as the legislative landscape has gotten a lot more complicated in the U.S.,” Petrin said. The updated guide addresses those questions — for example, whether to identify someone as trans in a breaking news situation — and includes new sections on “editorial best practices” and “politicized or inaccurate phrases,” as well as topical guides for several different beats.

“We want it to be a more robust tool for these breaking news and policy conversations where the language and its use gets really complicated,” Petrin said.

The other part of TJA’s expanded mission aims to support individual trans journalists in their careers. That could look like creating fellowships that place trans journalists in newsrooms to cover the beats that often intersect with trans communities. “We want to promote accurate, nuanced coverage, and we want to support trans journalists,” Petrin said.

One of TJA’s new board members helping with this mission is Gina Chua, the executive editor of Semafor. Chua has spent a long career at national outlets, most recently as the executive editor of Reuters. She hopes that her understanding of traditional newsrooms will help TJA, especially as it works to expand fellowships and the hiring of trans journalists.

The other members joining the TJA board include Minami Funakoshi, a graphics journalist at Reuters; Adam Rhodes, training director at Investigative Reporters & Editors; and Graph Massara, a former fact-checker with The Associated Press.

Like Petrin, Chua sees many blind spots in the current, mainstream coverage of trans people. On some level, she understands why: Trans people, after all, only account for 0.6% of the U.S. population.

But she doesn’t think that’s an excuse for poor journalism.

“For us, it’s not a question of, should you use the right language,” she said. “Those things do matter, obviously. But the broad scheme of things, what we’re trying to bring to people’s attention, is thinking through some of the broader thematic framing questions.”

Especially as newsrooms contend with shrinking resources, Chua said it’s imperative that journalists focus on the ones that really matter.

“TJA doesn’t want fewer stories, doesn’t want positive, happy stories. We want more stories, we want good stories, we want stories that lay bare all of the issues, done in a nuanced, balanced, fair, accurate way,” Chua said. “All we want is good coverage, and we want more of it.”

This article was made possible thanks to the support of the Gill Foundation.

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Mike De Socio is an independent journalist based in upstate New York, covering cities, climate and the LGBTQ+ community. His work has been published in…
Mike De Socio

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