12th June 2024
Impress Insights: How Are Press Regulators Acting to Prevent Transphobia In The Media?

Dr Dimitri Akrivos: How Are Press Regulators Acting to Prevent Transphobia In The Media?

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From news stories about J.K. Rowling’s controversial ‘gender-critical’ (GC) posts on social media to the murder of trans teenager Brianna Ghey or the findings of the Cass Review, there has been an increasing media interest in transgender issues in recent years.

The tensions between pro-trans and GC activists have escalated into what has aptly been described in Alison Bailey’s discrimination case against trans-supporting organisation Stonewall as a ‘polarised, often uncompromising, and sometimes hostile and abusive’ discussion.

In this fraught climate, the need to ensure responsible trans reporting is more urgent than ever.

Numerous studies have highlighted the impact negative media portrayals can have on trans people’s mental well-being, associating them with anxiety, depression or even suicide. At the same time, international human rights organisations like the Council of Europe have repeatedly warned that this media ‘othering’, often reaching ‘toxic’ levels, might be fuelling an alarming rise in transphobic hate crime rates.

Amid such concerns, media regulators are faced with the difficult, yet crucial, task of striking a balance between freedom of expression and protecting vulnerable trans people from misleading or discriminatory reporting.

While journalists should be free to express their views in a democratic society (even when these might offend, disturb or shock), this freedom should not be interpreted as a ‘carte blanche’ to denigrate an already marginalised community. The European Court of Human Rights’ recent case law stresses that sexual and gender minorities require special protection from discrimination which should extend beyond the strict confines of hate speech (e.g. direct calls for violence).

But to what extent do the UK press regulators provide effective recourse against trans-discriminatory reporting?

To answer this question, I examined how IPSO and Impress have handled complaints about trans-related reporting since their launch in 2014 and 2015 respectively.

I identified three key issues likely to attract controversy when covering transgender matters: a) trans-inclusive policies and their potential risks to cisgender women; b) the lack of consensus over the boundaries between GC discourse and transphobia in everyday situations and the impact of this confusion on accurate trans reporting; c) finally, the allegedly detrimental impact of gender ideology on children’s well-being.

I conclude that, despite the progress that has been made in trans reporting since the Leveson Inquiry, the stereotypical trans portrayals criticised by Lord Leveson – ‘trans as deviant’, ‘trans as undeserving’ and ‘trans as fraud’ – persist in the British press today.

Journalists need to be vigilant about the discursive harms of trans reporting, i.e. how media ‘othering’ can legitimise trans discrimination even if it does not meet the high legal threshold of hate speech.

IPSO’s insistence on applying its discrimination clause (Clause 12) only to named individuals offers no protections against prejudicial reporting targeting an entire group. On the other hand, Impress’ updated Standards Code proves that freedom of expression is not incompatible with enhanced protections for minority groups (including trans people). Its discrimination clause (Clause 4.3) captures content which does not necessarily incite but might encourage hatred or abuse against a group based on their characteristics.

By casting a wider net, Impress can more effectively mitigate the discursive harms IPSO’s narrow focus fails to tackle.

New strategies are necessary to address the power imbalances inherent within the mediated trans rights debate, where dominant cisgender voices are often prioritised over those of trans people. To promote responsible trans reporting, it is recommended that journalists and press regulators concentrate their efforts on the following key areas:

•    Discursive harms: Implement (IPSO) and continue refining (Impress) a ‘discursive harm’ model, supplemented with more detailed, tailored guidelines for transgender reporting.

•    Accuracy: Avoid relying on questionable statistics and misleading associations between trans people and violent offenders in line with the central obligation to ensure accurate reporting (Impress Standards Code Clause 1; IPSO Editors’ Code of Practice Clause 1).

•    Links between inaccuracy and discrimination: Address the interplay between inaccurate reporting and discrimination by ensuring that media coverage does not only meet factual standards but also avoid perpetuating stereotypes or unsubstantiated fears.

•    Visuals: Refrain from using visuals as a means to perpetuate discrimination against trans people (e.g. by reinforcing cisgender assumptions as to what a woman should look like).

•    Privacy: Ensure that any privacy interferences (e.g. the publication of personal details about a trans individual’s life before transition) are balanced against legitimate public interest justifications and genuinely relevant to the story;

•    Terminology: Prioritise (both Impress and IPSO) the development of clearer guidelines on appropriate terminology in transgender reporting (e.g. the controversial term ‘TERF’ and other potentially discriminatory language) to bolster respect for diverse perspectives and promote sensitivity.

Despite recent remarks at the 2023 Conservative Party Conference suggesting otherwise, it would be reductive to assume there are easy answers to complex questions of sex and gender identity. With the divide between pro-trans and GC campaigners constantly growing and trans rights emerging as a central issue in the upcoming general election, the importance of responsible trans reporting cannot be overstated.

Fulfilling its role as a ‘public watchdog’, the press has a long history of scrutinising what is presented as ‘natural’ and ‘obvious’ by those in power. Let’s not break that tradition now that the stakes are so high.

By Dr Dimitri Akrivos
Lecturer in Criminology and Sex, Gender & Sexualities Research Group Member at the University of Surrey

 

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About Dimitri

Dr. Dimitris Akrivos is a Lecturer in Criminology and a member of the Sex, Gender & Sexualities Research Group at the University of Surrey. His research interests lie at the intersection of criminology, law and media ethics with a particular focus on issues of gender, sexuality and social harm. His research on the regulation of transgender news reporting in the British press has featured in the Journal of Media Law and Communications Law. He has also written on trans issues in the International Forum for Responsible Media Blog and the LSE Media Blog


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