Tuesday 28 June 2022

Good sense from the heart of Lancashire

Dr Amy Binns and Sophie Arnold of the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) have produced guidance for journalists to help them report court cases that involve a transgender defendant. Their work strikes me as being very sensible and useful, and clearly written too. It's well worth reading:

1. Avoid using definitive words without caveat especially in headlines and introductions.
Headlines which use the word “woman” to describe a transwoman implies that the writer, and publication, agrees with the proposition “Transwomen are women”. This is an opinion, not a fact, and so should not be used in the headline of a news report. Similarly, describing a person who has recently changed their name as a “transwoman” implies to the general reader that the person has made a sincere, permanent commitment to a gender change, probably with medical treatment. This may not be the case. In headlines, the words woman or transwoman are better avoided. In body copy, phrases can be used such as “The prosecuting lawyer said Smith now identifies as a woman” or “Smith claimed to be transgender and asked court officials to use female pronouns”.

2. Report all quotes accurately even if this results in different pronouns being used by different speakers.
In court reporting, as elsewhere, quotes should never be changed. If necessary, a brief explanation is best: “Although Smith was referred to as a woman by court officials, the witness referred to Smith as a man”.

3. Seek to provide your reader with the most accurate information, where possible, regarding the person’s status such as an official name change, medical treatment, time of transition or GRC.
Public understanding of trans terms is low, and even official definitions are so vague and all-encompassing as to be almost meaningless. In the majority of news reports, details of a person’s transition will be irrelevant, but is relevant where biological sex is a factor if the reader is to understand the facts, particularly where a defendant has transitioned, or claimed to transition, after arrest.

4. Refrain from using pronouns, except in quotes, even if this results in awkward sentence construction or repetition of a name.
To refer to a biological male with female pronouns is to tacitly agree with their claim that they are a woman or transwoman. Owing to the incentives of the justice system, this may not be the case. Using their chosen pronouns is to collude in their possible deception.

5. Make clear the biological sex of the defendant high up in the story.
Types of crime strongly correlate with biological sex. These differences remain even after transition. Public understanding of crime, particularly violent and sexual offences, will be corroded if a defendant’s sex is cloaked in euphemisms, or buried in a final paragraph, or if gender is conflated with sex.

6. Use both birth and trans names where available, particularly for sex offences.
Journalists have a duty to the public, as well as obligations to the subjects of stories. This can create a conflict when a person has changed their name. Many trans people greatly dislike being referred to by their original name, sometimes known as “deadnaming”, and in most news stories there is no need to use it. However, there is clearly a public interest case for reporting a defendant’s original name as well as their new name. Reports of sex offences are one of the most valuable methods of encouraging victims of earlier crimes to come forward. Complying with a sex offender’s demands to only use their new name in public reports may allow them to escape justice for other crimes. The existence of a GRC does not prohibit the publication of a previous name when used to investigate or prevent crime, as described in the societal benefits of court reporting above. An analogy would be with press treatment of far-right activist Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, AKA Tommy Robinson. The media, across the political spectrum, routinely refer to him by both names, regardless of his preference.

Their report includes a spreadsheet that links to many relevant cases, including to several BBC reports. What's striking is that the BBC has been far from consistent in how it reports such stories. They range from the one about child rapist Patrick McCann, which simply calls him 'Patrick McCann' and uses 'he' and 'his' throughout, to the one about John Marshall, which uses the headline Blackpool woman accessed child abuse images in hospital bed, immediately follows that with the opening line 'A woman who accessed her "vast" library of child sexual abuse images from her hospital bed has been jailed', and only uses the name 'Julie Marshall' and the pronoun 'she'. 

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