January 24th, 2009
This isn’t the first time this has happened. We got caught with a similar situation not too long ago when we were presented with a report on a murder in Syracuse. Initial reports from the press were extremely ambiguous about Lateisha Green’s gender, calling her “Moses ‘Teish’ Cannon,” rather than the name everyone knew her by. Because I couldn’t determine exactly how Teish presented herself to everyone, I reflected the ambiguity of those early reports. After all, I have known people who truly are gender ambiguous and who insisted on not having it any other way. Nevertheless we were blasted for that ambiguity in the comments. But as the situation became more clear, we revised our reporting.
It was never our intention to stain Teish’s memory with an incorrect description of her gender. All we could do was rely in the reports that were presented to us. So imagine the offense we might have caused had we reported on a December murder in Indianapolis based on a WISH and WTHR reports which consistently referred to two murder victims, Michael Hunt, 22, and Avery Elzy, 34 as two men.
But this is Taysia Elzy, a transgender woman who was murdered along with her boyfriend.
Bil Browning and GLAAD were all over it. GLAAD contacted WTHR reporter Steve Jefferson and offered extensive resources for correcting the faulty coverage, including pointing out that the Associated Press style guide calls for reporters to “[u]se 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.”
According to GLAAD, Jefferson didn’t like the advice:
Instead of taking our advice the reporter rebuffed our educational efforts saying in an email, “I did not do this story based on lifestyle.” Jefferson furthered, “Our goal is to catch the killer- NOT promote your cause.” He also said he did not use female pronouns because he said the transgender victim “was NOT post-op.”
GLAAD included WTHR’s coverage as being among the worst in the nation for December, probably on the basis of Jefferson’s reaction.
Bil Browning’s reaction is perfect:
Actually, Steve, your job is to report the news. Your job is not to catch criminals, it’s to be an impartial, unbiased source of news and information without resorting to sensationalizing and disrespecting victims of a violent crime. This is why you are the worst journalist in the nation; you deserve the honor.
I’d go a little bit further. It is the reporter’s job not just to be impartial and unbiased, but also to report with clarity. Jefferson failed on all of these accounts.
WTHR’s coverage has just been updated toward a more ambiguous reporting. Her gender went from being incorrect to being unmentioned. It a small step in the right direction, but not far enough in my view. The revised reports are about as ambiguous as the first reports from Syracuse of Teish’s murder. WHTR hasn’t commented publicly on their reporter’s coverage.
Meanwhile, WISH’s reports have remained unchanged. They still describe the murder victims as “two men.”
Update: When I spoke to Bil Browning by phone earlier this afternoon, he told me about some new information that he would add to his post. That information is this:
I spoke with Carolyn Williams, the News Director for WTHR. The offensive article has been edited to conform with the AP Style Guide. Ms. Williams will also be speaking with her Station Manager about coordinating a diversity training session on LGBT issues with all area television stations.
Ms. Williams was very kind and understanding. E-mailing Ms. Williams with kudos for her prompt response and leadership would be more appropriate at this point!
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