Why Newsrooms Need More Trans People in Leadership

A rally held in support of trans rights in Madrid, Spain, on July 4, 2020. (Photo by Marcos del Mazo/LightRocket via Getty Images)

In 1998, New York Times copy editor Donna Cartwright came out as transgender. In those days, when email was still a new concept, she posted letters to her colleagues on bulletin boards on each newsroom floor explaining her decision to transition.

According to The Nation, Cartwright, who had been at the paper 21 years, found the environment mostly welcoming, despite having to remind colleagues not to misgender her and deal with misunderstandings from management. Before leaving the Times in 2006, Cartwright was the first person to openly transition at the paper.

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In February, more than 1,200 Times contributors and 34,000 media workers and readers signed an open letter concerned about the paper’s “editorial bias” in its reporting on trans people. Cartwright recently told The Nation she too has felt “annoyance” at her former employer’s coverage. “If this was about a high school teacher who was being persecuted for believing in dinosaurs, the Times would think that that was ridiculous,” she said. “But … LGBT people and trans people — it seems like we haven’t quite made the grade yet. We have to keep swimming upstream.”

With hundreds of proposed bills targeting trans people’s rights, many news organizations are now covering trans people regularly, often without assigning reporters experienced in these issues. This was also apparent in the recent coverage of the Nashville school shooting, in which some headlines lead with the shooter’s possible trans identity when there wasn’t a proven “relationship between their gender identity and this act of violence,” as Poynter’s Kelly McBride pointed out

In the 25 years since Cartwright transitioned, trans journalists remain a rarity in newsrooms. With the notable exception of Semafor Executive Editor Gina Chua, it’s especially uncommon to see a trans person’s name on a masthead, let alone in management.

On the one hand, trans people make up a tiny percentage of the general population — about 0.6% — so it makes sense that there might be few trans people in media leadership, said Gillian Branstetter, ACLU communications strategist and a former journalist. But “that excuse only goes so far,” she said. “It’s hand in glove with a broader diversity problem that the news industry has had for a very long time. Most major newsrooms are not just predominantly cisgender, they’re predominantly white and predominantly male.”

While there has been pressure in recent years for newsrooms to be more “diverse,” that diversity rarely extends to trans people. It’s a Catch-22: Without trans people in leadership roles, it’s incredibly difficult for outlets to fairly report stories about trans people, and without access to newsrooms, it’s hard for trans journalists to foster the kinds of careers that lead to management positions.

The difficulty in finding advancement opportunities

Before Cartwright, there was Chicago Tribune writer and editor Nancy Hunt. Hunt was an award-winning war correspondent who covered the Vietnam War in the 1960s and early ‘70s. But after her transition in 1977, Tribune managers moved her onto the night desk, and she retired in 1986.

Her 1999 Tribune obituary repeatedly deadnames her and uses different pronouns throughout. Media people likely didn’t know any better 25 years ago when it was written, but it hardly reads as a respectful memorial for a journalism legend.

Hunt was an early example of some of the challenges faced by trans women in journalism even today, according to Christina Kahrl who is trans and a sports editor at the San Francisco Chronicle. “She was a journalistic badass and out as a trans woman in [the late ‘70s],” said Kahrl. “There’s a metaphor there for, ‘if you’re going to be trans in the newsroom, if we allow you to exist at all, we’re going to hide you away.’”

Kahrl notes her own experience as one of the only trans journalists to reach a masthead position at a major newspaper, crediting much of her career success to having never covered trans issues in a political sense, but rather building her reputation covering sports. “It’s weird that most of us have been relegated to this kind of permanent trans ghetto of journalism,” she said. “Very few of us are allowed to be in the same playground with most of the other kids.”

Kahrl, like Cartwright, Hunt and Chua, had also already experienced a level of success before her transition. Trans people who transition younger, or who attempt to build journalism careers after transitioning, don’t always have an easy time breaking in.

Trans Journalist Association co-founder and board member Kam Burns (note: no relation to the writer of this story) said he has run into issues where he was often the lone trans voice in newsrooms full of cis people. He said it’s easy for editors and management to dismiss and ignore feedback in such environments.

“Having even one trans person in leadership would allow for these conversations to happen on a more level playing field and also help newsrooms move beyond just making sure they have the right language, to looking at how they cover the trans community more holistically,” he said.

Time and time again it’s the trans writers covering trans issues that are often the first to go from an organization. Vice and Vox have laid off trans journalists who covered trans issues over the last five years, and trans women continue to struggle to break in at any level at major newspapers. Occasionally, trans women would reach management-level positions at feminist publications, but those outlets too seem to be dying out.

Look to history as not to repeat it

The controversy that likely helped establish many of the more recent professional norms for covering trans issues is the Dr. V’s Magical Putter story that ran in ESPN outlet Grantland in 2014.

The piece told the story of an aeronautical physicist, Essay Anne Vanderbilt, who invented a putter but turned out to be a con artist who fleeced investors for thousands of dollars. While reporting the story, writer Caleb Hannan learned that Vanderbilt was a trans woman.

After the discovery, Hannan wrote Vanderbilt an email “trying to confirm what I had discovered,” which was, of course, received angrily. Not long after that, Hannan wrote, he got a phone call informing him that Vanderbilt had died by suicide.

Publication of the story drew a then-odd, but now-familiar dichotomy, with trans people upset that such a violating story was published in the first place, and a group of mostly white male reporters saying trans people were getting unnecessarily angry at a young reporter who “made hard choices on a difficult story.”

Grantland Editor-in-Chief Bill Simmons wrote a detailed editor’s letter shortly after the story’s publication, admitting to making some mistakes in the editorial process.

Caleb’s biggest mistake? Outing Dr. V to one of her investors while she was still alive. I don’t think he understood the moral consequences of that decision, and frankly, neither did anyone working for Grantland. That misstep never occurred to me until I discussed it with Christina Kahrl yesterday. But that speaks to our collective ignorance about the issues facing the transgender community in general, as well as our biggest mistake: not educating ourselves on that front before seriously considering whether to run the piece.”

Speaking about the story now nine years later, Kahrl noted how she had been shut out of consultation on the story even though she had known Simmons for years. “One of my first questions was: I exist and I work for the same company. I could have helped you and you should have talked to me,” said Kahrl, who wrote her own op-ed about the piece in the aftermath of its publication.

There’s a throughline from the Dr. V story to the more modern approach some outlets take in covering trans kids — with cis people reporting on nuanced and complicated trans stories, without a trans person in the room. Consulting with a trans journalist before publishing these pieces not only makes them more accurate, it helps to make the trans community more receptive to the stories you’re trying to tell. The idea should be to “foster an actual newsroom conversation on the subject of whether or not to do this story and about how to do it best. If you don’t do that job, then you’re not a journalist,” said Kahrl.

Simmons probably best summed it up himself in 2014: “Someone familiar with the transgender community should have read Caleb’s final draft,” he wrote. “This never occurred to us. Nobody ever brought it up.”

The reason why it never occurred to Simmons, or the multiple editors who read the story before it was posted, including the editor-in-chief of ESPN.com, is because trans people weren’t in the room. Sure, Kahrl was there, but she wasn’t in the editorial chain of command, so organizationally, it made sense that the normal editorial process would skip her entirely. She was a baseball writer, after all.

Branstetter points to the underlying assumptions that run through many news organizations when it comes to determining which demographics of people are viewed as more or less trustworthy and unbiased as journalists. “Transgender people are especially viewed as lacking in the ability to be objective in the way that a cisgender straight white man is presumed to be innately suited for,” she said. “A homogenous leadership is going to make the institution and its staff more often blind to their own biases and gaps in coverage.”

As trans issues are being forced more into the center of a political “culture war,” newsrooms full of cis journalists should recognize they might not know everything there is to know to competently report on trans people. An easy way to ensure that perspective is having a trans person in an editorial role who can not only advise when necessary, but also be heard.