Why newsrooms must retroactively update bylines for trans reporters

Protesters demonstrate for LGBTQ civil rights outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, DC on October 8, 2019. (Erik McGregor / LightRocket via Getty Images)

As I approached my college graduation, I mentally prepared myself for the Real World: getting my first full-time job (hopefully), signing the lease for my first apartment (eventually), and deadnaming myself to every single one of my future employers (definitely). 

I had just come out as transgender. And as a journalist, I feared my career would force me to share personal details I found painful to disclose.  

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For journalists who come out as trans after starting their careers, this dilemma is all too familiar. We are forced to pick one of two options. 

Option one is to present our portfolios as is, even if they include clips that deadname us. This choice best reflects our professional experience, but comes at a cost: making a first impression that hides and obscures our true selves, all while inducing traumatic levels of gender dysphoria. 

Option two is to present our portfolios with no materials that deadname us, even if this doesn’t represent our best work. But for anyone who’s new to journalism and doesn’t have many clips to start with, this option isn’t really an option at all. 

The easiest solution is also the most obvious one: For newsrooms to retroactively update the bylines of trans reporters on stories published before they came out. With newsrooms’ increasing use of computer management systems, updating a journalist’s byline across all existing sites has never been easier. 

“The message sent is that when trans people ask for respect, they are asking for too much.”

Unfortunately, that policy is far from the industry’s accepted norm. This disagreement is perhaps no more noticeable than in some of the country’s biggest newsrooms. 

On April 20, an email from the NewsGuild began circulating online, regarding negotiations between New York Times management and the news organization’s union. 

“While [management] agreed to change bylines on stories published after an employee’s transition, they said that retroactively correcting deadnames would be ‘fraught,’” the email reads. 

The union was quick to respond: “We countered that incorrectly crediting journalists for their body of work is ‘fraught’ as well.” 

The New York Times is far from the only newsroom which has chosen not to retroactively update bylines. Danielle McLean, the chair of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Ethics Committee, tweeted that she has bylines made unusable by her deadname with multiple newsrooms, including the Boston Globe and the Milford Daily News. Issuing prominent “corrections” to update a byline on a trans journalist’s articles wouldn’t help either — doing so would only further out trans reporters, disclose their deadnames against their will, and exacerbate any harassment they may experience. 

The unwillingness of newsroom leaders to update their trans reporters’ bylines is at best a misunderstanding of their decision’s impact; at worst, it’s a deliberate choice to refuse to acknowledge the needs of trans people as legitimate. Either way, the message sent is that when trans people ask for respect, they are asking for too much. That things would’ve been easier for everyone else if we’d just stayed in the closet. 

News organizations will face consequences as well. As the Trans Journalists Association wrote in a recent statement, issuing a “correction” or refusing to update a byline damages news organizations’ credibility, sending “a strong message that a newsroom is not a safe place for transgender people.” 

The good news is that newsrooms can change — and we know what they need to do.  

Editors can start by consulting resources such as the TJA’s guides to creating trans-friendly workplace policies and supporting employees who come out as trans. Hiring and recruiting teams can also work to hire more trans reporters and editors.  

“When journalists can bring their fullest selves to work, they are better reporters.”

And newsroom staff can heed the advice TJA co-founder Tuck Woodstock gave to NBCU Academy. As Woodstock wrote, “Many reporters lack the knowledge and experience to tackle trans topics with the nuance and sensitivity that they require.” Reporters must work to gain that knowledge, nuance and sensitivity. Their editors must support them, as well as the trans journalists on their staffs. 

These steps may sound daunting, but I’ve already seen news organizations leap forward. When I came out as trans in 2019, some of my previous editors updated my old bylines within days. Over the past two years, other newsrooms have also recognized the importance of retroactively updating bylines, including mine. For the first time since I came out, my work feels like mine again. 

But this victory isn’t just mine: It’s a victory for everyone who cares about journalism. Because when journalists can bring their fullest selves to work, they are better reporters. When we are given the tools to thrive, we can better help newsrooms educate the public, hold the powerful accountable and deliver the truth.  

There is nothing “fraught” about that. 

Sophie Kozub

is a journalist and activist based in New York City. A former NBC News intern, Sophie contributed to the Nightly News’ Emmy-winning coverage of Hurricane Florence. She went on to graduate as one of the first openly trans college valedictorians in the country. Currently, Sophie works as a national digital campaigns associate at the gun violence prevention nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety.