Becoming Trans News – Final Report

Becoming Trans News is a study focused on ordinary trans and gender nonconforming individuals’ experiences being featured in the news. The term ordinary meaning those who are non-prominent, rather than the usual news subjects such as politicians, celebrities, government officials, etc. This project builds upon research done by Columbia graduate Ruth Palmer, who wrote a book on how ordinary people in the news.

The goal of this research was to find any commonalities among the interviewees regarding their experiences in the news. Those commonalities helped us come to conclusions on what most ordinary trans and gender nonconforming people feel about their interaction/s with journalists. In 12 interviews conducted, we discovered plenty of interesting factors that went into an individual agreeing to be featured in the news media, if they would do it again, and what impact being featured in the news had on their lives.

We used a qualitative research method, with the form being applied research, and a case study being the research design. Commonalities were discovered through me color coding the transcribed interviews for reactions to the article, interactions with reporters, why they chose to be interviewed, and willingness to talk to a reporter again.

We found that all respondents agreed to being featured in the news because they felt it was right to give back to the community in a sense by educating the audience on an overlooked—but important—topic, or give a perspective that is rarely seen in the media. One respondent told us, “I feel a sense a responsibility to speak out, not an obligation.” That feeling of responsibility to speak out in the news media may be unique to the trans and gender nonconforming demographic, as it is unlikely other groups (outside of activists and not-for-profit workers) agree to be featured in the news to promote awareness about issues in their community.

We also found that though reactions to the article from strangers/friends and family varied from donation offers to death threats, all 12 respondents said they would agree to be interviewed again. The interviewees’ reactions to the article they were featured in varied, as some were upset about inaccuracies, usage of wrong terminology, etc. Others expressed happiness with the care the journalists approached the article, and giving them a voice in their outlet.

We also found that the few respondents interviewed by more niche publications, rather than major or local publications that usually do not cover transgender issues, said the interview was smoother to go through. With outlets or journalists that usually do not cover trans people, many of our respondents explained how they had to educate the interviewers on topics pertaining to trans issues. One respondent said: “I was kind of surprised how little that [the journalist] had prepared, or at least sought about or read into the subject.”

In terms of successes of this research, one thing sticks out to me: the diversity of the respondents. I am happy we had such a diverse group of trans and gender nonconforming individuals for this research. Generations varied from folks just entering college to individuals who have been in the workforce for decades. We also interviewed different ethnicities for this project, which makes the conclusion we came to representative of most of the community, not just a subgroup within it.

I’ve learned a plethora of things through this research. Before this summer, I did not know anything about color coding or how a lot of the research we cite in English essays come about. Another lesson learned that will stick with me for the rest of my career in journalism is questions that particularly trans and gender nonconforming people find offensive or invasive to ask. Interviewees made clear that questions about their dead name, sexuality, and genitals should never be asked. This research also gives me and other journalists insight on what the interviewees are thinking from the time we contact them for an interview to the time they read the story. Respondents described a mix of nervousness, anxiety and excitement they felt throughout the entire process, which is something journalists may not always take into account because we do interviews so frequently.

This experience was phenomenal, and that is due to both the subject and my mentor. Dr. Fink chose a great topic to cover.  We had weekly meetings where she would relay what new things we needed to do for the research. She kept me on track throughout the entire process. One example that I recall was at the very beginning when I was searching for subjects to interview. I expected we were going to look for people who have featured in the news the past five years or so. However, she made it a point that it should be 2018 news subjects because the interview would be so in-depth that they would not remember an interaction from years back. She was correct because the individuals who were interviewed more recently were able to give us clearer and quicker answers without taking time to think or having to search through emails.

I believe when Dr. Fink is finally publishes this, it will potentially be groundbreaking research that will help journalists for years to come. The media has been rightfully criticized for the way it covers marginalized groups, and hopefully this research will help journalists avoid that criticism.

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