By Vee Sharp
On Feb. 15, an open letter from a collective of over 1,000 New York Times contributors –
including writers, artists, and photographers, to associate managing editor Philip B. Corbett –
was posted on nytletter.com, citing editorial bias against transgender and gender non-conforming people in their coverage.
According to the letter, “Plenty of reporters at the Times cover transgender issues fairly. Their work is eclipsed, however, by what one journalist has calculated as over 15,000 words of front-page Times coverage debating the propriety of medical care for transgender children published in the last eight months alone.”
The letter also states that the Times’ reporting was cited to support anti-transgender legislation.
On Feb. 16, the New York Times published an opinion article titled “In Defense of J.K. Rowling,” written by opinion columnist Pamela Paul. This article argued against critics of “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling, whose rhetoric about transgender people, specifically transgender women, has been cited as bigoted and harmful.
“[Rowling] has insisted that when it comes to determining a person’s legal gender status, self-declared gender identity is insufficient,” Paul wrote, later stating that “nothing Rowling has said qualifies as transphobic.”
According to Associate Professor of English Dr. Elizabeth O’Connor, the Rowling article has likely been in the works for several weeks. This is due to how articles – opinion articles in particular – are generally pitched ahead of time.
As an opinion piece, the paper could have certainly pulled it, or published it at a later time in response to the open letter. Instead, the Times prioritized publishing this article over having a genuine conversation about the ethics of their reporting in response to the open letter.
“One of the ethical issues that needs to be taken into consideration is what [the Times] are prioritizing,” Dr. O’Connor said. “It’s something each desk has to wrestle with…there’s not a lot of easy answers.”
The New York Times has journalists – and can hire journalists – that are willing to center transgender people in their coverage. It is evident, however, that the Times are more willing to hold their ground than reevaluate what they prioritize.
According to The Guardian, an internal memo sent to New York Times staff in response to the open letter by Times executive editor Joe Kahn and opinion editor Kathleen Kingsbury defended the paper’s coverage of transgender people.
“We also have a clear policy prohibiting Times journalists from attacking one another’s journalism publicly or signaling their support,” the memo said.
The open letter, however, was not acting unethically. According to the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ)’s Code of Ethics, journalists should “expose unethical conduct in journalism, including within their organizations” as well as “encourage a civil dialogue with the public about journalistic practices, coverage, and news content.”
According to senior Jayla Draghici, the New York Times is contributing to a larger, fabricated conflict, when the existence of transgender people is a simple fact.
“The problem is with framing trans rights as an issue. I’m just trying to live,” Draghici said.
By contributing to a debate surrounding transgender healthcare, by extension transgender rights and the existence of transgender people, the New York Times is creating more harm than good. It is prioritizing the comfort of its cisgender readers over truthful coverage about the plight of transgender people.
The New York Times should have a conversation about their ethics. They should talk about what they prioritize, and how they can uplift voices that are currently being stifled. The fact that they are covering up criticism through publishing a defense of a known transphobe and attempting to silence dissenters within their organization is evidence enough of their stance, perceived or true.
According to the SPJ Code of Ethics, journalists should “be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable. Give voice to the voiceless…Boldly tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience. Seek sources whose voices we seldom hear.”
If adhering to these ethics, the New York Times, even when seeking neutrality, should also be putting transgender voices on the front page – voices that have very little platform, if given any at all. J. K. Rowling is not voiceless, and neither are those that seek to restrict the rights of transgender people.
The New York Times has proven that it prioritizes the defense of an inflammatory figure over a conversation about their journalistic ethics. They have not properly responded nor taken responsibility. If the Times truly wishes to write “important, deeply reported, and sensitively written” articles about transgender people, as stated in the internal memo, they will re-evaluate who they are giving a platform to and why.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Photo Caption: Over 1000 contributors at the New York Times have signed an open letter that addresses ethical concerns about the paper’s coverage of transgender topics.