UK media coverage of trans lives has become ‘more troubling’ in the past decade

A man reads The Times newspaper as he rides the tube in London

A trans media monitoring group has warned UK press coverage of trans lives has become “more troubling” in the last decade, following the release of a major new report.

The UK’s Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) has published new research into coverage of transgender issues, weeks after a study confirmed relentless anti-trans media coverage is causing increased depression and psychological distress in the trans people exposed to it.

IPSO reported a “dramatic” rise in the number of articles about transgender people over the past 10 years, which have generated “fierce debate” about “transgender matters”.

“Some of the most contentious and sensitive issues handled by IPSO relate to the reporting of transgender matters,” the IPSO report found. “Coverage generates wide and sometimes ferocious debate, raising complex questions around balancing the public interest in reporting freely on important societal issues with the potential impact on vulnerable individuals.”

IPSO looked at 12,000 articles published between January 2010 and May 2019.

It found that there were three phases to coverage of trans people in the UK: at first, coverage was mostly disrespectful and mocking; then there were human interest stories focused on trans celebrities like Caitlyn Jenner and Chelsea Manning; while in recent years coverage has shifted to debating policy and laws that affect trans communities.

Trans-related stories used to be confined to broadsheet newspapers, while now more than half of articles about transgender people are to be found in tabloid newspapers. And in this coverage, there has been an increase in “debating complex questions relating to transgender matters in policy and legislation and potential impacts on wider society”, IPSO said, with an accompanying “increase in questioning tone of coverage”.

“The research identified perceptions amongst some interview participants of increased hostility towards transgender individuals as issues are discussed and debated, which they viewed as potentially indicative of tangibly worsening standards” the report added.

“Other interviewees noted concerns around potential infringement on freedom of expression and challenges around making sure the issues were written about clearly and understandably.”

IPSO report on trans media coverage ‘failed’ to address key issues.

jane fae, the chair of Trans Media Watch, told PinkNews that the IPSO report had failed to offer any meaningful analysis.

“The IPSO report looks at an issue that we in the past have characterised as ‘freakshow’ coverage,” fae said. “This is the issue of whether coverage is respectful or accurate, and whether it focuses on the sensational aspects of transition.

“What IPSO has failed to do is analyse the overall coverage. The picture that such an analysis would reveal – backed up by our own work – is that in the past decade, coverage has shifted to more respectful language but a more troubling position, where the media consider transness to be political.

“In this scenario, the media consider transphobia to be almost wholly imagined. In other words, the mainstream media are now treating trans people as an ‘issue’ and trans people as a ‘problem’. Whether the IPSO report’s failure to address this is evidence of IPSO bias or lack of diligence, I cannot comment.

“But when the press are marking their own homework here – IPSO is a body set up and run by the press themselves – I am not at all surprised.”

IPSO’s report follows a November 2020 study by the The Fenway Institute and Brown University which asked 545 participants about their experiences of anti-trans messaging and their mental health.

The research, published in the LGBT Health journal, found that 97.6 per cent of participants reported seeing negative depictions of transgender people in the media in the past 12 months – 93.9 per cent seeing anti-trans coverage in print, 93.8 per cent on television and 83.1 per cent in advertising.

Exposure to anti-transgender messaging was found to correlate strongly with reports of depression, anxiety and psychological distress.

Wide swathes of the British media are internationally recognised as being transphobic, with senior MPs and LGBT+ activists branding public broadcaster the BBC “institutionally transphobic” earlier this year.