What new journalism guidelines on reporting sex and gender means for UK’s right-wing press

New IPSO guidance has been issued for newspapers and magazines reporting sex and gender identity in news stories, updates which could have an effect on some of the transphobic narratives seen in some parts of the UK’s right-wing press.

The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) published its updated guidance on Friday (28 July), following a four-week consultation.

IPSO first published guidance on researching and reporting stories involving the transgender community back in 2016.

The new Guidance on Reporting of Sex and Gender Identity focuses on how publications report on trans people – including non-binary, gender fluid, intersex and agender individuals –  and the issues raised in relation to their identities and lives.  

The non-binding guidance covers a number of areas including reporting on court proceedings, the importance of accurate representation of policy and whether information about a person’s gender identity is genuinely relevant to a published article or not. 

Those who filled out the consultation included LGBTQ+ people, journalists, members of the public, academics, civil servants and charity sector workers.

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Some respondents felt the volume of press coverage of trans people is entirely disproportionate to the population of trans people in the UK and often sees people misgendered. Some felt journalists should use people’s current name and chosen pronouns and ask how people like to be identified.

Others said sex and gender identity were different concepts and in their ‘gender critical’ view sex is “binary and immutable”.

For those who don’t work in the press – but do perhaps read it – IPSO one of two recognised independent regulators – the other is IMPRESS – for the newspaper and magazine industry in the UK, and holds publications and journalists to account under its wide-ranging Editor’s Code of Practice, which includes clauses in accuracy, privacy and reporting on suicide. 

Alongside administering the Code, IPSO deals with complaints of breaches in the Code and rules on apologises and corrections. 

Whilst it is not compulsory for publications to be members of IPSO, more than 1,900 are as a means of showing readers they subscribe to ethical, high standard journalism and want to be held accountable when they get it wrong. Those who are not members, either have their own in-house guidelines or follow alternative regulators.

Given the transphobic narratives currently being pushed in the British mainstream press – particularly the right-wing segments of it – IPSO’s guidance on sex and gender identity and how it interacts with the Editor’s Code of Practice could change the ways in which editors and journalists at major national titles pursue trans topics, what lines they take and the campaigning they involve themselves in. 

For example, the new guidance could potentially make it more difficult for the press to justify making a trans person the focus of a story simply because they are trans, or purposefully misgendering and deadnaming people.  

As IPSO itself states, the guidance is not meant to be “prescriptive” or “limit editorial decision-making” but it “may inform it”. 

This guidance particularly focuses on five key areas, these are: Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), Clause 6 (Children), Clause 12 (Discrimination) and reporting on court cases. 

Public interest

Acting in the Public interest is a concept which does not have an exact definition but can justify conduct that would otherwise breach the Code if it shines a light on the dark corners of society and misdeeds of people we place our trust in. It is a concept which will pop up in discussions about different clauses under the Code and what will be a breach.

Something being “in the public interest” is different to something being interesting to the public.

Robust journalism can justify breaching the Code in order to reach important end goals, such as detecting or exposing crime, protecting public health or safety, disclosing a miscarriage of justice or protecting the public from being misled.

For example, going undercover, using subterfuge and diving into someones private life to out a celebrity as gay would likely not be in the Public Interest as it is simply sensationalist, however if that same celebrity was encouraging fans to donate money to anti-gay causes that could be justifiable as in the public interest.

“If a complaint was made, the editor would claim to be acting in the public interest – and IPSO would be the final arbiter of the issue,” IPSO has previously said.

Clause 1 (Accuracy) 

IPSO says that “given the breadth of views and complexity in language” in relation to sex and gender identity, the highest number of complaints it receives in regards to reporting of sex and gender identity come under Clause 1 (Accuracy). 

The regulator states when it comes to reporting on changes to policy or guidance relating to gender identity and the transgender community “accurate” presentation is “vital to keeping the public well-informed”.  Journalists and editors should take care not to publish “inaccurate, misleading, or distorted information” when reporting on these changes.

One example of this was when The Times was forced to issue a correction after claiming in 2021 that Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust was telling staff to “say ‘chestfeeding’ instead of ‘breastfeeding’” and to “replace the term ‘mother’”. It was found to be completely untrue that gender-neutral language was “replacing the language of motherhood”.

In its second point, dealing with how someone’s gender identity should be described, the guidance states the Editors Code does not “specify appropriate or acceptable terminology” but it does state that any references are accurate and not prejudicial or pejorative.

In this section, the guidance also discussed comment pieces, noting that the press is “free to campaign and be partisan”, that reporting on sex and gender identity can “generate wide and fierce debate” and that “journalists and editors are free to inform, scrutinise and challenge on this topical issue”.

But the guidance stresses that publications must be able to demonstrate they have taken care to establish that any claims of fact in an opinion piece are accurate. So, for example, a columnist for a publication incorrectly citing policy or misinterpreting an organisation’s guidelines as a means of pushing their own opinion would potentially breach the Code’s accuracy rules against misleading readers.

Clause 2 (Privacy) 

The topic of privacy is a complicated one when it comes to the press. Whilst it the guidance recognises that keeping private information private is a “fundamental right integral to our society”, it notes that under the Code whether someone has “a reasonable expectation of privacy” will vary, depending upon what is in the public interest, what has already come into the public domain and a person’s own disclosures. 

When it comes to information about sex and gender identity IPSO says journalists and editors should take into account several considerations, such as if someone has shared their own sex or gender, if that information is already publicly available, how intrusive the publication of such information would be and whether there is a genuine public interest in the publication of the information. 

For example, if a source has their pronouns in their bio on social media it would be reasonable to use them as they are disclosed and made publicly available by the source themselves. However, to out someone as trans when they have not disclosed this information could breach privacy under the Editors’ Code, unless there is possibly a significant ‘public interest’ justification for doing so.

Clause 6 (Children) 

Under the Editors’ Code of Practice, regulations in regards to children apply to all “irrespective of their gender identity, sex, or sexual orientation”. 

IPSO notes that “there is significant public interest in the reporting of children’s gender identity”, one recent example of which is the false claim a pupil identified as a cat which was quickly covered across a multitude of stories in the national press.  

“However,” the regulator continued, “sensitivity must be observed when reporting on the welfare of a specific child or children. 

“The Code, in providing additional protections for children, acknowledges their particularly vulnerable position. 

“Exceptional public interest is required to override the normally paramount interest of children under 16.” 

Clause 12 (Discrimination)

IPSO’s guidance states under Clause 12 “prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual’s sex and gender identity” is “prohibited”, adding: “Even in the absence of any pejorative term, references to someone’s gender identity and/ or sex may be pejorative.

“Editors should carefully consider the relevance and presentation of information relating to an individual’s sex or gender identity. This could give rise to a complaint.”

In one example, in 2014 The Sun was rapped by IPSO for comments made by columnist Rod Liddle about Emily Brothers, the first trans parliamentary candidate who is also blind, when he asked how she knew “she was the wrong sex”.

Liddle apologised, but IPSO concluded the column “belittled the candidate, her gender identity, and her disability, mocking her for no other reason than these perceived “differences””. 

The Sun was made to publish an adjudication on the same page as the original column and on its website.

More recently however Susie Green, the former CEO of Mermaids, did not have her complaint against The Sunday Times upheld by IPSO after raising it in regards to a number of Code provisions, including Clause 12 (Discrimination).

The independent regulator decided that references to Green’s daughter Jackie, in which the publication refers to her with male pronouns when discussing her pre-transition, did not breach the Code as the use of male pronouns were not “prejudicial or pejorative” and rather “the pronouns conveyed to readers that Jackie had undergone a gender transition, the use of “he” pronouns referenced the sex she was assigned at birth“.

Green told PinkNews she believes the UK press “doesn’t care” about the approach taken to reporting on trans people and trans issues.

Court reporting 

Outside of the clauses of the Editors’ Code itself, IPSO offers guidance on how to report on court cases when issues of sex and gender come up. 

This area of reporting has become a “contentious topic” due to the intense reporting on cases such as Isla Bryson and Amy George. Bryson, in particular, was the source of much controversy for reportedly beginning to use she/her pronouns a new name while awaiting trial, resulting in much dispute about which pronouns and name to use during the case.

The guidance lists a number of factors editors could consider, including the name and pronouns used for a defendant by officials at the court and by themselves, guidance provided by a court about a defendant’s gender identity and the nature of the alleged offence and whether the individual’s gender identity was relevant to the allegations.

What does this all mean for the UK press?

First thing to note, as stated by IPSO, this new guidance on sex and gender does not replace or superseed the Editors’ Code of Practice and instead is should be used to inform editorial-decision making whilst still working within the framework of the Code.

What it does do though, is make it clear to journalists and editors – through case study examples – what decisions could lead to disciplinary action from IPSO if a complaint is raised.

Perhaps the most important areas the mainstream press must take from this guidance – particularly those leading the charge on anti-trans narratives – is that “pejorative or prejudicial” reference to people’s gender is simply not acceptable and they must keenly consider if a person’s gender is even relevant to a story at all.

For example, if reporting on a dismissal hearing for a teacher who happens to be trans, is the fact they are trans relevant to why they were dismissed or is the inclusion of that characteristic for no other reason that to assert a trans person did something worthy of dismissal? However, in another example, it might be relevant to discuss a person’s gender identity in an article – such as if there is a trans man who is campaigning against trans people being allowed gender affirming care.

Of course, the ambiguity of some areas of the Code leaves room for transphobia by the press still to be justified.

Just this month, IPSO has allowed a publication to misgender a trans person, when The Times reported on Jackie Green, stating that using incorrect pronouns was permissible as it referred to her before transitioning.

This in itself could open the door for other publications to include misgendering in their articles under the ruse of “accurately” informing a reader that the person is trans, even if their transition is not relevant to the story and may have happened decades previously.