It's no secret that American culture doesn't handle transgender people or issues with nearly the tact, sensitivity, or urgency they deserve. With harrowing levels of anti-trans violence both in the United States and around the world, and trans activists stepping up to voice their stories more than ever before, it's time, quite frankly, for people to start doing better, and the media figures centrally in the equation. As such, the info from liberal media observer Media Matters released on Wednesday is pretty illuminating — their report on media coverage of transgender issues shines some light on who's doing the best, and who's bringing up the rear.
And, wouldn't you know it, the takeaways are basically exactly what you would've predicted going in! Namely, as detailed by Media Matters' Rachel Percelay, Cristina Lopez, and Carlos Maza, the broadly liberal MSNBC led the pack of the "big three" cable news channels in time spent covering trans issues, devoting just over an hour of airtime during the first two months of 2015. CNN — again, rather predictably — came in second place at just over 45 minutes, while conservative channel Fox News spent just eleven minutes in two months. Over on the network broadcast side, CBS News devoted the most time at just over ten minutes, while NBC and ABC finished second and third, respectively.
Of course, just the raw amount of time you spend covering a given topic can be a little deceptive. There's also the question of how you're covering it — are you inviting engaging speakers on to talk about trans experiences? Are you talking about the myriad legal and cultural obstacles encountered by people who're transitioning? The sky-high rates of violence against trans people and the elevated risk of suicide for trans individuals?
Or are you just engaging in a little bit of celebrity gossip? This divide is especially stark for CNN, according to the Media Matters report — a staggering 82 percent of their coverage focused on ex-Olympian Bruce Jenner's widely rumored transition. And while a celebrity and sports figure of Jenner's stature embracing his gender identity is certainly worthy news, devoting so much of your coverage to a single celebrity when there are so many other trans stories worthy of our attention seems to do a disservice to trans people and to the viewing public. By comparison, MSNBC spent just 12 percent of their coverage on Jenner, with 41 percent devoted to two other high-profile figures, Chelsea Manning and Leelah Alcorn.
Fox News was particularly bad in this area, devoting 46 percent of their time to Jenner, 10 percent to Manning, and 44 percent to "other" — as the report explains, that 44 percent was criticism directed at the City University of New York (CUNY) over a memo that advised faculty not to use gendered greetings like "Mr." or "Ms."
And what about those Sunday morning shows, the puffed-up stalwarts of America's TV news industry? Well, sad to say, it's worse here than anywhere else. According to the report, only one Sunday show broached transgender issues at all over that two month span, MSNBC's excellent Melissa Harris-Perry. The rest of the pack, not so much.
Obviously, it's great that we live in a time when people can talk about trans issues and experiences on such high-profile platforms at all, in a way that would've been unthinkable just decades ago. But if there's anything that Media Matters' report highlights, it's just how far we've got to go — when Fox News, ABC and NBC actually did guest segments on trans issues, they didn't even bring any actual trans people into the conversation! Here's hoping the media gets a little bit better at representation, perspective, and urgency on this soon, because frankly, it can't wait much longer.
Editors' Note: Until/unless Jenner has personally confirmed the transgender rumors and the intention to begin presenting as a woman, Bustle will continue to refer to the track star as a man, using male pronouns. Jenner deserves the courtesy of being able to “tell his story his way” when ready, as step-daughter Kim said, and Bustle will only make those changes if/when Jenner confirms.
Images: Media Matters (3)