Chelsea Manning: Transgender Representation in the Media

Posted by Hilary Abrahamson

U.S. soldier Chelsea Manning is raising important questions about how the media refers to transgender people.

Manning, formerly known as Bradley, has been convicted of leaking classified documents while serving in the United States Army. During her trial, the defense described Manning’s struggle with gender dysphoria­—the feeling that she is a woman living inside of a man’s body.

After the trial, Manning went public with her decision to live her life as a woman named Chelsea and released a statement asking the media to refer to her by her new name and with the use of female pronouns. Subsequently, major media outlets published stories acknowledging the decision but completely ignoring her request.

Bradley Manning wants to live as a woman, be known as Chelsea,” was a CNN headline, and Yahoo! News wrote “Bradley Manning says he wants to live as a woman.”

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Manning supporters protesting in Ireland (via www.breakingnews.ie)

The major problem with these headlines is that they not only make light of Chelsea Manning’s decision, but they invalidate the identity of thousands of readers who are transgender, intersex, or questioning their own gender identity. By refusing to accept Manning’s decision, they are sending the message to readers that being transgender is unacceptable.

One of the ethical responsibilities of the media is to maximize information while minimizing harm. Informing the public of Manning’s identity change without offending anyone could have been accomplished with a simple change of wording.

“Manning plans to live as a woman named Chelsea” would have been a neutral, reader-friendly way to inform the public of Manning’s identity change.

After Chelsea Manning’s request in August, The Huffington Post, Los Angeles Times, and ABC began referring to her as a woman, while some media sources, including CBS and Washington Times, are still calling her Bradley.

Paying attention to ethical mistakes in journalism provides a valuable lesson for anyone trying to understand and improve the media. As journalism students, why do you think the media continued to refer to Manning as a male, and would you have presented the story differently?

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3 responses to “Chelsea Manning: Transgender Representation in the Media

  1. I enjoyed your blog post. It was interesting to see that you picked up on this issue and thought to address it.

    Honestly, I think that being a transgender is a very foreign concept to society. History has shown us that we as humans have the tendency to condemn what is unknown to us. I didn’t know myself what being transgender truly meant till I read ‘Real Man Adventures’ by T Cooper for an English class last semester. Without reading that book, I doubt I would have known that referring to Manning as a “he” could be hurtful.

    I totally agree that it is the media’s responsibility to maximize information and minimize harm and I feel like if they were successful in doing so, they would have informed the public a little more about what it truly means to be transgender, rather than steering around the issue like some publications have.

    • I completely agree with your ending statement, especially. I’m writing a story on a transgender woman who recently had her surgery reversed, so she is now male again. It’s so intriguing to see others’ responses to his story. I have always been extremely open and tolerate of what the media sees as “diversity,” but what does the general public see as diversity? It’s definitely becoming expanded, but many people still see race or ethnicity, or even handicaps. Not necessarily sexual preference or mental health.

      • I think what’s most interesting about the media is that it can play a role in shaping how the general public see and understand things. I think the most important thing is remembering that there are readers who are intersex, transgender, or otherwise not strictly “male” or “female” who do deserve the respect of the media. I think the fact that so many news outlets have started referring to Chelsea Manning as she requested is a sign that the media is beginning to understand the importance of respecting gender issues.

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