Bad-faith coverage of trans issues — who does it serve?

A New York Times reporter shows how not to cover trans families and trans issues, again.
A white person with shoulder-length, side-parted purple hair holds up a sign in the middle of a dance protest at the White House. The sign reads Trans & GNC Youth, We Love You, We See You, We Stand With You.
A protester holds up a sign at a dance protest celebrating trans youth at the White House in 2017. Ted Eytan/Creative Commons.

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It’s no secret that the relationship between the trans community and the paper of record is, shall we say, fraught. There have been prominent call-outs, an Onion skewering, and an open letter from New York Times contributors criticizing their reporting on trans stories. In my own work tracing anti-trans narratives in the U.S., Times stories have come up a fair few times.

How did the New York Times get to this point in its coverage about trans youth? And how does an anti-trans editorial slant translate into the way reporters of these stories treat their sources? 

I got more clarity after Times reporter Azeen Ghorayshi’s story rehashing the allegations of a discredited former clinic worker in St. Louis came out. I had the opportunity to speak at length with three of the parents she’d interviewed: Jennifer Harris Dault, whose family moved from Missouri to New York to ensure their 8-year-old could access gender-affirming care, Becky Hormuth, whose trans son continues to rely on the St. Louis clinic, and Heidi, mom to a college-age trans girl. 

Hormuth told me she first encountered Ghorayshi as part of a group meeting with other parents organized by local LGBTQ+ groups. She described a 3+ hour session where parents told their stories in tears and saw Ghorayshi herself tearing up in response — which led parents like Hormuth and Harris Dault to confide in a reporter whose history of coverage had been previously criticized by the trans community. 

That empathy was at odds with what Heidi told me about Ghorayshi. Like a cartoon villain, Ghorayshi was so insistent that Heidi stayed in the story that Ghorayshi followed her out of a courthouse to her car, at one point standing in the car door to stop Heidi and her husband from driving away — way outside the norm for reporting practices as I understood them. 

Reporters tend to be good listeners, good at gaining people’s trust without fully tipping their hand. It wasn’t until I heard these experiences that it drove home to me how little Ghorayshi cared about potentially hurting her sources. For Ghorayshi, getting the story was what mattered above all else.

Heidi’s daughter was a patient at the St. Louis clinic whose medical history showed up in former worker Jamie Reed’s allegations of the clinic’s wrongdoing. Her family was devastated to see their private information twisted and misrepresented to attack access to treatment that had changed their daughter’s life. Their aim in telling their story was to finally expose Reed.

Heidi provided emails directly contradicting what Reed said the family’s response had been, thinking proof of outright distortions would be enough to highlight Reed’s lies. Instead, after seeing Ghorayshi’s warm interactions with Reed at a courthouse where she was testifying about her allegations, Heidi became suspicious, leading to a dramatic pre-publication confrontation. 

The reporter played hardball with the devastated family — and won. Their story remained in the Times piece, de-emphasized and tucked into the end of a story that muddied readers’ sense of whether Reed’s allegations had been confirmed or not.

Ghorayshi’s behavior comes from a place trans people who have interacted with skeptical reporters will know. It’s particularly stark because she treated Reed, an activist with the anti-trans group Genspect — whom she literally caught misrepresenting events — as a whistleblower in good faith, putting over a dozen parents’ stories on equal footing with her lies. 

The trans community are often treated as activists pushing an agenda when we tell our stories, not as human beings sharing the truth in good faith. And this story represents an impulse to place the accounts of people opposing gender-affirming care and other trans rights issues on a pedestal, while undermining and casting doubt on the honest stories of trans folk.

It doesn’t have to be this way! While some reporters seem to believe there’s tension between telling the full truth and treating trans people’s stories with respect, it’s just not true. One group trying to help reporters do better is the Trans Journalists Association (of which I’m a proud member), which recently updated and expanded their style guide to help reporters understand the best practices in stories about trans folks.

Read the full story, with parent interviews, on Assigned Media.

This piece originally came from The Front Page, our twice-monthly newsletter on that examines systems of power and inequity in journalism. Subscribe here.

Evan Urquhart is a reporter and founder of Assigned Media, a daily news site covering anti-trans propaganda in the US.

Editing by Janelle Salanga. Copy editing by Omar Rashad and Jen Ramos Eisen.

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