What the Media Learned from Chelsea Manning

The whistleblower’s coming out as transgender meant a steep learning curve for some journalists, and was anti-trans fodder for others.



Nevertheless, media response was all over the map. In a segment on WNYC the morning after Manning’s announcement, National Public Radio announced its decision to use masculine pronouns until Manning had surgery. But the following day NPR joined other news organizations, revising its policy to respect Manning’s wishes.

“There is no surgery that suddenly makes an individual transgender and eligible for being called by the pronouns that match who they really are,” said Michael Silverman, executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, who was a guest on WNYC that morning. “Transition is a process, and part of transition is letting people who know you know who you truly are.”

Transgender issues are new to a lot of journalists, and many were struggling to understand Manning’s coming out, explained Silverman. However, some of the misgendering — referring to Manning by the incorrect pronoun — was deliberate and hateful, which Silverman called “contemptible.” In an op-ed the day of her announcement, the Daily Beast made light of the sexual violence that transgender inmates face in prison, writing that Manning might be the “queen bee” of Fort Leavenworth. When teasing a segment about Manning five days after her announcement, Fox & Friends played the Aerosmith song “Dude Looks Like a Lady.”

“Whatever one’s views of Chelsea’s actions might be, engaging in trans-phobic reporting is not an appropriate means to editorialize about her actions,” said Silverman.

Since then, responsible coverage of some of the issues facing transgender people — access to basic health care and being subjected to violence in prison — has appeared in publications such as the New Yorker and the Atlantic.

“Chelsea’s coming out raises a lot of questions about the unique challenges that transgender people face in prison and in accessing health care, both in prison and out of prison,” said Silverman. “There are real subjects for journalistic inquiry surrounding Chelsea’s case, and media professionals should focus on those.