To offer nuanced answers on race and gender issues, the Society of Professional Journalists has partnered with the Trans Journalists Association and other leading Black and LGBT journalists to launch a confidential hotline for reporters to ask questions without judgement.
From properly identifying sources to insensitive phrases or photos, journalists can submit questions online and then an expert in that area will be in touch for a longer conversation.
We reached out to three leaders of the project to learn more. Gillian Branstetter is a founding TJA member, Wesley S. Wright is an SPJ member and a race expert for the hotline, and Percy Mercer is a TJA member and SPJ leader.
How did the hotline come to be? How were the experts selected?
Branstetter: The project is a joint venture by TJA and SPJ, largely in response to a growing need for quick and effective answers many reporters might reasonably have while reporting on a range of issues about marginalized communities.
Wright: The original impetus for this particular project came about after the Philadelphia Inquirer decided to run an especially tone-deaf headline in the wake of protests of the death of George Floyd at the hands of the state. For those who don’t quite understand, the destruction of buildings is shameful but pales in comparison to the untimely end of a human life. Building repairs can be financed via insurance or any number of other means, but George Floyd cannot be replaced. [SPJ Region 3 coordinator and hotline administrator] Michael Koretzky ran the idea by a couple of SPJ members who reached out to other members in their network and we took it from there.
Mercer: To put it simply, we saw an important need. According to the Human Rights Campaign, there have been at least 26 transgender or gender non-conforming people fatally shot or killed in 2020. Reporting on crimes against transgender people is often done incorrectly and can be harmful. On top of that, after months of covering protests and social justice, it’s important to know what you’re talking about, and how to talk about it accurately. SPJ is partnering with TJA on this, and experts were selected after deliberation between the two groups.
What do you want journalists to take away from this resource?
Branstetter: Transgender people are in every area of public life, and our rights and our experiences are increasingly the focus of reporters on any and every beat. I feel strongly most reporters want to do impactful and thoughtful work, sharing new stories with their readers while accurately depicting a community reporters themselves may not be a part of. We hope this service can help in producing that work, providing guidance and advice for complex problems.
Wright: Reporters should know now more than ever just how pervasive race is (and has been) in every aspect of American life. Reporting on race requires special care given the power dynamics involved in reporting and just how alarmingly white many newsrooms still are. Since race can result in markedly different lived experiences, reporting on those experiences means tying together concepts that might not immediately connect to readers. If that sounds like a daunting task, this hotline is meant to help nudge you in a more informed direction before you tie your name to something you should not.
Mercer: At least on my end, I think it’s important for reporters to know that people have the answers. It’s crucial for journalists to go seek the truth — getting facts wrong, whether they be about race or gender or both — isn’t acceptable. And as we report the truth, we also want to make sure we do so ethically. If we’re going to be a voice for the voiceless, we want to tell their stories right. That’s why our experts are a part of these communities.
Can you share some of the most common questions asked?
Branstetter: Many of the questions I and TJA have fielded from reporters center on language — pronouns, use of prior names, specific terminology. Others focus on identity and privacy — when is it relevant to identify a source as transgender? What questions about medical history are out of line (hint: most of them)?
The most common question I’ve received, however, is how reporters can find transgender people impacted by policies and events designed for our benefit or our detriment. I strongly encourage reporters to remember trans people are in their coverage areas — their towns, their districts, their cities, and their industries. Instead of calling polished national LGBT organizations, I strongly recommend they familiarize themselves with their own local queer community, including LGBT centers, direct service organizations, social clubs, campus pride clubs, and family support groups.
Wright: Not applicable just yet since we’ve only been live for a few days if I’m not mistaken. Would love to update you when I can answer this.
Mercer: We’re expecting common questions centered around topics like pronouns, what to do in case of breaking news situations and there’s not a solid answer coming from your newsroom or how to make sure you’re not sounding insensitive.
Why is it important for journalists to ask these questions outside of their newsrooms?
Branstetter: Misconceptions about transgender people are widespread, as are social and systemic biases that can (and often are) reflected in reporting. The majority of most editorial staff in the country are white, male, and cisgender, and three quarters of all editors-in-chief are white, male, and cisgender. This means these reporters are often engaging on issues that do not impact, or might even stand to benefit, people who share those identities. That is not objectivity; it’s a mockery of objectivity. Diversifying newsrooms is one necessary step to resolve this, and letting marginalized people lead as experts on the issues impacting them is another.
Wright: Reporters are notoriously jaded, and sometimes what might pass for appropriate while making the sausage may in fact be interpreted differently by the general public. Your white colleagues may have no idea when/where race matters in the reporting and writing process. Your Black/Hispanic/Asian colleagues should not necessarily have to bear the burden of educating their colleagues for free over and over about issues that to them may seem clear as day. We can help you help yourselves.
Mercer: As knowledgeable as a cis, white editor might be, they won’t have the same experience as someone who’s a part of these communities. You might even have a trans reporter or a non-white reporter in your newsroom, but they’re only one person, and they shouldn’t have to answer questions or explain nuances of race and trans related topics unless they’re willing to. Our experts are being compensated for their time, and in the likelihood the majority of your newsroom is cis and white, you can speak to someone who’s ready and willing to help with your questions.
In what circumstances should a reporter call the hotline rather than have the conversation in the newsroom?
Branstetter: This hotline is open to questions big and small, random details and large ethical matters alike. Any time a reporter or editor is confronted with an issue impacting trans people with which they are unfamiliar, they should feel free to give us a call.
Wright: Consider deadlines first and foremost, and consider your relationship to whoever you would ask this in your newsroom. If you don’t already have a good rapport with whoever that is, consider that they may feel pressured to answer a certain way or even decline to answer if they know the newsroom generally or if they think advice will fall on deaf ears. Readers can tell how coverage is rosy for some groups and unforgiving for others, and reporters are even closer to that dynamic than readers are.
Mercer: Because it’s so common for reporters to work in a homogenous newsroom, it might just be that nobody has a sufficient answer for a reporter’s problem, or because it’s a nuanced topic that needs the right TLC. No matter how big, small or seemingly silly a question is, the hotline’s there for a backup. It’s not just a last resort!
What do you hope will happen after a call to the hotline?
Branstetter: Ideally, reporters will receive crucial guidance on difficult questions, helping them produce worthwhile, accurate stories.
Wright: My hope is callers approach their stories with caution given the advice, whether they disagree with what they’re told or not. If we can at least caution against the optics of a particular sentence of framing of a lede or headline, perhaps the reporter will down the line consider how they can tweak what they’re offering to the reader to be more just.
Mercer: At the bare minimum, I hope it helps a reporter with context for their questions. Stylebooks are great, but you can’t ask a book why certain rules are in place. Ideally, once reporters’ questions will be answered, they’ll be able to walk away from a conversation with one of our experts with a little extra knowledge and the confidence to tell a story accurately and ethically.
What has the response been so far?
Branstetter: We’re very excited to help this project grow and raise awareness of this new resource.
Wright: Plenty have acknowledged that there is a need for this in American newsrooms, and plenty of reporters already do some similar labor in their newsrooms for free. That’s one reason newsrooms many times push some reporters out. Newsrooms are subject to the same reckoning we’re seeing among other American institutions, and what communities may get is better reporting as a result.
Mercer: We’re so excited to get started with it! It’s just so important that when we have questions about topics like these, they get answered to the best of their ability. I think it’s going to be a really useful resource for journalists in the future.