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Mississippi’s “Regulate Experimental Adolescent Procedures Act,” Alabama’s “Vulnerable Child Compassion and Protection Act,” and Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” bill: Recent laws throughout the United States explicitly target transgender, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming people, questioning their existence and falsely accusing them of moral corruption and sexual abuse.
This hateful rhetoric spawns from sources spanning the religious to the medical, but it all contributes to institutionalized violence against the trans community. While much of the rhetoric is pushed by alt-right media, centrist and liberal media outlets have unfortunately not escaped the snare of bias either.
That seems to have been the case for the New York Times.
Last week, more than a thousand contributors and 23,000 supporters of the New York Times signed an open letter relaying concerns of editorial bias in the paper’s coverage of transgender, nonbinary and gender nonconforming people. The letter claimed that the New York Times’s coverage frames issues in a sensationalized way, uses charged language, and omits relevant information on sources.
We find merit in the concerns raised by the open letter.
One of the articles cited in the letter, for example, refers to one of the first trans youth to receive gender-affirming care as “Patient Zero.” The term — coined in reference to the first person to contract HIV/AIDS in the U.S. — pathologizes trans identity as a plague, providing a pernicious justification for the alarmist language that politicians wield today.
The same article also fails to disclose the affiliation of one key source as the president of an organization with self-professed “concerns and objections with gender care today,” dismissing practices of identifying potential sources of bias that are foundational to the integrity of the journalism.
The claims levied against the New York Times reflect a longer, decidedly troubled history of the esteemed paper’s coverage regarding LGBTQ+ communities. At the height of the AIDS epidemic, the New York Times was notably quiet, if not downright silent, only running a front-page article about the disease after the death toll from the virus had reached the thousands in the U.S., two whole years after its first symptoms were reported — a functional decade given the rapid nature of the news cycle. The paper’s official style manual even barred using “gay” as a synonym for homosexual until 1987.
As “a paper of record” in the eyes of its readers and political wielders, the New York Times has a responsibility to report ethically on communities that are, paradoxically, both marginalized and hypervisible. This requires careful consideration of the voices that are elevated in the “debate” around trans rights that really shouldn’t be a debate to begin with. As we have opined previously, it is prudent to distinguish between what speech is legally permissible and what ought to be platformed — especially when the stakes are as high as they are for historically marginalized communities.
While we believe that the New York Times never actively intended to produce any biased news coverage, we cannot ignore its impact. Multiple New York Times articles have been cited in court to legitimize and spur anti-trans legislation across the nation. Regardless of intent, the concerns in the letter have escalated to effects so monstrous that they must now be seriously contended with.
Journalistic objectivity does not amount to a get-out-of-jail free card. When newspapers receive criticism on their coverage of issues surrounding certain communities — and particularly when that criticism comes from within — they cannot hide, and definitely not behind structures they themselves devised.
We find the response from the New York Times executives deeply concerning, with their subtly-threatening condemnation of staff participation in criticisms around trans coverage. As leaders in the journalistic community, these executives should be especially aware of the role they play in presenting coverage, shaping perceptions, and influencing policies at the newspaper. With that power comes the responsibility to take the perspectives of their contributors seriously, rather than dismiss legitimate observations on a systematic sensitive coverage blindspot as undesirable “advocacy.”
We wish that the New York Times would share the criticisms levied by the open letter within the paper itself, in the format of letters to the editor common to newspapers from ourselves at The Crimson to the Times itself. Furthermore, this situation painfully illustrates the necessity of bolstering Diversity and Inclusion initiatives within all newspapers, in order to pre-empt poor coverage decisions and editorial judgment on pieces affecting marginalized communities.
As times change, so should the Times. Along with past conventions of coverage, continual self-critique is an essential part of journalism; refusing to seriously and openly contend with valid, if uncomfortable, observations about coverage belies an assumption of infallibility that cheapens our collective pursuit of the truth.
To the many current New York Times contributors who once stood in our Crimson-tinted shoes, we urge our former fellow student journalists to consider again the practices that have always guided our work, from the halls of 14 Plympton Street all the way to your paper of record.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.
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