How Bad Media Coverage Makes Things Worse for Transgender Victims of Violence

Local news stations used one transgender woman's mug shot and arrest history in their stories—even though she was the victim of a brutal murder.

(Photo: Ken Fisher/Getty Images)

Jul 7, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Nicole Pasulka is a writer and reporter who lives in New York City. She has written for Mother Jones, BuzzFeed, The Believer, and the New York Observer.

On June 26, a 28-year-old transgender woman named Tiffany Edwards was shot and killed by Quamar Edwards (no relation) in Cincinnati.

She was the fourth transgender woman to be killed in Ohio over the past 18 months. Nationally, trans women—in particular those who are African American and Latina—are victims of violence at an alarming rate. Of the 18 bias-motivated murders of LGBTQ people last year, three-quarters of the victims were transgender women.

But local media in Ohio didn't mention these statistics when reporting on Edwards' death. Instead, when telling the story, news stations identified the murder victim by her birth name and showed her mug shot from a previous arrest.

A June 28 report by a local NBC affiliate flashed Edwards’ mug shot and described her arrest record.

On July 2, Quamar Edwards confessed to shooting Edwards while he was giving her a ride. In a story on the arrest, a CBS affiliate identified Tiffany Edwards by her birth name, showed her mug shot with no explanation, and then said, “her family says the victim goes by the name Tiffany.”

Though people are always going to make mistakes, there are a few standards that media can uphold when writing about transgender people: Whenever possible, refer to people by their chosen names rather than their birth names. Use preferred pronouns—"she" and "her" for people who identify as female, for example—and if you don't know someone's pronoun, ask. Don't ask to show photos of someone before he or she has transitioned. A transgender woman was not necessarily "born a boy," she may have always been female though she was considered male at birth.

Mostly, though, this is about treating a transgender victim with the same deference and respect as any other victim. It's definitely not just journalists in Ohio who struggle with this. Disrespectful or careless reporting on transgender victims of violence is commonplace across the country. When reporting on the death of Kandy Hall the Washington Blade, D.C.’s LGBT newspaper, described her arrest history at length though there was no suspect at the time of the story and no indication that any of Hall’s arrests had anything to do with her death.

Recently, members of the transgender community have made it clear that describing victims' arrest records and showing their mug shots suggest a lack of care or concern for the victim. Transgender people face discrimination in school, at home, at work, and within the criminal justice system. When the media makes victims of violence seem like criminals it can feel especially callous. In a column on the blog Black Girl Dangerous, blogger Monica Roberts writes that she is "majorly pissed off about the far too common racist pattern of murdered African-American trans women being further disrespected in death by the media."

“I don’t think that a transgender victim’s criminal arrest record is typically relevant” when reporting on violence against a transgender woman, said Nick Adams of GLAAD, which monitors representations of LGBT people in the media.

If a journalist mentions an arrest history or shows a mug shot, “the obligation is to say why transgender women and transgender women of color might be involved in the criminal justice system,” Adams said.

Transgender people have twice the rate of unemployment as the general population, and 47 percent have experienced discrimination at work, according to a 2011 survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality. When it's this difficult to find a job, some people resort to sex work or selling drugs, which can lead to an increased risk of arrest. Once someone has a criminal record it can be even harder to get a job.

While not every story needs to include statistics like these, there are often simple ways to make coverage of violence more thoughtful. GLAAD has written guidelines for reporting on violence against transgender people that includes examples of respectful language and reporting.

There are some good examples in mainstream media as well. Adams lauds the work of Adolfo Flores, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times who covers Orange County. Last month, Flores wrote several articles on the death of a transgender woman named Zoraida Reyes in Anaheim.

In his articles, Flores described Reyes’ work in the transgender and immigrant rights movements, her struggle to find a job despite her education, and her relationship with her friends—whom she considered her “other family.” Though police have not yet determined whether Reyes’ death was a homicide, Flores notes that because transgender women are frequent victims of violence, many people he spoke with worry that she was killed.

Flores, who is not transgender, has organized panels on representing trans issues in the media, and he says that while some people reporting these stories “could care less," in many cases, “people don’t know” how to appropriately refer to transgender victims. In the past, he has shared GLAAD's guidelines with reporters who have questions about how to refer to transgender people.

When in doubt, journalists can always reach beyond police sources and family, who might not know exactly how a victim identified at the time of his or her death, and talk with friends or members of the local transgender community.

“You’d be surprised how quickly you can get ahold of a transgender organization,” Flores said.

“It’s hard to understand what the issues are,” he says, but he thinks that in any story, the “first step is realizing this is a very vulnerable group that the general public doesn’t quite understand. It’s your job to teach people to approach with the sensitivity and the understanding that group deserves.”