Credit: Flickr: Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Update: This piece was updated on 23 March 2020 with a statement from Jesse Singal, the author of the 'When children say they are trans' article published by The Atlantic.

Transgender rights activist Andrea James is building an interactive data visualisation platform mapping people and media outlets that publish biased content about gender identity and expression.

The Transphobia Project will examine articles covering this topic across all English language publications and assign them a 't-index' which works as a bias score - the higher the t-index, the more biased the content, the author or the platform is.

The interactive chart then allows users to see connections between publications and journalists who create this content.

James, an American film producer and activist, has previously launched a project charting researchers and organisations that discouraged support for transgender people.

She said that there was an opportunity to "examine the way that the industry replicates the bias that trans people experience".

"My goal is to [make journalists more] mindful of how their decisions have a real-world effect on how policies get made, how individuals are treated and how people casually interested in the topic can be influenced by very small and simple changes in how things are written about, how questions are posed and how news is gathered."

The project was inspired by an article published by The Atlantic, which initially misgendered a trans person in the headline - although this has since been amended. However, this was not an isolated incident. The trans community has been frequently critical of some publications misrepresenting it and not consulting it on stories that affect the group.

"Journalists are trained to find the most eyebrow-raising statistic or phrase to use either as a headline or a lead. A phrase like ‘as young as’ may sound very innocuous and is sometimes used when talking about transgender children.

"But ultimately that leads to bias because most people who are doing whatever they’re talking about are not as young as that. That’s one example of how language gets affected by very subtle kinds of bias."

James added that the treatment of trans people in the press is similar to that of gay and lesbian people during the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s.

"I look at 1973 and the declassification of homosexuality in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a watershed moment where science and journalism came around to recognising that being gay or lesbian was not a mental disorder, and trans people are about 40 years behind them in media depiction."

But how do you map and calculate transphobia in the press?

In terms of visualisation, James took some artistic inspiration from a report into the alt-right on YouTube which showed the connections between certain individuals and groups.

For this project, journalists’ connections with publications and their interactions with transphobic groups and individuals on social media will be displayed in the chart.

Prototype of the Transphobia Project

James explained that, for example, when a journalist writes about trans issues for a news outlet known to publish transphobic content, it is likely that the article would have a similar tone.

"We can then look at all the people who have written for them and you can start to make associations and see how other publications are connected."

James's work so far revealed that these attitudes cross political divides, in what she described as "islands of intolerance".

Despite the problems in press coverage of trans issues, there are some signs of progress. The greater awareness around avoiding ‘deadnaming’ - referring to a trans person’s birth name - is proof that journalism can adapt and better understand the issues facing the community.

"That is an example of a recent success. We were able to convey an idea to people in a way that they can understand why it’s such a problematic thing."

James said that one of the big steps that journalists can take in reporting on trans issues with care is making sure trans people are part of the conversation and that their voices are heard.

"The number of trans journalists who get the same opportunities as non-trans reporters are few and far between.

"Finding ways to be inclusive and to mentor or work as colleagues with trans journalists will make your coverage stronger."

A Kickstarter to fundraise for the project last year made more than $23,000 and is hoping to go live in July this year.

Update: Here is an abbreviated statement from Jesse Singal, the author of the the "When children say they are trans" article published by The Atlantic and mentioned in this piece. Jesse Singal was not contacted before the publication of this article.

"First of all, no one was misgendered. The initial headline was 'When a Child Says She's Trans.' This is a hypothetical situation that does not refer to any actual individual - we know nothing about the child in question's biological sex or gender identity. After the story was posted, people on social media decided to claim someone was being misgendered, and Atlantic editors changed the headline. I had no part in choosing the headline or changing it, and I think it was fine the way it was.

"In Andrea James' own telling, my article was so egregiously bad she "decided to put ten years of [her] life" into this new effort. But the close reader will not find any specific examples of what she disagrees with - what I got wrong - anywhere in her Kickstarter appeal, other than the headline issue. Her own FAQ even has, as two of its questions 'What’s so bad about that Atlantic article?' and 'I still don’t get it. Can you be more specific about what’s so bad about that Atlantic article?'

"And yet in neither response does James provide a single example of my supposed transphobia from the text itself - her only claim involves that headline issue. [The article] draws heavily on the guidelines of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health and the American Psychological Association, not to mention dozens of hours of interviews with leading clinicians and trans people themselves. It received the most thorough, competent, professional fact-checking I have ever experienced in my career, as well as a green-light from two trans sensitivity readers (after we made some changes they suggested)."

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