Media wrestles with how to refer to Manning

August 22, 2013

Is he or isn’t he a he?

The news media wrestled with pronouns Thursday after Bradley Manning, the Army private convicted of leaking military secrets, declared that he is a woman and intends to seek hormone treatment to complete his gender transition.

The issue: Should Manning be referred to as a “he” in news accounts, or as “she,” as “Today” show host Savannah Guthrie did repeatedly in breaking the news via an interview with Manning’s attorney? Guthrie also referred to Manning as “he” in reference to events that occurred before lawyer David Coombs disclosed Manning’s plans.

News organizations immediately began grappling with the he-she issue.

ABCNews.com chose the feminine pronoun in its article on Manning, writing, “Pvt. Bradley E. Manning, now known as Chelsea and convicted of leaking classified military documents to Wikieaks, will soon be moved to Leavenworth Federal Prison to serve 35 years in an all-male facility as a transgender female.” But the Christian Science Monitor stuck with “he” throughout its account.

CNN.com avoided the issue in its article, referring only to “Manning.”

Early articles in The Washington Post referred to Manning as he, which drew criticism from many on Twitter. Thereafter, The Post attempted to steer a more neutral course. It referred to Manning as “the 25-year-old intelligence analyst” and “the former Army private” on second reference in some articles and photo captions. Later Thursday, The Post clarified its position.

“We are very sensitive to the issues raised by Manning’s announcement,” said Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, The Post’s managing editor for digital, who oversees copy editors. “We are using the pronoun ‘he’ to describe Manning for the time being. This is an ongoing story, and we will reevaluate as it develops further. We based this decision on numerous factors, including that the name Bradley Manning has a strong identification for our readers because he is a very visible public figure.”

The Associated Press’s widely used stylebook says reporters should use the name and pronouns preferred by a transgender person, even if the person has not changed his or her sexual identity yet. Thus, Manning would be referred to as “she” in AP articles.

Manning, in the statement Thursday, left no doubt about the issue:

“I hope that you will support me in this transition,” the statement said. “I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun (except in official mail to the confinement facility).”

The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), an organization that advocates for gay, lesbian and transgender people, says in its media reference guide that “transgender” is “an umbrella term (adj.) for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. The term may include but is not limited to: transsexuals, cross-dressers and other gender-variant people.”

It advises, “Use the descriptive term . . . preferred by the individual. Transgender people may or may not decide to alter their bodies hormonally and/or surgically. . . . Whenever possible, ask transgender people which pronoun they would like you to use. A person who identifies as a certain gender, whether or not that person has taken hormones or had some form of surgery, should be referred to using the pronouns appropriate for that gender.”

The National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association also advises news organizations to use the term the subject prefers.

However, the issue has a before-and-after aspect, too.

News organizations might have to distinguish between Manning’s gender while on assignment in Iraq, and Manning’s life after being sentenced to 35 years in prison this week.

For the historical record, Manning was a he during the former period; during the latter period, Manning has asked to be referred to in the feminine.

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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