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NBC Washington shows what happens when news outlets fail to confirm the correct gender identity of their subjects before publication. The outlet has just posted another story about the two shoplifting suspects who were shot by police near the University of Maryland last Friday. Here’s the absurd lede:
Upon closer review, it appears two shoplifting suspects shot by a Prince George’s County police officer weren’t men, as originally reported, or cross-dressers, as was later reported, but transgender women.
The third time is the charm for NBC, who took four days to get the gender identity of the suspects right. NBC does one better on the Washington Post, at least. The Post first reported that the suspects were women, then reported that they were cross-dressing men, and finally issued the vague and misleading clarification that they were men dressed as women who “were not in disguise.”
Apparently, the paper has an aversion to just calling the suspects “transgender women.” Interestingly enough, the Post‘s first iteration—-“women”—-would have worked just fine. Martin Weil, the Post reporter who wrote the second story on the suspects—-the one outing them as “men”—-said in an interview that the paper decided to run the story in order to stay competitive with the television news outlets that had reported the suspects’ sex as “male.”“The police had informed us that the suspects appeared to be men wearing women’s clothing, and we didn’t know too much more about any of the details,” says Weil. “We posted that story on the web so as not to look as if we were totally unaware of the unusual circumstances.”
Weil adds that the original story, which identified the suspects simply as “women,” risked inspiring some gender-related confusion of its own. “When you’re writing about women criminals in the newspaper, it behooves you to be extremely careful, because it alters people’s perceptions of the world,” he says. “When you read about a woman seemingly recklessly dragging a police officer, you get an unusual impression of the range of behaviors that are possible. And maybe it’s an accurate impression. But if it’s not an accurate one, I wanted to correct that in any way that was possible. So I decided, in a burst of enthusiasm, to post that item on the Web early Sunday morning.”
Beyond Weil’s enthusiasm for accuracy, the fact remains that “cross-dressing” shoplifters make for more sensational crime suspects than even women do. While women aren’t generally seen as criminals, transgender women are often cast in the public eye as fakers, predators, and criminals against humanity—-shoplifters or not. Weil says he never meant to capitalize upon the “man in a dress” punchline. “The last intention I had was the demonization of anyone, of any gender, or transgender either,” he says. “I just never thought at the time that they could be transgender. I assumed they must be people in disguise, or people who happen to prefer that mode of dress.”
Illustration by Bonnie Kennedy