The job

It’s been said so often that it’s a cliché, but the job of journalism is to report the truth. Its job is to investigate, to find facts, and to follow those facts to see where they lead. It is a process of discovering, of uncovering, of seeing and telling what’s really going on.

In order to do that, you need to be objective. We all have biases, assumptions and other weaknesses. But in journalism the job is to put them aside, to accept that if the facts contradict your pre-existing beliefs then those beliefs need to change. Because your job is not to shore up your own biases, but to find the truth.

With some irony, the publisher of The New York Times has written extensively about that here.

Independence asks reporters to adopt a posture of searching, rather than knowing. It demands that we reflect the world as it is, not the world as we may wish it to be. It requires journalists to be willing to exonerate someone deemed a villain or interrogate someone regarded as a hero. It insists on sharing what we learn—fully and fairly—regardless of whom it may upset or what the political consequences might be. Independence calls for plainly stating the facts, even if they appear to favor one side of a dispute. And it calls for carefully conveying ambiguity and debate in the more frequent cases where the facts are unclear or their interpretation is under reasonable dispute, letting readers grasp and process the uncertainty for themselves.

Sulzberger’s words here are absolutely true, but it’s worth considering why he’s writing the piece: it’s in response to growing criticism that the New York Times often breaks those rules. That’s certainly the case in its reporting of trans issues where, often by using the opinion section to avoid fact-checking, journalists act as anti-trans propagandists.

One of the worst of many such propagandists is Pamela Paul, whose ongoing campaign against trans people continued this week with a really shoddy piece about teen detransition. When some trans journalists identified howling errors in her reporting, she dismissed them as activists; when they wrote to the NYT about the flaws in her piece, the paper refused to publish it because it was a criticism in part of their output. Their letter is here.

The issue with Paul’s work is simple enough: she apparently adopts a policy of knowing, rather than searching. She appears to reflect the world as she may wish it to be, not the world as it is. She does not plainly state the facts. And she does not carefully convey ambiguity or debate.

At its very simplest, journalism’s job is all about the Ws: who, what, when, why. For every assertion you make, you need to provide solid evidence. So if you say there is an epidemic of X, you need to demonstrate that there is indeed an epic of X. But Paul doesn’t do that. Quite the opposite.

Writing in Slate, epidemiologist Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz, who is neither trans nor a trans activist, investigates the numbers behind Paul’s claimed epidemic of detransition. And – surprise! – they don’t back up her claims.

That’s not to say that there aren’t detransitioners, or that there isn’t regret. Of course there are. Of course there is. But the question that journalism should be answering isn’t “does this happen?” but “how significant is it?” For example, there are cis women who regret having breast reduction or breast enhancement surgeries, and as far as I can tell the regret rates there are similar, and possibly slightly higher, than the regret rates for top surgery for trans men. Where are the endless editorials about that?

What’s clear from this evidence is that the vast majority of people do not experience regret, howsoever defined, after transitioning genders. Regret rates are actually much higher for a lot of medical procedures. 

The whole premise for these articles is a house built on sand. And competent reporters will know that, which means the people who choose not to let the facts colour their articles are incompetent, malevolent or compromised.

By any metric, the rate of trans detransitioners is tiny; the rate of trans people who regret transition similarly so. Which invites a key question: why the panic? What motive does Paul have to consistently misrepresent what’s actually happening, to abandon the basic tenets of journalism to scaremonger instead? Why is the potential regret of a handful of cisgender people a crisis when the actual removal of healthcare for thousands of trans people is not?

That’s a rhetorical question.


Ultimately, the question of what proportion of kids or adults regret their transition is only important to a select group: the people who want to transition, and their clinicians. At worst, the rate of regret is still better than other treatments which don’t require national debates over their use, which really begs the question of why anyone who isn’t directly involved with the treatment of transgender people is even weighing in on the topic at all.



, , , ,