Can anti-transgender bias in media be measured?

New data visualization project to reveal bias in media coverage on transgender topics could use your support.

Editor's note: Andrea James is a filmmaker and transgender rights activist. She just launched an ambitious new kickstarter project, and I invited her to tell Boing Boing readers all about it. — Xeni

Since my last post here, I have been busy building a data visualization project to reveal bias in media coverage on transgender topics. It’s been exactly one year since I started, and I could use your help to continue.

One year ago, The Atlantic published one of the most biased articles ever written on transgender children. That inspired me to start this project.

The film industry is having a similar reckoning about its systemic bias and exclusion. It’s time that elite media addressed its bias involving trans topics and journalists.

As an example, The Atlantic has been in business for over 160 years. How many full-time employees in that time have identified as trans? There have been great trans journalists like Jack Bee Garland since The Atlantic was founded. About 1 in 160 Americans are trans, according to The Williams Institute. In an unbiased industry, there should be at least one or two on The Atlantic’s current 300+ person masthead. This project will factor that headcount into the dataviz.

You may recall that Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg hired (and, when pressured, fired) a guy who thinks women who have abortions should be hanged. In a disastrous recent interview, Goldberg implied that only fellow bros like Jesse Singal can write 10,000-word cover stories for him.

This demonstrates that The Atlantic has serious problems internally, not just on trans issues. Management needs to take a hard look at what’s going on there in terms of bias.

These kinds of dataviz projects can be very effective. In 2003, I helped lead a community-wide response to the exploitation of transgender people in academia. That project became a blueprint for how to counteract biased networks of influence across institutions, in that case sexology, journalism, and government. My dataviz of overlapping networks helped us focus on the main people causing problems. Laws protecting trans and gender diverse youth got passed, and the clinic where half the key people worked (innermost circle below) has been closed down.

In 2018, Data & Society published a similar analysis of an Alternative Influence Network on YouTube (see detail below):

This work by Rebecca Lewis has been very influential in recent weeks, as YouTube faces withering criticism for allowing this network to flourish.

Also in 2018, a similar network self-identified as the “Intellectual Dark Web” emerged. Many of the key people promoting biased views on trans people were included, and they overlap significantly with the Data & Society findings shown above.

In all three cases, these networks engage in “logrolling,” supporting each other publicly and privately, both professionally and personally. Recent technology has made it easier to represent these complex relationships visually.

After the Atlantic piece came out, it emerged that in elite professional backchannels, famous journalists were deliberately excluding trans journalists from participating in discussions about trans coverage in journalism. That’s when I decided to put ten years of my life against the systematic exclusion of trans people in elite media circles. I’m coming up on year one.

Some scholars propose thinking about bias as a disease, a sort of social contagion. Since trans people are typically presented as the diseased ones, let’s turn the tables. Trans-suspicious writers like Jesse Singal and Alice Dreger are just mosquitoes, vectors of the disease. The real problems are the stagnant ponds where they thrive, like The Atlantic under Jeffrey Goldberg and the elite media backchannels that exclude trans journalists. That’s where trans-suspicious writers can mislead their peers by engaging in well-poisoning and whisper campaigns against their critics.

If this sounds like something worth supporting, I’d love your help! Please let everyone know by sharing this post or sharing the campaign with your own network!