In this week's City Paper, WTAE defends their coverage of a story involving the river rescue of a woman who happened to be trans. They, along with just about every other local media outlet, were taken to task by local activists and allies for making the gender identity of the individual being rescued the story in lieu of the rescue itself. In WTAE's case:
Over at WTAE, Janelle Hall reported: “The waters of the Allegheny started to rise and trapped that person. Ninety minutes into the rescue, paramedics pulled a 27-year-old transgender woman to safety.”
Setting aside how incredibly stilted that sounds, I fail to see why the fact that Rebecca Hare was a transwoman had any bearing on her rescue.
Here's how WTAE's Roberta Petterson responds.
We came up with a plan aimed specifically at not sensationalizing the story and we executed that plan. In hindsight, we could have done some things differently, like edit some of the soundbites with rescuers, but we felt they helped tell a more complete story. Overall, our primary concern was finding a way to tell the story without focusing on Hare's “trans-ness,” to use a quote from the University of Pittsburgh professor cited in your story.
Petterson fails to explain how the fact that Rebecca is a transwoman tells a complete story. I don't believe WTAE contextualized her plight as a result of her identity as a transwoman. In fact, Petterson clearly states that they didn't even interview Rebecca. I haven't noted any follow up investigations on the plight of transwomen and transmen who are homeless in Pittsburgh. What complete story did they tell?
Each evening, the local news stations report on rescues and I have yet to see anyone identified as a “27 year old heterosexual, biological female” unless it has any direct relevance to the story. Believe me. I would notice any aberration from the “business as usual” coverage that presumes every yinzer and yinzerette in da burgh is straight as an arrow until it become sensational to drag out the stereotypical homo interviewees, ie. wealthy white gay men.
I like Roberta, but I still think WTAE dropped the ball on this story. If they had simply reported on a story about a woman trapped in rising rivers, that would be fine. The media created the story within the story. It doesn't matter how much effort you put into the decision — Hall's report was flawed. Rather than get defensive, it would behoove them to reach out to local advocates and experts to make sure it doesn't happen again. Reach out to Persad and the GLCC and, yes, to the University of Pittsburgh professor quoted in the story (who happens to be a nationally renowned transadvocate).
Hopefully, WTAE and other local media outlets will more forward as we gear up for PrideFest and focus on providing some LGBT-positive coverage for the planned festivities. I know the temptation to highlight the stereotypes will be there, but surely a portion of the coverage could show some transpositive images as well. Here's hoping.