22 July 2013

Coffee with Charlotte Philby from The Independent

One of the journalists we really wanted to meet at our group interaction with The Independent was Charlotte Philby, a news reporter who recently wrote an article in response to the death of Lucy Meadows and the coroner’s strong criticism of the press. She received some negative feedback from trans people online so we were keen to meet with her. Clashing schedules meant that we set about arranging a separate interaction, after Paris Lees, journalist, activist and All About Trans facilitator, responded to the article and engaged with Charlotte on Twitter.

We met around the corner from her office in Wholefoods Market Restaurant. Paris and volunteer Reubs Walsh carried out the interaction and they spent an hour chatting about their interests and careers focusing mainly on how the newsroom works, how people react to journalists’ writing, and how mis-gendering can happen when reporting trans issues.

We asked Charlotte to tell us about her experience in the newsroom and some of the challenges journalists face when reporting a story:

Charlotte Philby, News Reporter, The Independent

Charlotte, Reubs, Paris

“The constraints of working in a newsroom are such that you’re often having to produce a story in a very short amount of time. This is particularly apparent when covering court-cases or inquests when the verdict doesn’t come in until minutes before deadline.

Sometimes, with the best will in the world, you focus on conveying the bare ‘facts’ to a strict word-count (as our job requires), and then end up causing offence when you thought you were doing the right thing.

In those situations, it’s really frustrating and upsetting to be attacked for being “malicious” when you’d actually acted in good faith and genuinely had no idea that what you were writing was wrong. This can happen (and often does) with stories concerning the transgender community because, regrettable as it is, a lot of the terms and nuances aren’t part of the general language. In short, no-one’s ever told us the right way to refer to someone who is transitioning, etc… because for the majority it’s still largely an unknown quantity.

A lot of the time it seems in the absence of coherent guidelines on accepted terms of reference about the transgender community is the cause of problematic coverage; although sometimes even for clued-up reporters, it comes down to a lack of space to provide context, e.g. Mr Bloggs (as she was known at the time of the event) or ‘When she was a child (and long before she was able to express her true identity)’.

When you’re on deadline and writing three things at once – which is what life is often like on a modern news desk – you can make mistakes without even knowing you’re doing it. Creating a non-aggressive and mutually-sympathetic conversation between people and reporters/editors is half the battle.”

Reubs had a realisation about people’s reactions to journalists and their articles after chatting to Charlotte about her experience and told us:

Reubs Walsh, volunteer

Interaction with Charlotte Philby

Interaction with Charlotte Philby

“When Charlotte spoke about how she had been attacked on Twitter for her slip-ups it made me really cross with our community: how is that going to help anything?! I think since the Burchill fiasco I’ve been taking the stance that cisgender [non trans] journalists don’t have a right to criticise trans people for being upset at the abuse we face; but I had failed to account for how accidental these things can be, and also for the way it must make people feel, and how counter-productive it is.

So, whilst I still think that Charlotte’s response of not replying and seeking advice from All About Trans (or an equivalent) is probably about the only appropriate one, I now feel that I want to tell my fellow trans activists to lay off a little bit and try to be a bit kinder; cruelty just doesn’t help anyone, even if it’s an understandable reaction to a systemic oppression, we have to understand that the systemic nature of our oppression means that it’s very hard for even people aiming to be trans allies to get things right without a lot of help; help that is hard to come by at present, but thankfully All About Trans is beginning to provide that so hopefully things will start to change to make things easier and less painful for journalists and trans people.”

Paris was surprised by how moved she was to hear Charlotte’s point of view and it helped her to understand how to give media outlets a positive and helping hand. She shared her thoughts with us after the interaction:

Paris Lees, journalist and All About Trans facilitator

“Like her colleagues, Charlotte thinks that a “dummies guide” to trans coverage is a good idea and she was keen to know “the right way” to put things when writing about trans people. We need to work on that. She also had this brilliant idea of pre-empting negative news coverage. So, if we know something is coming up that is likely to create news coverage, why don’t we contact newspapers and media outlets and say, ‘hey, this is important to us to get respectful coverage, can we give you a heads up please?’ Why wait till after something offensive has been written? You might say, ‘Well journalists should get it right anyway’ but the thing is they’re not always doing that, so why not give them a helping hand before it becomes a complaint issue? I liked her. She’s good.”

We wrapped up the interaction after Reubs kindly gave Charlotte a pair of owl earrings to remember the interaction by. Having met six reporters and editors from The Independent on two interactions, we feel as if we’ve made some progress in encouraging their understanding of the trans community and reporting on trans issues. We’ve also come away with an insight into the inner workings of the newsroom, the pressures journalists are under and their interest in ways they can improve their reporting on stories related to marginalised groups.

Since then, Charlotte has told us she’s worn the earrings and when asked how she acquired them, answered by telling people about her All About Trans interaction. We’ve also been in touch with other reporters and editors and we’re currently developing a visual info sheet and simple guide to reporting issues related to the trans community. So far, we think this will be distributed amongst sub editors and journalists across broadsheet newspapers and news agencies. You can read a detailed Style Guide from Trans Media Watch on our resources page.

For outcomes from our big interaction with The Independent read our blog post about the meeting.


If you are interested in coming on an interaction or hearing more about the project, please get in touch.

Keep following @AllAboutTrans and @OnRoadMedia for updates.

On Road, Project Manager for On Road.