The media response to Chelsea Manning

Three articles of interest on how the media have responded to Chelsea Manning’s announcement that she is female.  The first two concentrate on the US media, while the third looks at the British and Irish media.  Click on the articles to link to them.

  1. An interesting, and disturbing article on how the different US media organisations have handled the issue of how to refer to Chelsea Manning. By Irin Carmon, on MSNBC, 27th August 2013. Click Here
  2. Chelsea Manning gender identity media coverage on Wikipedia (focusing on the United States Media). Click Here

Chelsea Manning and the Reporting of Transgender News – by The Editor

What constitutes transgender news?  In the last few days a US soldier has been sentenced to 35 years in prison after releasing the largest set of restricted documents ever leaked to the public.  This is undoubtedly news, after all the soldier in question has publicised important issues in the US military, such as the troubling incidents of US helicopter attacks on unarmed civilians and journalists, and subsequent shooting at the mini-van that came to rescue the wounded.

What is the story here?  What has the media picked up upon as important?  Has it been incidents such as the above?  Or the obnoxious chatter of the pilots recorded during the attack?  Is it even the unprecedentedly long sentence handed down, given previous sentences for breaching the Espionage Act, the most being that of Charles Graner who was sentenced to 10 years but served six and a half?(1)

No, the story is now focussed on the following announcement by Pte Manning after the sentence,

“As I transition into this next phase of my life, I want everyone to know the real me.  I am Chelsea Manning.  I am a female.  Given the way that I feel, and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible.  I hope that you will support me in this transition.  I also request that, starting today; you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun (except in official mail to the confinement facility).” (2)

Is THIS news?  In a way it is, as Chelsea has been at the centre of a huge scandal for the US military, she has polarised opinion between being seen as a hero and patriot for leaking the documents, or being seen as a dirty traitor for the same act, and her sentence may yet be either commuted or extended with groups with both agendas mobilising in Washington.

On the other hand, this is NOT news.  Does her gender identity have anything to do with her actions and their consequences?  Does her gender identity have any bearing on the documents she leaked?  Is it front-page news when someone decides to reveal their gender identity?   The answer to the above would be a resounding ‘NO’.

However, Pte Manning’s struggles with gender identity did form a key part of the defence through the weeks-long court martial.  Defence witnesses, including therapists who had treated her, testified that the soldier had spoken of wanting to transition to being a woman, suggesting that these problems had affected her mental health.(3)  Yet faced with the possibility of a minimum 60 year sentence (for which the military is still pushing), who can blame Chelsea or her lawyers for using whatever means they have at their disposal to attempt to alleviate the sentence, and in fact, who could argue that Chelsea’s inner turmoil and deep unhappiness did not affect her decision to leak classified documents.

Surprisingly, in Britain and Ireland the online newspaper coverage of her announcement has been less sensationalistic than anticipated.  Though still, sadly focussing on the, ‘oh look, a US soldier in a blonde wig and make-up’ aspect of the case rather than on the transgender issues it raises, they have been on the whole surprisingly restrained.  A quick glance at their articles has revealed that most responded to Chelsea’s request on how she should be addressed, including, surprisingly, the Mail Online.  Their article leads with the line, “Bradley Manning has revealed that she wants to live as a woman named Chelsea and intends to undergo hormone therapy to begin her transition to a female.”(4)   From a paper which received much just criticism for its treatment of Lucy Meadows only last year, this is to be commended as at least some reflect progress, but time will tell if it shall last.  In fact, most of the articles looked at did address her as Chelsea, and used the terms, ‘her’ and ‘she’.   Some articles had begun using the name ‘Bradley’ and ‘he’ but after printing her statement, did then change to ‘Chelsea’ and ‘she’ in clear response to her request.   You can sense, however some confusion in the reporting, instead of using Chelsea’s name, or saying ‘he’ or ‘she’, some journalists have substituted with terms where the issue of gender has been avoided, for example, ‘Private Manning’ or ‘the soldier’.

There are some notable exceptions to this; one of which is, disappointingly, the BBC News article on her announcement, which though factually correct, throughout refers to Chelsea Manning as male, uses her male name, and uses the male pronoun and possessive article.(5)  The Irish Herald(6) and the Irish Examiner (7) did likewise, pointedly refusing to address her as Chelsea, or ‘her’.  But in general, the impression is that most journalists have tried to be correct and responsible with their terms.

Unfortunately, the public did not follow suit, and some of the comments made in the comments section of some newspapers has been shocking.  Apart from their spelling and grammatical errors, the comments in question cover the entire spectrum of prejudice, from those based on total ignorance of what transgender means, to statements based on transphobia, homophobia, religious intolerance, and misogyny.  The outright hatred occasionally expressed is worrying and nauseating.

It also has to be said, that the future reporting of Chelsea Manning’s case has yet to be seen.  Will the reporting be about ‘Chelsea Manning’ or will it, as is likely, be about, ‘Bradley Manning’ but with a paragraph referring to her announcement of her female identity and plans to transition.  Never again will this story just concern the facts of the case, Chelsea’s gender identity will be dragged in every time and, as argued her gender identity has nothing to do with the implications and importance of the leaks and is unnecessary to the reporting of the issues.

It also remains to be seen if and when Chelsea transitions, will we be faced with a media bombardment of her, commenting on her hair or her skin, her treatments etc., her choice of make-up or the way she dresses, in a well-documented sensationalistic and unsympathetic manner?

To open herself up to such comments, and to have her name and photographs plastered over the worldwide media is in itself a brave action.  Whilst it is up to the individual to decide on the facts of Chelsea Manning’s conviction on espionage, or to agree on whether her actions constituted patriotism or treachery, or to have an opinion on the sentence she has been given; to have these important issues and others raised by what she leaked, narrowed-down to the issue of her gender identity is insulting to her, to the transgender community, and (if they think about it) the American military too.

To simply report Chelsea Manning’s announcement is not news.  An individual’s decision to transition, often after years of anguish and agonising, is not news.  It is a personal and private decision, unless the individual decides otherwise.  Had Chelsea Manning not been caught, tried, and convicted of leaking then this would not be IN the news.

What is news, and what should be reported on, are two issues.  Firstly, the issues raised by the contents of the material she leaked which are explosive.

Secondly, what does Chelsea’s situation reveal about the rights, if any, for transgender individuals in the military or in military prison?  What, if any, treatments are they permitted, how should their incarceration be managed, who should pay for it?  Remember, this is the US, where healthcare is not free or open to all.

The, ‘oh look, a US soldier in a blonde wig and make-up’ angle is inappropriate, offensive, and irresponsible journalism.  Such an example is in Fox’s decision to play, “Dude looks like a lady”, over a TV segment on Chelsea Manning, and they deserve the criticism they have received.  Where inappropriate and transphobic reporting has been avoided, journalists are to be commended.  Any other such reporting degrades and insults the intelligence of everyone, transgender and cisgender alike, and panders to the lowest common denominator in society, whether the simply misinformed, or the wilfully ignorant or the downright prejudiced.  An individual’s decision or announcement to transition should never, in itself, be a news item, unless it has a particular focus or purpose.  Wouldn’t it be great, if this were so?

Footnotes (click to each to link to original source): 

(1)  Amnesty International UK.

(2)  Today News on

(3)  BBC News, US and Canada.   

(4)  Mail Online. 

(5)  BBC News, US and Canada.


(7)  Irish Examiner.

General Reference (click on each to link to original source)

Wikipedia, ‘Chelsea Manning’.

Today News on

BBC News, US and Canada.

Mail Online. 

Express, home of the Daily and Sunday Express.

Mirror online. 

CBS News online.

Daily Star.

Amnesty International UK.

Irish Examiner.

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