Chelsea Manning’s Lesson for Media

Published: 30 August 2013

Country: Worldwide

chelsea manningBy Giulia Dessi

After having troubled the US government for leaking military secrets, the Private Army formerly known as Bradley Manning has recently troubled media outlets with another contentious issue that divided reporters and editors. This time, the controversy can’t be further from WikiLeaks and classified documents on the war in Iraq. The matter involves the transgender issue in the media.

With a letter to the US TV Today Show on NBC, Manning made public her decision to undergo a hormone therapy and to be called Chelsea, given the way that she feels, and has felt since childhood.“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,” she wrote.

As the news came out, reporters, editors and news presenters, struggled to tell the story. Media outlets blundered into the wrong choice of words, sometimes hesitating and avoiding the use of female pronouns when referring to her, more often using directly the masculine form.

The BBC was one of them.  All throughout the article, the reporter kept repeating “he”, “him” and “his”. So did The Washington Post, exposing itself to wide criticism. “We are very sensitive to the issues raised by Manning’s announcement,” said Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, the paper’s managing editor for digital. “We are using the pronoun ‘he’ to describe Manning for the time being. This is an ongoing story, and we will revaluate as it develops further. We based this decision on numerous factors, including that the name Bradley Manning has a strong identification for our readers because he is a very visible public figure.

The New York Times, which early referred to her as a man, informed their readers a few days later that will refer to Manning as “Chelsea Manning, formerly known as Pfc. Bradley Manning,” instead of “Pvt. Chelsea Manning”.

Manning was clear in her appeal. “I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun,” she said.

The Daily Mail and the Guardian are among those publications that have adopted “she” since the beginning.

For those journalists who are still uncertain, numerous stylebooks would suggest how to refer to transgender people in stories. AP’s stylebook, the most respected and influential style and usage guide for the news industry, says: “use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth. If that preference is not expressed, use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly.” On the same line is the American National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association’s stylebook entry.

But the transgender issue in news articles goes beyond grammar. To warn media outlets against finger-pointing, The New York Times’ guidelines recite: “Cite a person’s transgender status only when it is pertinent and its pertinence is clear to the reader.”

GLAAD, a US organisation that works with news media and cultural institutions published three notes for media covering this story:

  • It is imperative that media outlets reporting on Chelsea Manning’s announcement are respectful of her gender identity.
  • The charges and verdict against her, as well as the U.S. Army’s policy denying transgender-related healthcare to inmates, are not a justification for misgendering, or resorting to stereotypes about transgender women.
  • All references to Manning should refer to her as Chelsea and use female pronouns, as is consistent with the AP Style Book guidelines. If necessary, a clarifying sentence may be used which explains that Manning was referred to as “Bradley Manning” during the trial.


This matter is far from being new. LGBT associations have been working worldwide to discipline the press on how to refer to transgender people in the news. The visibility of Manning – detained in harsh conditions for three years and now convicted to 35 years of jail – has just stirred an old debate and brought it back to the fore.