Every so often we hear stories in the media about someone who had an accident or illness that has left them with a disability, often a severe one. These get branded as human interest stories, especially when the wider community comes together to support the person with various forms of aid. What I’ve noticed about these stories is an intersection with the stories of trans people. The media seems to feel that it has a right to know all of the details about the person’s situation, medical history etc – all in the interest of informing the public, of course. We see the same thing in how stories about trans people are covered. Further, there are interviews with people, sometimes experts, sometimes people who have gone through a similar experience, who talk about what the person who is the focus of the story is dealing with. I find that when I hear or read these stories that it causes me to pause and I feel uncomfortable with the story. So, I asked myself, “why am I feeling this?”
As I’ve reflected on this I find I have two main reasons for this discomfort. The first, and perhaps the most important, is that when I think of how I feel when I’m asked questions about my own experience. There are parts of my own experience and history that I consider private and would not want the whole world to know. In addition, I do not want others speculating publicly about what my situation, emotions and mental state are as a person who has transitioned. If I want these things public I will share them. When stories are broadcast or published we are not told if the person is feeling coerced or being intimidated to answer the questions. I find myself wondering if the person is being pressured to tell more than they are comfortable with. This is something that we usually don’t find out about in these stories.
I then go on and think that this represents a sort of voyeurism on the part of media and society. A significant portion of overall media ‘news’ across all mediums focuses on the lives of celebrities. Are these stories part of our desire to see into the lives of others in an unhealthy way? At the same time, the amount of support that is generated for some of the people who are the subjects of these stories is truly heart warming. Does that mean that we then have, by virtue of the support, the right to know everything about their lives?
My thoughts then go to the education aspects of these stories. In a lot of cases there is something to be learned from the story. If it’s about a disease it can be an opportunity to educate people on how to avoid it or reduce the risk one has of catching the disease. There can also be an opportunity to provide informative education generally about what is needed for those who have similar situations to make their way in the world. I have no problem with this education. I don’t get squeamish over the discussion of surgeries, accidents, diseases etc. I do have a problem when the coverage borders on being exploitative.
Do I have a magic solution for this? No. I do feel that it is incumbent on the people reporting these stories to be respectful of the person they are reporting about. This is particularly critical when they are in a vulnerable situation. It is important to do the utmost to ensure that the person is truly willing to share what they are sharing. If they express reservations do not pressure them. Allow them the time to make their own decisions about their participation and what is shared about their stories. When people express how they want to be identified, respect this. Respect their limits. In the case of people who have transitioned, or are in the process of transition, do not insist on knowing their former name or seeing photos of them pre-transition. Do not broadcast or publish them without explicit, reasoned consent.
Above all, show respect and when in doubt, do not publish / broadcast.