Legitimacy Indicators for Transgender News Coverage: A Content Analysis Code Book

Originally published in my article “Writing in the Margins: Mainstream News Media Representations of Transgenderism,” in the International Journal of Communication (2016), the nine “legitimacy indicators” for transgender news coverage comprise a code book with which to analyze the degree of legitimacy conferred on transgender issues, individuals, and identities in news media reports. Taken as a whole, the code book accounts for many of the various aspects of respecting the self-identifications and human dignity of transgender individuals in textual content. 

In referring to “legitimacy,” I follow Dan Hallin's use of the term in his concept of the “Sphere of Legitimate Controversy” first introduced in The Uncensored War: The Media and Vietnam (1986). In it, Hallin proposed a model of three spheres of news media coverage that dictate the projected legitimacy of an issue or a group of people. These spheres occupy concentric spaces with the Sphere of Consensus at the center, enclosed within the Sphere of Legitimate Controversy, which itself is enclosed within the Sphere of Deviance. Each sphere is governed by different reporting norms, with the Sphere of Legitimate Controversy as the sole “province of objectivity.” Within the Spheres of Deviance and Consensus, journalists are not expected to be objective; rather, they are expected to either disregard or denounce the deviant and advocate the consensus. In between, in the Sphere of Legitimate Controversy, legitimized parties are permitted to discuss legitimized issues and be reported on disinterestedly.

From a theoretical perspective, legitimacy is crucial for individuals, groups, or constituencies to further their claims in the political arena; only legitimated actors are able to participate meaningfully and influentially in the political process, and only legitimated constituencies are able to have their social and political concerns taken seriously by the mainstream. Thus, for transgender people to advance their concerns to the national political stage—to shift them from the Sphere of Deviance to the Sphere of Legitimate Controversy—increases in the legitimization of transgender issues, individuals, and identities in media was necessary.

The nine Legitimacy Indicators I developed with which to quantitatively trace the legitimization of transgender issues, individuals, and identities were based on a review of pertinent research literature (both on legitimacy in political media and on transgender media representations), the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association stylebook, and the GLAAD media reference guide (2014). Together, they operationalize the types of legitimacy needed for transgender claims to emerge in the mainstream political arena. In use thus far, high intercoder reliability has been achieved with the code book across all indicators (α ≥ .90).

Please note, the code book is entirely free to use for any researcher, so long as the final report appropriate cites the codes' origin (i.e., the 2016 International Journal of Communication article). If you are interested in adapting the code book for another purpose or in another cultural context, please contact me.

How to use the Code Book

Each Legitimacy Indicator is coded for at the paragraph level and is coded according to the numerical designations listed below (either ranging from -1 to 0 or -1 to 1). Scores of -1 indicate delegitimizing language, while scores of 0 indicate an absence of delegitimizing language and scores of 1 indicate the presence of legitimizing language. Importantly, the code book is only suited to analyzing textual content, not visual content.

Legitimacy indicator 1: Naming

This code indicates whether an author or speaker refers to a transgender individual by the name they were given at birth (delegitimizing) rather than the individual’s current name (legitimizing).

Example of code violation:

Referring to Kristin Beck, the transgender former Navy SEAL, as “Chris”

-1.    Name given at birth used

0.      N/A

1.      Current name used

Legitimacy indicator 2: Pronoun usage

This code indicates whether an author or speaker refers to a transgender individual by the pronouns assigned to the individual at birth (delegitimizing) or the individual’s current pronouns (legitimizing). References to a person by their pre-transition pronouns when discussing the past are considered delegitimizing because many transgender individuals consider themselves to have been their true gender even before transitioning or coming out.

Example of code violation:

An Anderson Cooper special on CNN saying of Kristin Beck, “He wanted to live his life as a woman”

-1.     Pronouns assigned at birth used

0.      N/A

1.      Current pronouns used

Legitimacy indicator 3: Past-tense references

This code indicates whether an author or speaker refers to a transgender individual’s past by explicitly stating the person was a different gender than the one with which the individual currently identifies (delegitimizing) or by stating the person was their self-identified gender (legitimizing). Past-tense references such as “when she was a man” or “before becoming a woman” are delegitimizing because a transgender individual does not become a gender or change gender; they begin to publicly live as their true gender. In contrast, references such as “before beginning to live as a woman” would be legitimizing.

Example of code violation:

A CNN online article saying, “Born a man, Fox became a woman through surgery”

-1.     Delegitimizing past-tense reference made

0.      N/A

1.      Legitimizing past-tense reference made

Legitimacy indicator 4: Application of terms

This code indicates whether an author or speaker properly applies the term “transgender,” “transsexual,” and so on. For example, transgender and transsexual are adjectives, not nouns; a transgender individual is not “a transgender,” they are a “transgender man,” “transgender woman,” or "transgender person." Multiple transgender individuals are not “transgenders,” they are “transgender people.” Also, transgender individuals are not “transgendered.” Furthermore, a "transgender man" transitions from female/woman to male/man and a "transgender woman" transitions from male/man to female/woman, not vice versa.

Example of code violation:

A Boston Globe article referring to “a bill protecting transgendered people from discrimination”

-1.     Improper terms applied

0.      N/A

1.      Proper terms applied

Legitimacy indicator 5: Characterizations of transgender identitiy

This code indicates whether an author or speaker mischaracterizes transgender identity (delegitimizing) in one of many ways. Mischaracterizations include but are not limited to: categorizing transgender men with women or transgender women with men; equating transgender identity with drag performance, cross-dressing or transvestitism; and referencing transgender identity as a choice, decision, lifestyle, etc. This does not include pronoun references, as those are already addressed in Indicator 2.

Example of code violation:

Fox News reporter Todd Starnes calling a transgender woman a “burly man wearing a dress”

-1.     Mischaracterization present

0.      Mischaracterization not present

Legitimacy indicator 6: Slurs and name-calling

This code indicates whether an author or speaker refers to a transgender individual as a “tranny,” “she-male,” or other transphobic slur; equates transgender identity with sexual perversion, addiction, disease, and so on; or calls a transgender person by some name meant to offend or demean, such as “s(he)” or “Mr. Mom” (delegitimizing). Note: Self-references by a transgender person using slur terms are not coded as delegitimizing, as they can be considered “reclaiming” of the terms. Even when following a self-reference using a slur by a transgender individual, author or speaker references are still to be coded.

Example of code violation:

New York Post headlines “Bravest gets off easy on she-male beat,” and “Fire kills tranny in dairy den”

-1.     Slur or name-calling present

0.      Slur or name-calling not present

Legitimacy indicator 7: Defamation

This code indicates whether an author or speaker suggests a transgender individual has a criminal or morally stigmatized background without source or evidence, or where entirely irrelevant to the story (delegitimizing). Among the many types of insinuations are that a transgender person is/was a sex worker, drug user, criminal, promiscuous, etc. References to a potentially truthful criminal or morally stigmatized background where it is entirely unrelated to the topic at hand are considered delegitimizing, as such references or insinuations serve only to depicting a transgender individual in a negative light. For example, if a story is about a murder on a street corner, a transgender victim's background in sex work could be relevant, but if the story were about a murder in a café, her background in sex work would be irrelevant. As a general rule, any instance in which an author or speaker would not make the same insinuations if the subject were not transgender are coded as delegitimizing.

Example of code violation:

New York Times article on the death of Lorena Escalera (who died in a fire), claiming that she “was known to invite men for visits to her apartment” and possibly worked as an escort within a story otherwise focused on the mysterious origins of the fire

-1.     Defamation present

0.      Defamation not present

Legitimacy indicator 8: Shock tactics [headlines and ledes only]

This code indicates whether an author or speaker uses a transgender individual’s gender identity as a shock tactic or hook to get a reader’s attention (delegitimizing). Not all headline references to a transgender individual’s gender identity are delegitimizing; only references in which the author attempts to surprise the audience by describing a person but then disclosing the person’s gender identity as though it were unexpected. This code is only applicable to headlines and ledes (i.e., the first paragraph) in newspaper articles.

Example of code violation:

The lead of a New York Times article on Adela Hernández, the first transgender person to be elected to public office in Cuba, reading, "José Agustín Hernández may not be precisely the kind of New Man whom Che Guevara pictured shaping Cuban socialism"

-1.     Gender identity used as shock tactic

0.      Gender identity not used as shock tactic

Legitimacy indicator 9: Genital focus/sexualization

This code indicates whether an author or speaker focuses the discussion of a transgender individual on the person’s genitalia or depicts the person as a sexual object (delegitimizing). Inquiries about genital reconstruction surgery (GRS), sometime called “sex reassignment surgery” (SRS), or about genitalia more generally are only coded as delegitimizing when brought up first by the interviewer; if a transgender person raises the topic first, then it is not coded as delegitimizing. Also, references to medical transition as a whole are not delegitimizing, only specific references to genitalia and GRS.

Examples of code violation:

Katie Couric interviewing Carmen Carrera and Laverne Cox about whether they have undergone GRS

A New York Times article on the death of Lorena Escalera, describing her as a “curvaceous” woman who “often drew admiring glances in the gritty Brooklyn neighborhood where she was known to invite men for visits to her apartment”

-1.     Genital focus or sexualization present

0.      Genital focus or sexualization not present