The Heart Of The Matter: Adding insult to injury for transgender murder victim

news_leadLast week, Cleveland’s Plain Dealer newspaper ran a story about a person who had been murdered. A body had been found in a pond in Olmstead Township, a small southwestern suburb of Cleveland.

What made the coverage of this story stand out was that the body found was of a transgender woman, Cemia “Ce Ce” Acoff.

I’m a member of the LGBT community. I’m also a journalist.

I’ve got a few fistfuls of bylines, and I’m also in the unique position of being back in college.

I’ve been studying the art of journalism – an art I’ve already practiced. I’m digging deeper into the finer points of reporting and writing.

And I can say, unequivocally, that the Plain Dealer has repeatedly dropped the ball on its coverage of Acoff’s death.

The initial article/posting on Cleveland.com, with a byline by John Caniglia, was a horrifying mess, referring to Ms. Acoff’s body as “it.”

If the reader was unclear about how the writer felt about the subject, that was clearly spelled out by the first word of the (initial) headline: “oddly.”

Subsequent attempts to edit the article appeared to stir more muddy water. Cemia Acoff was referred to throughout as Carl Acoff, despite a clear guideline established by the Associated Press Stylebook.

In my dog-eared 2011 version of the Stylebook, page 280 says when writing about transgender people, “use the pronoun preferred by the individual who have acquired to 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.” 

That didn’t happen.

In one version of the story, a line stated that Acoff’s death marked an “end of Clevelander’s fight for acceptance.”

Actually, what it marked was the END OF SOMEONE’S LIFE. In an ugly, brutal way.

The postings minimized Acoff’s death in multiple ways – first by describing in detail how she was dressed, and then focusing completely on her “fight for acceptance,” which underscored her otherness.

The backlash was intense, and apparently ugly, as some readers and LGBT advocates expressed anger.

The Plain Dealer had an opportunity to say, simply and clearly, that it made a mistake and that it would work to improve its coverage in the future.

What the PD posted instead? Was an astonishingly tone deaf reply by the paper’s reader representative, Ted Diadiun.

There are dozens upon dozens of ways that Diadiun – as a writer, as a journalist, as a representative of the paper – could have approached this effort.

What he chose to do instead to launch his 908-word, rambling reply was to telegraph his discomfort at addressing the subject.

DIADIUN: “The more I know, the less I understand,” the philosopher Don Henley sang in one of his more memorable lyrics.

The Plain Dealer‘s response starts off not with a focus on Acoff – but with a focus on how Diadiun (and Caniglia, and the editors) feel about the whole thing. Little to no acknowledgement of the transgender community, the LGBT community or its allies are mentioned. Instead, they are again diminished.

The headline of the reader response says that the article “riled transgender advocates.” It is, of course, the advocate’s fault for being so angry.

Diadiun has some serious chutzpah – I’ll give him that. He even manages to scold the people who responded, angrily, to the original article for not sending a thank-you note. “In asking for sensitivity and understanding, many gave none — making their objections in unbelievably vitriolic language,” Diadiun said.

And he was surprised at this fact…why, exactly?

The Henley quote really says it all for me. It was the writer’s way of saying to others: This is strange, this is odd, this is weird. Look, I can’t come out and say that, but let me use this quote by Don Henley – you know, a straight dude, not a freak like this guy – to send you this coded message.

A Don Henley song called, ironically, “Heart Of The Matter.”

I really want to be fair to both Caniglia and Diadiun. I don’t think either one of these guys set out to be disrespectful, or add insult to injury. Journalists make mistakes. They’re human.

We all cover areas we’re not familiar with, areas that are not in our normal line of reporting. And sometimes, we slip and fall. The difference is, we usually apologize and learn from our mistakes.

************

I understand that the Plain Dealer is fighting for its life. That’s not being too melodramatic – it’s a fact.

Advance, the paper’s publisher, announced it would discontinue home delivery of the PD. Other Advance papers have gone to publishing only three days a week.

Blog readers might think, “Eh, what’s some guy in Chicago know about how Cleveland runs? We don’t need some big city idiot telling us how to run things!”

But I grew up in the region – living in southwestern Pennsylvania for many years, as well as a few years in and around Cleveland. I remember many weekends in the Flats, hanging out in Lakewood, spending summers on Chippewa Lake.

I come from some hard-working, no-nonsense people. My great-grandfather worked in a factory in Fairport Harbor and made rubber in Akron. I’ve got so many steelworkers, coal miners and railworkers in my family tree, we could start our own union.

And as a kid who was a news junkie and future journalist, reading the Plain Dealer was one of my favorite things to do, right behind watching Dorothy Fuldheim on Channel 5.

I know Cleveland, like Pittsburgh, like Erie, like all the other spaces and places I’ve lived in between, is a no-nonsense place. We tell it like it is.

These two guys are telling it like it is for them. Fair enough.

But Cemia Acoff was, in two ways, part of The Others.

And who tells it like it is for them?

She was a transgender woman of color. And Cleveland, like many other Rust Belt cities (and yes, Chicago, too) is still a segregated city.

Euclid Avenue was a powerful dividing line when I lived there.

Can someone who lived in two communities of otherness – a person of color, and a transgender person – expect fair coverage?

What dug deeper, for me, than any pronoun slip is the implied judgements in the original article.

When the author describes in such great detail what Acoff was wearing (and what she wasn’t wearing), the implication is that somehow, Acoff may have brought violence upon herself. She was dressed in clothing that didn’t match her biological gender of male. Maybe she tricked someone who turned on her?

And oh, speaking of tricks – maybe she was turning a few and a john got mad at her and killed her. Right?

Would a biological woman’s death been treated this way? Describing her outfits? Suggesting she was ‘where she shouldn’t have been?”

I have the recent memory of a professor admonishing me for inserting an invisible “duh duh DUH!” moment when writing about a woman who was a prostitute in a classroom exercise. Long story short: don’t do it.

************

I’ve just wrapped up my junior year of college. Like many Rust Belt guys, I’ve gone back to school as an adult. Some of us are back for additional training, so we can get new jobs. Me? I went back to finish a degree I pressed “pause” on pursuing over a decade ago.

I just gave a presentation at an academic fair. My project: how media messages shape perceptions for LGBT people – how they have in the past, and how they will in the future.

I talked about news coverage of the Stonewall riots, and how a newspaper reporter used pejorative language to say that the uprising was solely some angry, mad “queens” who tossed their hairpins and hissed at the crowd.

Words that diminish the scope – and importance – of what really happened.

I brought up the Upstairs Lounge bombing of 1973, where 32 people were killed by a bomb inside of a gay bar. The story was brushed off by national news (NBC gave it a whole 13 seconds) and newspaper accounts of those dead included a comment about “burning their dresses off.”

We’ve come a long way since then, but what we, the media, say about the people that we cover is a vitally important aspect of the service we provide as journalists. We shape perceptions. Journalists have an awesome responsibility.

We must deliver the facts of the story without malice, without prejudice and with as much clarity and accuracy as possible.

For some reason – a reason I am not yet clear about – these Plain Dealer writers and editors have a far different perception about accuracy and objectivity in this case than most of the rest of us.

This isn’t about being PC, folks. This is about telling the story and getting the hell out of the way.

I’m willing to engage in a healthy dialogue about this. To quote a Don Henley song, I’d even be willing to entertain “forgiveness.”

But in order to forgive, a simple, heartfelt apology must first be made.

EDITED 5/13/2013 to add: In a recent story in alternative Cleveland newspaper Scene, the victim’s last name was listed as Dove. In the interest of accuracy, I wanted to mention that another media outlet is identifying another last name. 

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