INDIGNITY VOL. 3, NO. 29: CORRECTION: The Times' front-page scare stories about trans youth add up to 13,945 words.


INDIGNITY VOL. 3, NO. 29: CORRECTION: The Times' front-page scare stories about trans youth add up to 13,945 words.
Indignity Morning Podcast No. 23: PEnnsylvania 6-5000.
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New York City, March 5

★★★★ Small clouds came and went, but the sky remained much clearer through the morning than the forecast called for. Sun made its way into the sheltered balcony and flooded the stairwell. Out on the street a man in jeans and a knit hat spat a white cord of spit and kept striding down the block. Not until the noon hour did the clouds start gaining the upper hand. It was possible to stand on the balcony in a t-shirt and jeans, though not to linger there. A lively breeze came up in greeting on the way out the front door. The afternoon sky was chopped and mixed in blue, pale gray, heavy gray, and clean and brilliant whites. It was dizzying while walking to look up at it all, as the passing buildings and the trees moved against the immensity and distance of the cloud formations. The eagle owl had last been seen by some particular lamppost, by the Great Hill, more or less where the walk was going anyway. A tree had put out its first leaves where one of its budding branches nestled against the glass of a lamp by the uphill trail. From the crown of the hill, a clump of people in the woods announced the exact spot, barely off the edge of the lawn, with jays darting and screaming to confirm it. The owl was hard to see and then he wasn't: tawny, richly patterned, wind-ruffled, huge. His ear tufts stood out against one of the white patches of cloud; his bulk pushed fore and aft out of the fork of a tree, with two dozen people clustered on the leaf-littered downslope of his fore side, and another dozen uphill and aft. His warm tan underfeathers swung in the breeze. Back on the grass a low rock outcropping jutted up, where it had been for eons, amazing in its own right. A mourning dove bobbed along in its subtly lovely plumage, back and forth, alive in the world. A girl with a pink lacrosse stick played catch with a barehanded adult. People squinted appraisingly down at the arrangement of bocce balls on the wood chips. The red breasts of robins dotted the central green, more of them at every glance. By nightfall the clouds had made space for a crisp gibbous moon to rise.

New York Times Publisher A.G. Sulzberger. Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

A Revised Measurement of the Paper's Fixation: Trans Kids Are a Bigger Problem Than Climate-Change Obstruction

IN LATE JANUARY, I wrote a post on Indignity and on Popula about the New York Times' coverage of trans issues. The main argument of the post—that the Times was disproportionately showcasing coverage of controversies about trans youth—helped inspire an open letter of protest to the Times' standards editor. That letter specifically cited the part in the story where I wrote "in the past eight months the Times has now published more than 15,000 words' worth of front-page stories asking whether care and support for young trans people might be going too far or too fast."

That count of 15,000 words was meant to measure the four front-page stories that the Times was highlighting in its own roundup of its coverage of trans issues: one claiming an overall increase in the proportion of young people identifying as trans, one about the popularity of top surgery for young people, one about the purported risks of puberty-blocking drugs, and one about students socially transitioning in school without their parents' knowledge.

In recently double-checking that number, however, I discovered that I'd made a counting error, and that the 15,000 number was too high. According to the word-count numbers in the Nexis database, the total for those four stories is 13,945 words.

I originally reached the 15,000 figure by copying the text of each story from the Times website, pasting it into a Google document, stripping out obviously unrelated material like the embedded "Editors' Picks" of other stories, and running a word count on the file. To be conservative, I rounded most of the numbers down.

When I added my figures for all four stories together, the raw cumulative count was 14,949 words. Given that I'd rounded down by many more than 52 words along the way, I settled on "more than 15,000 words."

Going back last week to try to come up with a more precise number, though, I realized there was more excess text than I'd thought. The stories were heavily packaged with photos and other graphics, and every image placement on the website included an alt-text description of the picture, an image credit, and a caption—or rather, two separate copies of the same caption. Over the course of thousands of words' worth of story layouts, those dozens of extra words added up.

How much did they add? Different databases had different results. ProQuest's word counts for the online versions of the four stories worked out to 12,844 words, but its counts for the newspaper versions were higher or were missing altogether. Nexis' results were a bit higher but more internally consistent: 1,670 for the story about how many young people identify as trans, 3,102 for the story about top surgery, 5,942 for the story about puberty blockers, and 3,231 for the story about social transitioning in school. That came to 13,945 words. I regret the overcount.

What do the revised numbers say about the Times' presentation of trans issues? In his annual State of the Times address, delivered this past Thursday, publisher A. G. Sulzberger defended the paper's trans coverage against its critics. "By focusing on a handful of individual stories—even individual sentences and sources that they disagree with—those campaigning to discredit our coverage also overlook how thoughtfully and broadly we've explored this topic," he said.

As my January post said, the four stories about trans youth were not the full extent of the Times' negative or skeptical coverage of trans issues on page A1 in that eight-month span. Culture-war correspondent Michael Powell also contributed two articles to the front page in that time—one about trans women competing in sports, and one about a supposed effort, on behalf of trans interests, to ban the word "women" from abortion-rights discourse—which brings the total to 18,422 words, according to the Nexis numbers. (Emily Bazelon's New York Times Magazine cover story about disputes over trans care would bring the total to 29,895 words.)

The lone story from the Times roundup of its trans coverage that dealt with the nationwide legal campaign against trans rights, "Transgender Americans Feel Under Siege as Political Vitriol Rises"—which ran inside the paper rather than on page A1—was 1,975 words, according to Nexis. (Last month, the opinion section ran a long, reported essay by Megan Stack about the anti-trans movement, "When Parents Hear That Their Child ‘Is Not Normal and Should Not Exist.'" which was 3,679 words.)

How does a 13,945-word collection of stories about youth trans care (let alone a 29,895-word collection of stories about trans controversies more broadly) compare to the rest of the Times' output? In January, I described the youth coverage as a newspaper crusade, in which "the Times is pouring its attention and resources into the message that there is something seriously concerning about the way young people who identify as trans are receiving care."

Sulzberger's State of the Times speech helpfully provided examples of what, in his view, the Times looks like when the paper is openly on a crusade. In the online, hyperlink-filled text of his remarks, the publisher praised:

• The paper's investigation of Tucker Carlson, which Sulzberger said "looked at the most powerful figure in cable news and demonstrated in breathtaking detail how he channels racist and xenophobic rhetoric into ratings." The three-part Carlson series, in Nexis, added up to 19,363 words.

• Its "Profits Over Patients" coverage, which "revealed how the nonprofit organizations that run most American hospitals have abandoned their charitable roots, putting profits ahead of patients." Those three stories added up to 11,759 words in Nexis; a fourth, which Sulzberger's published remarks didn't link to, raised the series total to 15,589 words.

• Its "A Risky Wager" series, in which reporters "spent nearly a year revealing the troubling consequences of the rise of the sports-betting industry." The Risky Wager investigations added up to 13,507 words.

• Stories that "exposed the political forces obstructing climate action in Washington, across the United States and around the world." The four stories Sulzberger linked to on that topic, covering fossil-fuel supporting politicians from Sen. Joe Manchin to Vladimir Putin, added up to 13,414 words.

Despite Sulzberger's complaint that critics focused on narrow individual sentences and details, the fundamental question about Times' trans coverage is one of placement and proportionality. At 13,945 words, the collected front-page stories questioning trans youth care took up as much space as the paper's regular showcase investigative series do.

According to Nexis, the recent blockbuster Times investigative story about migrant children being illegally put to work making popular American consumer products in dangerous factory conditions weighed in at 5,269 words. That was 673 fewer words than puberty blockers got.

Sulzberger noted that the "Risky Wager" series had inspired "legislators and regulators in three states to take action." He did not mention the legislators and regulators who have cited the Times coverage of trans youth while taking measures to block access to trans care, as documented in the protest letter.

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