Media Engagement Safety
Thu Feb 10, 2022 · 1265 words · 7 min

Note: This guide is a set of recommendations. They are provided without warranty, and are based on community experience. If you feel there is an issue with advice provided here, please get in touch with us—we are always open to improving and adapting any recommendations as new issues come to light. You can reach us by email at info[at]transsafety.network.

Dealing with media requests as a trans person or to a lesser extent for cis people talking around trans issues has been hazardous for at least a decade in the UK. Thanks to the moral panic and an understanding that trans people will generally have little recourse if mistreated or led into set-up confrontations, unscrupulous researchers, producers and journalists have a long track record for attempting to trick people into media engagements they wouldn't get involved in if they knew all the relevant details.

However, engaging with the media is really important. We need to talk about issues affecting us, we need our allies to be able to use their voices where they are able to speak up about issues affecting us (as well as seeing if it's possible to pass the mic a lot of the time, when it's clear that trans voices are being overlooked).

This means it's important to distinguish a trap and engage confidently with the media when possible. There are no hard and fast rules which will always work, but trans community knowledge has produced an understanding of common red flags, and ways to improve assurance that a given media inquiry is above board.

Questions to ask

What sort of angle are they taking?

This is an important question. Quite frequently producers will lie about this, but all the same, if they are being up front you will get a picture of their approach. Ask if they are able to provide the information to you in writing, so you have evidence later if they renege on their claims.

For many things like a "debate" type format you might want to think about whether it is worth engaging in some pseudo-gladiatorial situation where people are really hoping for you to tear chunks out of each other rather than the sort of reflective space necessary for addressing complex or delicate issues. 

One tiny red flag is if they start guilt tripping you at this point about how important it is that your voice in particular gets out there to tell your story - this can sometimes be a kind of ego pandering/flattering often targetted at people relatively unfamiliar with media engagement. You should be wary if it feels like they need you more than you want to be part of their project, because potentially they know they are getting more out of it than you will.

Who have they reached out to? Who else is involved?

They should be clear with you about this. It can give you an idea of the overall cut and thrust of the wider project. Think about whether the selection of other guests, documentary subjects, or people involved in the media project makes sense with respect to the angle as they've explained it to you. Are there trans people involved behind the scenes with the production?

You ought to be able to get in touch with other people involved, and ask them about what they've been told about it. You ought to be able to confirm with them that they actually are involved in the project and are not just being namechecked by an unscrupulous producer leading you on.

Additionally you might want to ask discreetly groups like Trans Media Watch if they're aware of a media callout - they often have invaluable advice on offer.

Are you the right person to be talking about what they want?

Is the topic they're calling on you for in your expertise? Is there someone obvious they should have reached out to instead? It's possible they may have had unrelated reasons for rejecting the opportunity, or the area expert may have been sidelined because the producers don't especially want a trans person or ally who they think is too competent or articulate. It can be worth going and asking them and find out what they think about it and if they were approached, and if so, what their reasons were for saying no.

Make sure to ask them who else they asked ahead of you and chase that up.

Are they the right person to cover this? What previous work have they done on Trans stuff?

It is quite unusual to be a first ever project for a journalist covering LGBT issues. If they have no track record for covering LGBT stories, there's a good chance they may have buried previous stories (sometimes journalists get anti-trans stories erased from digital publication ahead of reaching out in order to hide their track record) or they might just be opportunistically jumping on the anti-trans bandwagon without the knowledge or depth to handle the subject material. Sometimes journalists will use a maiden name or a different spelling so it's harder to look up their past work.

If they are completely new, do they have a trans community member who you trust who would vouch for them? If they can't build friendly contacts in the trans community why are they competent to do the story in the first place?

What is the production company?

As demonstrated recently with the attempt by Mat Walsh's research assistants to trap Eli Erlick (and presumably other trans activists) it is possible for producers to set up fake front organisations. Make sure to check - do they have a history of previous work they've done? Is this verifiable via sources that the media company website itself does not control (e.g. IMDB, Muckrack, BBC's genome search engine, etc). Maybe you can look them up on Companies House and find out who owns them?

What to do if you suspect a trap?

  • Reach out to others
    • Groups like Trans Media Watch provide great advice on this area.
    • Warn your friends, colleagues and other people in the area who might be targetted.
  • Politely decline
    • You don't need to make a big thing out of it with the journalist in the question. Don't feel obliged. Just say you're not interested in the opportunity at this time.
  • Consider if it is worthwhile making a public notice warning people.
    • Be aware that this journalist, researcher or producer, possibly even the publication or broadcaster behind them will probably treat you as burned forever if you take that approach, so only do this if you think it's really necessary.

Useful to Know

Nothing you say is ever really off the record when you talk to a journalist, a show researcher or media producer. Do not divulge information to them that you would not be willing to share in public, unless they have already demonstrated good faith in the past (and even then!).

Never recommend a specific other person for them to talk to without checking, even if they do a lot of media work.

Find out what's going on before you agree to, or actually participate in things.

No amount of exposure is worth walking into a media set-up. When they control the platform, the have ultimate control over the message.

Understand that you will never (or almost never) get approval rights over written material

For video media live engagement can be better than broadcast as you can be assured that your contribution will be published and not cut out of context.