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‘It’s just human dignity.’ Trans writers and journalists struggle to get old bylines corrected

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When Theresa Tanenbaum transitioned in 2019, she changed her name and began a years-long quest to correct the one she was given at birth — her deadname — on dozens of academic papers she published over the years.

For Tanenbaum, an associate professor at the University of California, Irvine who studies the theory and practice of interactive storytelling, there’s a lot on the line. These papers — 83 publications across 15 publishers — catalog her work over more than a decade. But when she began asking publishers to correct her name on them, some said yes while others refused or ignored her.

In the fight for what she wants, Tanenbaum is, in her own words, willing to make a nuisance of herself. She began speaking out, working with others who also support name-change policies in academic publishing, and connecting directly with publishers. And she’s starting to see changes, as a slew of major academic publishers have since enacted policies allowing anyone to quietly, retroactively change the name on their published work.

Yet while change is coming to one corner of the publishing world, rules regarding deadnames remain rare in another: few major news groups or newspapers have policies enabling writers to change their bylines on published stories, and management at The New York Times recently argued against such a proposal from its union.

A Times spokesperson declined to comment on the union’s proposal.

These disparate decisions, which largely impact a group that already faces high rates of discrimination, harassment, and assault, come during a record-breaking year for anti-transgender legislation in the US. To encourage newsrooms in particular to change, the Trans Journalists Association shared a statement last month that said that not changing a trans journalist’s byline when that journalist requests it is “inappropriate” and urged newsrooms to adopt that policy without adding a correction or disclaimer.

Even though those fighting most publicly for such policies tend to be transgender, they acknowledged to CNN Business that the benefits could be far-reaching: You might want to change your name on past work to erase from your identity the traces of an abusive former partner, or because you’ve converted to a different religion, among many other reasons.

“It’s just treating someone with dignity and respect,” said Oliver-Ash Kleine, founding member of the Trans Journalists Association. “This is their name, and their body of work should reflect what their name is. That shouldn’t be a huge issue.”

The resistance in journalism

For transgender writers who have changed their names but aren’t easily able to correct deadnames on past work, the stakes are high. They may feel trauma when seeing their deadname, and the preservation of work written under two names could unintentionally out a person, potentially leading to harassment, or worse. When your deadname remains on old papers or articles while your name appears on new ones, you can also lose intangible but vital career-related capital built up over time.

At one of the world’s most influential news organizations, however, retroactive changes to bylines remain elusive for writers. In April, The New York Times’ editorial union proposed the paper correct deadnames on already published digital stories at a journalist’s request. The proposal was not spurred by any specific case, said Shane O’Neill, video editor at The New York Times and bargaining committee member for The New York Times Guild. The Times union collectively decided to request the policy change as one of many proposals in its bargaining over a new contract.

In casual conversation at the (virtual) bargaining table, a member of Times management described such a policy as “fraught,” according to O’Neill.

“It is a fraught issue in so far as it shouldn’t be taken lightly,” O’Neill said. “I just think this is such an opportunity.”

“I’m proud of the fact that The New York Times cares about truth and wants to make sure that things are correct and airtight,” O’Neill continued. “But I think it’s disappointing that people don’t consider a gender transition to be correct de facto.”

Times staffers floated an alternate policy in informal conversations outside of the bargaining sessions. If a writer were to change their name, the paper could add corrections or clarifications to the old articles that live online. But that move was met with fierce resistance from those inside and outside The Times due to concerns that it would out individuals as transgender.

Danielle McLean, a freelance journalist and the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics committee chair, publicly criticized The Times’ policy after Times columnist Ben Smith tweeted the union’s notes about it.

“Trans journalist here,” McLean tweeted. “Have bylines under dead name with Boston Globe, Milford Daily News, and others. Updating those bylines retroactively would allow me to acknowledge the existence of those articles as part of my professional history.”

McLean told CNN Business that she had not thought about correcting her deadnames on her old articles until Smith’s tweet but has now begun the process to contact her former employers.

McLean said some journalists, especially at legacy publications, may be “precious” about making any change to a story.

“You’re not changing the integrity of the story in any way. You’re not changing any of the facts,” McLean said. “If anything, you’re bringing more transparency to those old stories because if somebody looked those up and wanted to reach out to the reporter, they wouldn’t be able to find that reporter because that reporter wouldn’t exist anymore.”

At several other news organizations contacted by CNN Business, rules regarding changes to bylines on already published pieces vary — if they even exist. When asked about their policy, spokespeople at Gannett, Vox Media, Vice Media and CNN all said they would remove deadnames from archives upon request. Gannett and Vice Media would include an editor’s note that the story has been updated. Vox Media would let the journalist decide on whether a note is warranted, and CNN would consider it on an individual basis. Meanwhile, The Boston Globe, G/O Media, Time and Reuters said they have no official policy but would consider making changes on a case-by-case basis. Like The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times said its policy is to not update archives.

New rules in academic publishing

In academia, meanwhile, some of the world’s largest journal publishers — including Wiley, Elsevier, Taylor & Francis, and Sage — recently adopted policies that enable authors to change their names on past works, for any reason. (Springer Nature, another major academic publisher, is still working on rolling out its policy, and said it is accepting requests for name changes.)

These rules didn’t materialize overnight, though. When Tanenbaum initially reached out to publishers about correcting her deadname in 2019, some smaller publishers and groups behind academic conferences were willing to change her name on past papers, while larger publishers mostly responded with a “flat-out rejection” of her request. Other journals and publishers simply ignored her, she said, making it feel like “firing messages into the void.”

“It’s absurd we’re forced to choose between living with a name that suits us and sticking with the name that we happen to be going by when we started publishing as professionals,” Tanenbaum said.

Tanenbaum has since worked with a number of major publishers, urging them to adopt such rules; the first one she’s aware of that produced a policy was the Association for Computing Machinery, or ACM, in late 2019.

Generally, these policies include changing names on PDFs of articles at an individual publisher, on author profiles that publishers maintain, and on any author-related metadata that publishers can access.

At Elsevier, Philippe Terheggen, managing director of science, technology, and medical journals, said the changes include replacing deadnames on PDFs of papers that are on Elsevier’s platforms (without highlighting that any changes have been made) and ensuring the digital object identifier (essentially a permanent link to the piece, which publishers often use) points to the corrected version. Elsevier will also change the name in feeds of articles that go out to so-called dark archives, which are databases that preserve past articles in case a publisher shuts down in the future.

Elsevier, which publishes The Lancet and Cell, rolled out its policy in late March. As of late May, it had received requests from about 25 people to correct deadnames on past work. At the time, the company said it was in the process of making the changes.

Doing so, Terheggen said, is “about dignity,” echoing the sentiment expressed by Kleine of the Trans Journalists Association.

“It’s just human dignity. It’s a simple thing,” he said.

Why it’s so hard

Correcting deadnames can be a cumbersome process for individuals. Kleine said most trans journalists they know of are freelancers, which means they have likely written for a variety of publications — making a tricky task even more difficult.

Janus Rose, a technology reporter based in New York City, told CNN Business she went through the process of correcting her deadname at about eight publications in 2016. She said many were amenable to it, others moved more slowly and one refused to make the change until she mentioned her lawyer. The latter example involved a publication that is no longer active but still maintains an archive of its articles.

“Editors that I’ve worked with for years had absolutely no problem doing this because they know me,” Rose said. “It was more of a problem in situations where there was some kind of bureaucracy involved, and I was talking to someone who I’ve never dealt with.”

Both academic publishers and media companies told CNN Business that, even with rules in place to support name changes, it can be difficult to carry them out. For instance, media conglomerate Gannett’s policy does support correcting deadnames, but the process can be difficult given the size and complexity of its network, said Michael McCarter, managing editor for standards, ethics and inclusion for Gannett’s USA Today and USA Today Network.

Gannett owns more than 250 news brands, some of which were obtained from its acquisition of GateHouse Media in 2019. The merger resulted in multiple content management systems with some that are no longer accessible, making it difficult to change the bylines on some previously published articles. Content also can be syndicated across the USA Today Network, which means a writer’s names could appear on multiple sites.

“You have all these different systems, so there’s not really one quick fix,” McCarter said. “But we would do everything in our power to accommodate that.”

An unresolved problem at academic publishers is figuring out how to remove deadnames and inaccurate pronouns on citations in papers — a confusing and laborious issue for many reasons. A single paper may cite many other papers by many different publishers, and pronouns used in citing work aren’t always easy to spot and change within a paper (and publishers won’t change them in papers that they did not publish). For instance, if a paper containing Tanenbaum’s deadname has been cited hundreds of times by other researchers in their papers, it would require a lot of work to contact the publisher for each individual paper and have them all corrected.

Yet while correcting citations is a lot of work, not removing all occurrences of someone’s deadname “amounts to putting a Band-Aid on a severed limb,” Tanenbaum said.

‘We’re just asking to be called by our names’

Tanenbaum has spent time thinking about how this issue might be solved, and pointed to one possible solution that she hopes to see more of over time: persistent digital identification methods that are tied to individual writers, rather than publishers or publications. Researchers commonly use a free one called ORCID, which gives each user a unique online identifier — similar to a URL — that can corral all of your work and makes it simple to change your name online.

For newsrooms, Kleine said all news organizations should adopt a policy to correct deadnames and hire trans journalists.

“The reality is a lot of newsrooms don’t have trans people,” Kleine said. “But for newsrooms that don’t have trans people yet I think it’s really important for them to make their workplace policies inclusive of trans people now. They are going to have trans employees, and those trans employees shouldn’t have to fight tooth and nail to have workplace policies that are inclusive.”

In the years to come, Tanenbaum expects, among other things, to see such name changes standardizing and normalizing, at least in academic publishing. So far, nine publishers have corrected her name on 51 publications — that’s most, but not all, of her pre-transition writing.

“We’re just asking to be called by our names,” Tanenbaum said. “People just want to be called by their names.”

CNN Newsource

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