opinion

Tell The Truth

How ‘Both Sides’ Journalism Is Failing Transgender People

In the spirit of ‘balance,’ journalists are giving credence to the junk science and misinformation of anti-trans activists. Readers are better served with clear facts.

opinion

Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/ The Daily Beast

Imagine a group of people who believe that manatees are destroying civilization.

Even though there is abundant evidence showing that humans endanger manatees and not vice versa, this hypothetical group continues to insist that manatees are a menace.

Imagine further that reporters are assigned to cover this group. But instead of including facts about manatees in their articles that would contradict the claims of this anti-manatee lobby, they don’t.

Instead, they quote someone who hates manatees, quote an environmentalist, and then as media critic Jay Rosen might say, just “leave it there.”

That would be a ridiculous dereliction of journalistic duty.

Yet something similar has been happening with too much reporting about transgender people in the Trump era: Journalists omit facts in ways that make public debates over supposedly “controversial” issues—like transgender restroom use, or transgender military service, or transgender health care—seem less settled than they really are.

They present quotes from anti-transgender voices without providing the necessary information to assess the claims being made therein. They give equal weight to the opinions of anti-LGBT groups and to the positions of major medical associations, or the conclusions of independent studies.

This lazy “both sides”-style reporting is ill-fitted to the task of capturing the Trump administration’s ongoing efforts to drive an already-endangered population out of public life. And it’s only becoming a more glaring problem as those attacks continue.

Consider the recently reported news that the Trump administration intends to rewrite an Obama-era Department of Health and Human Services rule intended to protect transgender people from the discrimination they already face in medical settings.

The New York Times correctly noted in its coverage that the move would fly in the face of “many medical experts,” and reported the extremely relevant fact that the American Medical Association “opposes” altering the rule.

This is absolutely vital contextualizing information for a health care debate: The largest body of physicians in the country, with a membership of almost a quarter-million, wants the regulation left alone.

But the Associated Press story that followed eight days later made no mention of the American Medical Association’s opposition to the rewriting of the rule.

Instead of firmly situating the debate in that context, the dueling claims in the AP story seem to exist in a vacuum, where everything everyone says carries equal weight.
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Rather, the rhythm of the AP story is like a game of ping pong, bouncing back and forth between opposing viewpoints: First a Trump official gets a quote, then a Lambda Legal lawyer, then a “religious liberty” lawyer, and then a pro-transgender Republican.

Apart from briefly referring to gender dysphoria as a “medically recognized” condition, the AP story does not highlight the long-established medical consensus on the necessity of transgender health care, which has been affirmed by virtually every major medical association in the country.

Instead of firmly situating the debate in that context, the dueling claims in the AP story seem to exist in a vacuum, where everything everyone says carries equal weight: In one section, for example, the “religious liberty” lawyer claims that the Obama-era rule “would have forced doctors to perform gender transition procedures on children.” That quote is directly followed by a paragraph contradicting that claim which begins: “The American Academy of Pediatrics says…”

That effectively places the theory of one attorney working for an organization that has long advocated against LGBT rights on roughly the same level as facts cited by an association comprised of over 60,000 medical professionals.

The AP report could have directly debunked the attorney’s claim. It could have said, “But according to the American Academy of Pediatrics...” It didn’t. It said, “The American Academy of Pediatrics says...” as if the medical association were just another person with an opinion.

This AP story is not bad—but that only makes it a more fascinating case study.

The copy is accurate and well-written. It reaches out to all of the necessary parties, including the “religious liberty” lawyer, who was involved in a previous legal challenge against the rule.

In the opening paragraphs, the story even connects the HHS issue to the Trump administration’s other attacks on transgender people, albeit by citing “critics” who “say it’s another attempt to undercut acceptance.” (It is another attempt to undercut acceptance.)

When I asked the AP several questions about this and other Trump-era transgender stories, a spokesperson told me that “AP stand by its stories”—and they should.

The problem lies not with the AP, chosen here as a recent representative example, or with any specific story, but with the limitations of “both sides” journalism as a genre.

In a 2009 blog post, media critic and NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen called this style of coverage “he said, she said” journalism.

Rosen identified five major bullet points that defined this journalistic approach, which can be condensed into a sentence: “He said, she said” journalism is reporting on any “public dispute” without making a “real attempt” to “assess clashing truth claims” even though the truth could easily be reported.

As Rosen points out, this style of journalism implicitly positions the reporter as an objective observer situated “in the middle between polarized extremes,” thereby implying a “false balance” between the two sides.

News organizations—especially those that aspires to be “unbiased,” as the AP does—have a vested interest in appearing to be “in the middle” between two extremes. But the AP’s stated news values also include “bringing truth to the world”—and sometimes the truth is on one side. Sometimes, to borrow Rosen’s phrasing, the “public dispute” is not between “two polarized extremes” but between one extreme and the facts. And in those cases, journalists have a responsibility to be brave.

“Where the weight of the evidence makes it possible to render a judgment, but instead you go with ‘he said, she said,’ you are behaving recklessly even as you tell yourself you’re doing the cautious and responsible thing,” Rosen later wrote.

This hesitance to make judgments has been common all along in reporting on issues affecting lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. “Both sides”-style journalism on the issue of same-sex parenting, to give just one of many examples, continued long after medical associations and decades of research had proved that children with same-sex parents fare no worse than other children.

And now transgender people are bearing the brunt of this “both sides” reporting, suffering through stories that present their humanity as a controversy. Take, for instance, this “he said, she said” exchange from a brief AP blurb this week about a New Hampshire transgender rights bill: “Supporters have argued the bill is long overdue and say it could save lives by preventing suicide. Some opponents have focused on the fear of predatory men molesting women and children in public restrooms.”

These are not claims with anywhere near equal amounts of evidence to substantiate them. On one side, we have scientific literature suggesting that “denial of access” to restrooms has a “significant relationship to suicidality” for transgender people.

On the other side, we have, well, nothing, because the reprehensible act of molesting someone in a public restroom is already illegal—and because the states that have already passed such laws have seen no reported rise in restroom assaults.

As CNN noted in a fact-checking article after calling 20 law enforcement agencies in those states: “Anti-discrimination protections covering gender identity have been around for years, and there is no evidence they lead to attacks in public facilities.”

Another example of this journalistic hesitance to judge competing claims can be found in a July 2017 Reuters story about the transgender troop ban.

Every justification Trump cited for the ban was demonstrably false: He claimed on Twitter one morning that transgender troops would cause “tremendous medical costs and disruption” and suggested that their inclusion would interfere with military readiness—all issues that the non-partisan think tank Rand Corp. had already studied for the Pentagon.

The Rand Corp. study found that transgender medical costs would be “an exceedingly small proportion of active-component health care expenditures”—and that all available evidence showed transgender military service would have “no significant impact on unit cohesion or operational readiness.”

The Reuters report kicks off by giving Sarah Huckabee Sanders some print space early on to repeat Trump’s lies: “This was about military readiness. This was about unit cohesion. This was about resources within the military and nothing more.”

This would be a great place to note all of the findings of the Rand study: Everything Sanders says in that quote could be immediately and swiftly fact-checked—something that Fortune did on short notice, to give one good example. But instead, the Reuters report follows the basic “he said, she said” formula, only referencing the Rand Corp. health care finding—and even then, only by way of Nancy Pelosi, writing that the “top Democrat” had “noted” that particular conclusion in response to Trump’s tweets.

Indeed, the Reuters article uses the all-too-common tactic of attributing information that could be reported as fact to “critics” instead: “Critics said the health costs of caring for transgender service members were a tiny portion of the military’s healthcare budget and Trump’s policy change was based on prejudice.”

This would be like writing, “Critics said that manatees are not a threat to human existence.” Manatees aren’t harming humans. So why not say so?

Transgender reporter Lewis Wallace once urged his colleagues to keep presenting facts as facts—but what happened to him afterward only proves why some of them don’t.

Shortly after Trump took office, Wallace, who was then working for the popular public radio program Marketplace, published a Medium essay entitled “Objectivity is dead, and I’m okay with it” in which he advised fellow journalists against fastidiously trying to position themselves at the detached “center” of public debates over the humanity of marginalized groups.

“I think we are past the point where [readers and listeners] expect us to speak to a fictitious and ever-shifting center in order to appear ‘neutral,’” he argued.

Wallace’s plea was for continued “truth-telling” in a Trumpian era of blatant lies—for journalists to relay reliable information even if they get “called politically correct, liberal and leftist” for doing so. And with regards to his own marginalized position, Wallace made it clear: “Obviously, I can’t be neutral or centrist in a debate over my own humanity.”

But Wallace was suspended from air, and then terminated days later after refusing to take down the blog post, as he told The Daily Beast in a February 2017 interview.

Wallace, who is now writing a book for University of Chicago press on the history of the notion of objectivity in American journalism, told me that he doesn’t always see malice behind the omission of fact from mainstream news reports on transgender issues, citing instead a “fundamental lack of basic knowledge” among many journalists about “conversations that have been happening in trans communities for a long time, usually, before they end up in the news.”

The Trump-era attacks on transgender people, Wallace says, have forced news outlets to quickly cover issues that they might not have a thorough background covering—a dynamic that is “pretty common,” he tells me, “in reporting about any community that is underrepresented in newsrooms.”

In the absence of that pre-existing knowledge base, doing “he said, she said” or “false balance” journalism becomes an easy way to hit a deadline.

“It’s tempting to just talk to someone who gives an opinion on one side, and talk to someone who gives an opinion on the other, and finish writing your story,” Wallace tells me, admitting, “I’ve certainly been there.”

(Rosen would agree, noting in his 2009 blog post that doing “he said, she said” reporting makes a story “instantly writable,” allowing a writer to produce an “error-free account” of a debate in a short amount of time.)

But sometimes, Wallace notes, something worse lies behind the journalistic hesitance to include statements of fact in “both sides” stories about transgender people: a reticence to appear “ideological,” or biased. A journalist might know the “bathroom predator” myth is bogus, for example, but they worry that citing the evidence would compromise their objectivity.

Wallace hopes his colleagues can learn to acknowledge that debates over a marginalized group’s humanity take place against a backdrop of stark power differentials—instead of pretending like they take place on a neutral and abstract stage of ideas.

“I think reporters should hold ourselves accountable for having a power analysis,” Wallace says. “And I think a lot of times, false balance emerges as a result of being in denial about the power structures at play.”

After all, journalists would hopefully tell the truth if manatees were being targeted by an extremist group. Shouldn’t they do the same for actual human beings who experience horrific violence and discrimination, and who are now being targeted by the White House? Isn’t the obligation to boldly tell the truth especially urgent when lives are at stake?

Journalistic ethics code still generally—and rightly—require giving the major subjects of a story reasonable opportunity to comment before publication, even if those subjects spout prejudiced nonsense. And printing said nonsense, as bigoted as it might be, can have value. There are clear divides of public opinion on transgender rights—and it’s certainly worth knowing why a large percentage of Americans stand in opposition to them.

If there were a group of people out there who hated manatees so much that they were trying to pass anti-manatee bills in multiple states—or calling for the White House to grant the United States Fish and Wildlife Service a religious exemption from protecting manatees—we would want to know what the hell they were thinking.

The same holds true when it comes to anti-transgender groups.

As Chase Strangio, a transgender attorney and a vocal critic of the media’s treatment of transgender people, tells me, “It can be really important to include the hate groups’ positions in these articles, especially now that many of these groups have positions of access and power within the various branches of government.”

The justifications for anti-transgender laws and policy changes need to be heard, if only so they can be exposed. But sunlight can only act as a disinfectant if journalists clear the clouds away. As Strangio adds, it would be “reckless and irresponsible to include [those] quotes” from anti-LGBT hate groups without providing full and proper context: Who is speaking? What, precisely, are they advocating for? And is what they are saying true?

“Contextualization,” as Media Matters LGBTQ program director Brennan Suen tells me, “is key in understanding what these issues are about.”

No one is asking for the “other side” of an issue like transgender rights to not be heard. But “both sides” should be subject to the same level of scrutiny when it comes to the evidence they cite in support of their positions.

But anti-transgender groups are smart enough to know how “both sides” journalism works—and it’s likely they are counting on reporters not thoroughly fact-checking their claims, or debunking them thoroughly enough: They know that if they can repeat a lie loudly and frequently in newspapers and on local TV segments without being undercut, they can convince some people that it is true. The staying power of the “bathroom predator” myth is proof of that.

“Time after time we see anti-trans extremists leverage mainstream media platforms—and right-wing media platforms—and go out there and push junk science, push misinformation,” Suen says. “That information is then help up in reporting, often at the same level as the actual medical, psychological, and other legitimate organization’s research.”

Indeed, when there is no real balance between two sides of an issue, it’s the side without evidence that benefits the most from repeated press coverage.

As transgender journalist Siobhan O’Leary wrote for The Establishment, in a media environment with fewer and fewer fact-checkers, the resulting “soft-balling” of competing claims “primarily benefits the opinion that is sloppier, since a more rigorous interrogation would demonstrate its weakness.”

“One position, no matter how meticulously researched or carefully argued, is now considered equally probable with another position, even if its logic is leakiest than Trump’s White House,” O’Leary argued.

Suddenly, that other position is no longer a fringe view with no evidence to back it up but rather “one side” of a two-sided debate, reaping the benefits of a journalistic culture that, as Rosen once noted, “associate[s] the middle with truth.”

And because readers are not always willing to do the fact-finding legwork that some journalists don’t do, they end up digesting a lot of raw anti-transgender propaganda. As O’Leary argued, if reporters don’t “consult the research” before publishing and readers don’t do their own careful follow-up reading to fill in the gaps, everyone loses: “This combines into a disaster for trans people—when neither the writer nor the reader have any grounded realness to refer to, misinformation blossoms and spreads its tendrils.”

In the case of the transgender troop ban, readers might be left with the impression that the jury is still out on the question of transgender military service when, in fact, military leaders, the medical establishment, and independent experts have long been in accord.

As Strangio tells me, “Since all of us are vulnerable to the internalization of ideas and talking points disseminated for the sole purpose of misleading the public and maintains an oppressive status quo, [exposing] ideas presented as fact as ideological distortion is important.”

“That is the work of the journalist,” Strangio adds, “not the mere transcription of anti-trans rhetoric without inquiry.”

After all, the problem with “he said, she said” reporting is not the fact that comments are included from people with various viewpoints; it’s that those quotes are so often presented in a vacuum with no sense of history or facticity—no “grounded realness,” as O’Leary put it—to help the reader interpret them.

As Strangio tells me, “it can be really important to include the hate groups’ positions in these articles, especially now that many of these groups have positions of access and power within the various branches of government.” But it would be “reckless and irresponsible to include [those] quotes,” Strangio adds, without the proper context.

Indeed, “both sides”-style journalism would be less of a problem if the journalist always took the side of truth, even when it wasn’t somewhere in the middle.

You don’t have to imagine a group of people who hate transgender people—or rather groups, plural, because virtually every anti-LGBT group that survived the legalization of same-sex marriage has now pivoted to attacking transgender people.

These groups are real, even though their facts are not. Their justifications make about as much sense as claiming that manatees are a clear and present danger to human civilization. If transgender people are going to make it through the Trump era, we need more reporters willing to not just gather quotes, but to tell the truth, too.