How Journalists Are Grappling With The Rampant “Bathroom Bill” Misinformation In North Carolina

North Carolina journalists tell Media Matters that covering the state’s controversial House Bill 2, which stripped nondiscrimination protections from LGBT residents, has been especially challenging due to the amount of fearmongering and misinformation spread by the law’s proponents.

In a day-long special session on March 23, North Carolina’s legislature introduced, passed, and enacted HB2, a bill that restricts transgender people's bathroom access and “nullified local ordinances around the state that would have expanded protections for the LGBT community.” It was quickly signed by the state’s Republican Governor, Pat McCrory.

Since its passage, HB2 has come under intense criticism and sparked protests and backlash -- including companies pulling business from the state, editorial boards at state newspapers condemning the law, and performers like Bruce Springsteen canceling planned North Carolina concerts.

The law is most widely known for its provision targeting the transgender community, requiring people to use the bathrooms that correspond with the sex designated on their birth certificate. HB2 applies to restrooms, locker rooms, and showers in public buildings, which includes schools and public institutions of higher education. Proponents falsely claim laws like this are needed to prevent sexual predators from sneaking into women's restrooms by claiming to be transgender.

The onslaught of lies and fear-based claims about “bathroom predators” have challenged local news outlets' reporting on the law, according to journalists from some of the state's largest news outlets.

Rick Gall, news director at WRAL-TV in Raleigh, said countering the misinformation is a major challenge.

“One of the biggest things that the supporters of the law have stated is ‘we did this to protect families, particularly women and children in restrooms,’” Gall said. “There’s certainly not a lot of evidence to indicate this has been a major problem in the past. We ask if this is fixing a problem that really existed.”

He described much of the fear-based claims as “Doomsday-type scenarios,” adding, “we cannot be purveyors of … some wild accusations.”

As Media Matters has repeatedly pointed out, there is absolutely no evidence to support conservatives’ fearmongering about transgender “bathroom predators.”  

“The biggest challenge in covering this is that so much of it is dealing with speculation and fear,” said Brent Wolfe, news director at North Carolina Public Radio. “There have not been cases of a problem” with letting transgender people use the restroom that corresponds with their gender identity.

Fayetteville Observer executive editor Michael Adams agreed that countering the false claims adds to an already complicated story.

“We have indicated there is no evidence of that. We include that to say that this was done despite the fact that there was no evidence that this has caused problems.”

He cited the fact that Bank of America Stadium, the Carolina Panthers home field, and TimeWarner Cable Arena, home to the Charlotte Hornets, had already allowed transgender people to use the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity.

Adams said any such problems at those locations have been “non-existent as far as I can see.”

“There’s been a lot of misinformation put out by the side that passed it, that this is just a bathroom bill to protect the privacy of the bathroom, but there is a lot more to this law than that,” Adams added.

Katie Wadington, news director of the Ashville Citizen-Times, echoed that view.

“It is a matter of finding counter views that aren’t fear-mongering,” according to Wadington. “We are trying to get as much of the truth out there as we can.

Wadington also stressed the importance of highlighting other troubling provisions in HB2. “The transgender portion is the part that is getting the headlines, but there are other angles,” she said.

In addition to its anti-LGBT provisions, HB2 removed the rights of many residents to sue on the basis of age and gender discrimination, and it prohibits any North Carolina municipality from raising its minimum wage.

“We’ve tried to point that out repeatedly, report that this is much more than a transgender bill, much more than a bathroom bill. All of the things with the biggest impact are not about what bathroom you can pee in,” said Jeff Gauger, editor and publisher of the Greensboro News & Record. “We have tried to put before our readers more what is in this law.”

Several journalists singled out misleading claims from Gov. McCrory for criticism.

Gall explained his station posted a lengthy fact-check of a “Myths vs Facts” document about the bill put out by McCrory’s press office that was riddled with “several factual problems.” (It was given the lowest possible rating on the outlet’s fact checking scale.)

“We have to be careful that we don’t become a sounding board for something that is inaccurate, misleading and there is plenty of that out there on this story,” Gall added. “We have tried to report stories that explain what the law really is. When some prominent individuals have made major claims, we have gone and looked at what are the facts, is that a fair representation?”

Dan Barkin, senior editor at The News & Observer of Raleigh, also cited the “Myths vs Facts” put out by the governor's office.

“The narrative that was being promoted in the first few days by the McCrory administration was that this really didn’t take anything away from localities, it didn’t take away any rights,” Barkin said. “A plain reading of the legislation really took away that narrative.”

Barkin pointed to several related PolitFact posts done in partnership with News & Observer, including one that rated as “false” McCrory’s claim that the new law had not “taken away any rights that have currently existed in any city in North Carolina.”

Rick Thames, executive editor of the Charlotte Observer, said many of the official voices for the pro-HB2 side have been misleading: “Supporters of the bill often suggest that they’ve done nothing to interfere with the rights of LGBT citizens and those citizens have recourse at the federal level. But it invalidated the ordinances across the state that were protections for people who believed they were discriminated.”

Many newspapers statewide, as well as news outlets around the country, have relied on the Associated Press for much of the information on the new law.

Tim Rogers, AP’s Carolinas news editor, said his reporters have focused not only on the details of the bill, but separating the real facts from the false claims.

“The key there is to stick to what you can prove and stick to what you can show,” Rogers said. “We’re going to experts and reach out to experts on the issue.”

He said the best way to challenge false claims is “by pushing back on characterizations, pushing back when someone is characterizing it and says ‘isn’t it this way?’ We are doing a lot of that.”

Early on, AP’s Carolinas team, based in Raleigh, issued a fact sheet on the bill to all AP clients and members. It not only laid out the details, but raised questions, such as how the law will be enforced.

“It’s been a difficult story to cover,” Rogers said. “To make sure what you are putting out there is accurate and not falling victim to spin.”