Bills in Alabama and Idaho threatening to strip essential health care from trans youth and imprison their medical providers recently became the first of many such measures introduced this year to pass a legislative chamber in their respective states. In the face of this extreme onslaught by conservative lawmakers, local media has largely failed to provide coverage that fully conveys or contextualizes the radical nature of these bills that are now one step closer to becoming law.
Media Matters found 15 local news articles on these pieces of legislation published in their respective states between February 3 and March 13, and two-thirds of those articles fail to note that the type of care being targeted is supported by every major medical organization in America. Almost half of the articles similarly fail to push back against false, scaremongering rhetoric used in the bills and by their supporters concerning gender confirmation surgeries for trans children. (No such surgeries are performed on minors in the U.S.) Notably, the study found an improvement in coverage providing the perspective of those directly impacted by these bills compared to similar measures last year, with 80% of the new articles quoting either a trans person or the parent of a trans child who stood to be affected.
These attacks on trans youth are focused on legislation at the state-level, with 37 bills to ban gender-affirming care for trans youth proposed in state legislatures so far this year. Local media holds an important position as a trusted source of information in communities across the country, making fairness and accuracy in local coverage of these issues a vital tool for voters to understand the dangers of bills targeting trans youth.
Idaho and Alabama are close to passing bills that would strip trans youth of necessary care and threaten medical providers and parents with felonies up to life imprisonment
On March 8, the Idaho House of Representatives passed House Bill 675, with all but one Republican member voting to advance it to the state Senate. The bill, introduced on February 23, would appropriate the state’s ban on female genital mutilation, a violent breach of human rights, in order to ban gender-affirming care for minors, including puberty blockers and hormone replacement medication. Further demonstrating the extreme nature of this proposal, HB 675 stipulates that medical providers who provide this necessary care could face life imprisonment. Going one step further than similar anti-trans legislation, Idaho’s bill would also make it a felony for parents to take their children out of state for gender-affirming care. This legally dubious measure, like the threat of life imprisonment, echoes right-wing attacks on abortion access in legislation like Missouri’s House Bill 2012, revealing a deeper shared Republican strategy in their manufactured culture war on health care.
Alabama’s Senate Bill 184, introduced on February 3 and passed by the state Senate on February 24, and companion House Bill 266, also introduced on February 3 and awaiting committee approval, would ban all gender-affirming care for minors (18-year-olds are considered minors under Alabama law and therefore subject to the proposed ban). As in Idaho, Alabama’s bills would make the provision of gender-affirming care for trans youth a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison for medical providers. Both Alabama bills would also require schools to disclose any “information related to a minor's perception that his or her gender or sex is inconsistent with his or her sex,” essentially forcing schools to out trans students.
The bills would also outlaw gender-affirming surgery for trans youth despite the fact that such surgeries are not performed on underage individuals. Emphasizing the divide between this legislation and accepted science, the bills include an exception that would allow doctors to continue harmful and medically unnecessary surgeries on intersex children, despite such procedures being opposed by the intersex community as well as medical and human rights organizations. This cruel legal carve-out is included in many of the new bills targeting trans health care across the country.
These bills represent a tangible threat to trans youth, their families, and the medical professionals who treat them. Idaho’s bill and Alabama’s SB 184 are the first bills banning puberty blockers and hormone replacement medications to be passed by a state legislative chamber this year (A similar measure, House Bill 1570, was passed in Arkansas last year and briefly became law after both legislative chambers overrode the governor’s veto, before being halted by a court ruling). If they pass committee, the only things standing between either bill becoming law is passing one more chamber of their respective state legislatures -- both of which have Republican supermajorities -- and being signed by the states’ governors -- both of whom have previously signed anti-trans legislation.
According to Chase Strangio, deputy director for transgender justice at the American Civil Liberties Union, Alabama’s SB 184 could receive a vote in the House as early as this week.
Local print and online news coverage has mostly failed to convey this legislative assault on trans youth
Between February 3 -- when the first of the bills was introduced -- and March 13, Media Matters found just 15 articles were written by local news outlets (six in Alabama and nine in Idaho) on the legislation for either print or online publication.
While the limited coverage can likely be attributed, at least in part, to the decline of local media spurred by years of newsroom layoffs and the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the published articles also failed to provide essential context for legislation criminalizing trans health care for minors. Only a third of the articles contextualized the care targeted in these bills as widely supported by the medical community, a necessary part of the story for readers to understand the dangers of outlawing health care for trans youth.
As Dr. James L. Madara of the American Medical Association wrote in a letter last year to the National Governors Association opposing such legislation:
Transgender children, like all children, have the best chance to thrive when they are supported and can obtain the health care they need. Studies suggest that improved body satisfaction and self-esteem following the receipt of gender-affirming care is protective against poorer mental health and supports healthy relationships with parents and peers. Studies also demonstrate dramatic reductions in suicide attempts, as well as decreased rates of depression and anxiety. Other studies show that a majority of patients report improved mental health and function after receipt of gender-affirming care.
Furthermore, almost half (47%) of the articles failed to mention that gender confirmation surgeries for minors that the bills seek to ban are not performed in the U.S. This omission is all the more impactful because proponents of the bills -- and the wider sphere of anti-trans misinformers in right-wing media -- often market their hate with baseless fearmongering about surgeries being performed on children.
These informational lapses often occurred alongside framing that portrayed arguments by legislators in support of these bills as equally valid as the perspective of the trans children and parents of trans youth that the bills are targeting. In fact, 60% of the articles were framed as a back-and-forth debate between those pushing hateful misinformation and the victims of their onslaught, printing quotes from each in succession with minimal pushback. Coverage that takes this “both sides” framing without context only serves to amplify the voices, and agendas, of right-wing actors seeking to harm the trans community.
Finally, while some of the articles discussed similar legislation attacking access to gender-affirming care for trans youth that was introduced or passed in 2021, no articles discussed the new state bills in the context of the 34 other measures targeting health care for trans youth that have been introduced in state legislatures across the country this year. Considering these bills are a part of a nationwide coordinated attack by anti-LGBTQ+ organizations like Alliance Defending Freedom, which has been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, that information is vital in helping news audiences understand the source and purpose of this harmful legislation.
Improving coverage of trans issues relies on improving representation in local media
Although there have been clear failures in local coverage of these bills, some positive developments are worth recognizing. As noted by GLAAD, it is important for media outlets to quote those being impacted when covering legislation that specifically targets trans people, and in this regard local media in both Idaho and Alabama largely succeeded. Only three of the articles failed to quote either a trans person or the parent of a trans child, a marked improvement from local coverage of the bill that passed in Arkansas last year, when less than half of outlets did so.
In addition to quoting them, having trans people themselves report on the issues affecting their community matters, as demonstrated by the fact that the only local article covering the Idaho bill that provided proper context on medical support for gender-affirming care without both-sidesing the issue was written by a trans journalist.
With at least 37 bills attacking gender-affirming care under consideration in dozens of states across the country, we are just seeing the opening moments of a nationwide attack on trans rights play out. Americans are still far more likely to put trust in local media than national outlets, and as this fight remains predominantly rooted in state-level attacks, it is an essential service to their communities that local outlets devote sufficient resources to provide coverage that does justice to the the targets of these attacks.
Media Matters searched print and online articles in the Factiva database from local outlets in Idaho and Alabama for either of the terms “trans" or “transgender” or any variations of any of the terms “gender identity,” “gender nonconforming," “gender fluid," “nonbinary,” “puberty blockers,” “hormones,” “House Bill 675,” “House Bill 266,” or “Senate Bill 184” from February 3, 2022, through March 13, 2022.
We included articles, which we defined as instances when legislation banning trans youth from accessing health care was mentioned in the headline or lead paragraph.
We then reviewed the identified articles for whether they included perspective from any trans person or someone identified as being the parent or guardian of a trans child, mentioned medical organizations’ support for gender-affirming care, mentioned surgery while failing to mention that surgery is not performed on minors in the U.S., framed anti-trans talking points as equal to trans perspectives, or referenced any other legislation currently being considered in any other state that would ban gender-affirming care.
We included coverage from the following outlets: Across Alabama Patch, Alabama Best Practices Center, Alfa Farmers, Anniston Star, Birmingham Business Journal, Birmingham Business Journal Online, The Birmingham News, Birmingham Patch, Birmingham Times, CBS 42, Cherokee County Herald, Clarke County Democrat, The Cullman Times, The Daily Home, The Daily Home, The Decatur Daily, The Dothan Eagle, The Enterprise Ledger, ETrucker, Fairhope Times, Gadsden Times, Hoover Patch, Huntsville Patch, Huntsville Times, Lagniappe, Made in Alabama, Mobile Patch, Montgomery Advertiser, Moon of Alabama, Mountain Brook Patch, The News-Courier, Opelika-Auburn News, Pelham-AL Patch, Press-Register, Rickey Stokes News, RocketCityNow.com, The St. Clair Times, Trussville Patch, Tuscaloosa News, Vestavia Hills Patch, WAFF, WALA-TV, WBRC-TV, WHNT-TV, WKRG, WSFA, Across Idaho Patch, Arbiter Online, Bingham County Chronicle, Boise Guardian, Boise Patch, Boise Weekly, Bonner County Daily Bee, Bonners Ferry Herald, The Challis Messenger, The Coeur d'Alene Press, Idaho Business Review, Idaho Press-Tribune, Idaho Reporter, Idaho State Journal, The Idaho Statesman, The Jefferson Star, KIVI TV, KTVB, Kuna Melba News, Lewiston Tribune, Meridian Press, Messenger-Index, The Moscow-Pullman Daily News, Mountain Home News, Post Register, The Preston Citizen, and The Times-News.
Correction (3/15/22): The original methodology for this piece erroneously listed KHQ, a news outlet inaccurately listed by database Factiva as located in Idaho. No reporting from that outlet was included in the study, which included only content found in the Factiva database and did not include articles from NPR affiliates.