As transgender youth face a flurry of anti-trans legislation targeting their participation in sports and access to health care, a new Media Matters study shows that most major cable and broadcast news networks have left viewers in the dark about the onslaught, largely ceding national discourse of a multistate legislative assault on trans youth to Fox News.
Other than Fox, which consistently promotes these discriminatory measures and spreads harmful anti-trans disinformation, only one major TV news show has devoted segments to the issue.
So far in 2022, the majority of mainstream national TV news coverage of legislation targeting trans youth has taken place in three segments on the MSNBC show Hallie Jackson Reports. This coverage has focused on one particular bill — South Dakota’s Senate Bill 46, which bans trans youth from participating in sports consistent with their gender identity, and which Republican Gov. Kristi Noem signed into law on February 3. Following Noem’s signing, no mainstream TV networks carried the news, but Fox News did, bringing Noem on to celebrate the passage and advocate for similar policies nationwide. Overall, Fox had six segments about the legislation -- two before it was passed, and three after.
There are currently at least 25 pending state-level bills restricting the participation of trans youth in sports, with at least 25 bills seeking to ban gender affirming care for trans youth also being considered across the country.
Mainstream TV news has largely failed to cover bills targeting trans youth in 2022
While Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which would ban discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, has rightly received coverage from news networks, bills targeting the LGBTQ+ community by limiting opportunities for trans youth have not.
Between January 1 and February 3, the only show on the six mainstream (non-Fox) national TV networks — CNN, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS — that aired even a single segment devoted to the proposed trans youth sports bans or bans on gender-affirming care for minors was MSNBC’s Hallie Jackson Reports. (Other shows briefly mentioned legislation in the context of other topics) Jackson’s show aired three segments on the legislation, all of which emphasized that South Dakota’s bill was one among many being proposed.
Hallie Jackson Reports dedicated more than 9 minutes in total to the bills, and it was the only show that gave trans people the opportunity to speak directly on the legislation, bringing on journalist Jo Yurcaba and Olympic athlete Chris Mosier in two separate segments. Outside of Jackson’s show, the legislative attacks were mentioned just 4 times prior to the bill’s signing, amounting to just over a minute of discussion from mainstream networks since the start of 2022.
Fox’s anti-trans coverage fills the gap left by mainstream TV news
The lack of coverage from other networks is made worse by the fact that Fox News — which has devoted considerable airtime this year and in the past to attacking trans-inclusive policies — aired two segments on the legislation before it was signed into law and three more after. Both of these segments framed the bills in a positive light, and in total, Fox spent twice as long discussing the topic as all other networks in the study combined, not counting Jackson’s show, the one show across six networks that cared to cover it.
In a January 23 interview on Fox News Sunday, anchor Shannon Bream pressed South Dakota Gov. Noem to be even tougher on trans athletes, saying that conservatives thought her executive orders targeting trans athletes last year were “watered down” and “too weak on this.” Bream asked Noem: “What will you do to get this across the finish line?”
Clips from Noem’s interview would be played on subsequent shows where hosts uncritically echoed the language of the South Dakota bill. In another segment, Fox & Friends First co-host Todd Piro described the legislation as “aimed at protecting fairness in women's sports,” a line that comes directly from SB 46.
After Noem signed the bill into law on the afternoon of February 3, Fox News’ Jesse Watters Primetime aired a segment in which the host railed against trans athletes before positing that legislation like SB 46 was “the solution.” Watters brought Noem on to celebrate the passage of the bill, saying, “Hopefully what you have done there in South Dakota creates a fair and level playing field, and people should applaud you for that.”
Since the South Dakota bill was signed into law, no other television news networks have mentioned the discriminatory legislation.
While Hallie Jackson and her show deserve praise, networks outside of Fox News’ sphere of hate cannot leave it to one show to cover an issue that affects more than a million American kids. This current failure to cover attacks on an entire segment of American youth echoes mainstream media’s failure last year to provide any coverage of Texas House Bill 25 before it cleared its largest legislative hurdles. Much like South Dakota's SB 46, this Texas bill bans trans youth from competing on sports teams consistent with their gender identity, and it went into effect last month. While it is too late for mainstream TV news to provide the coverage that trans kids in South Dakota deserved, the wave of upcoming legislation provides plenty of further opportunities for networks to educate the public.
As the surge in anti-trans legislation grows, 2022 might be the worst year yet for targeting of trans youth
While 2021 saw a record number of anti-trans bills introduced in state legislatures, trans advocates are warning that this year has the potential to be even worse. In just the first week of 2022, seven states introduced bills targeting trans youth. Experts like the ACLU’s Chase Strangio have attributed this rise to a shift in strategy by Republican lawmakers, who are increasingly focused on passing prejudicial legislation at the state level as they no longer have a president who is similarly dedicated to anti-trans policies.
While conservative lawmakers this year seek to limit the rights of trans Americans in myriad ways — from restricting how birth certificates can be amended to renewing attempts to ban trans people from using public restrooms that match their gender identity – the vast majority of anti-trans legislation targets trans students’ participation in sports and access to gender-affirming care for those under 18. Currently, there are at least 25 bills targeting trans student athletes being considered in state legislatures, along with 25 bills seeking to ban gender-affirming care for minors.
Much of the legislation promotes harmful anti-trans misinformation that is at odds with the best available science. Trans youth sports bans are billed as “protect[ing] fairness in women’s sports,” and gender-affirming care bans describe puberty blockers and hormone replacement therapy as “experimentation.” In reality, major medical organizations support the sort of care these bills seek to prohibit, and proponents of legislation like SB 46 are unable to cite credible proof of how trans inclusion hurts cisgender athletes.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for all original episodes of ABC’s Good Morning America, World News Tonight, and This Week; CBS’ This Morning, Mornings, Evening News, and Face the Nation; NBC’s Today, Nightly News, and Meet the Press; PBS’ NewsHour, and all original programming on cable networks CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC for any of the terms “trans," “transgender,” “transphobe,” “transphobic,” “transphobia,” “gender identity,” “gender nonconforming,” “gender fluid,” “nonbinary,” “transsexual,” “biological boy," “biological male,” “biological man,” “biological men,” “biological girl,” “biological female,” “biological woman,” or “biological women” within close proximity of any of the terms “representative,” “senator,” “congressman,” “congresswoman,” “house,” “senate,” “chamber,” “bill,” “assembly,” “delegate,” “policy,” or any variation of the term “legislate” from January 1, 2022, through 3:30pm EST on February 4, 2022.
We included any mention, teaser, or segment that referenced any state-level legislation seeking to ban trans students from competing on sports teams consistent with their gender identities or attempting to restrict gender-affirming care for minors.
We defined segments as instances when the aforementioned legislation was the stated topic of discussion or when we found significant discussion of said legislation. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussed the legislation with one another. We defined mentions as instances when a single speaker mentioned the legislation without another speaker engaging with the comment. We defined teasers as instances when the anchor or host promoted a segment about the legislation scheduled to air later in the broadcast.
We then reviewed all mentions, teasers, and segments in their entirety for whether they included the perspective of a trans person, discussed the legislation in the context of the broader slate of bills being considered nationwide, or uncritically covered the perspective of proponents of the aforementioned policies, which we defined as instances when speakers affiliated with a party or organization that advocated for the aforementioned legislation appeared as guests or in played clips or read quotes without the programs’ hosts fact-checking or providing reasonable context from accurate sources.