Broadcast media in Florida must learn from the mistakes of West Palm Beach broadcast coverage of Palm Beach County’s passage of a ban on anti-LGBTQ conversion therapy, which is a harmful and discredited practice based on the false notion that sexuality can change. During the month in which the vote took place, West Palm Beach media coverage featured considerably more voices supportive of the discredited practice that is opposed by every mainstream medical and mental health organization in the country. West Palm Beach media also turned to a prominent advocate of the practice without noting her anti-LGBTQ advocacy. Nearly 90 percent of segments failed to note that conversion therapy is a discredited practice and that sexuality cannot be changed.
Bans on harmful conversion therapy, which seeks to turn LGBTQ people straight, are gaining traction in Florida
Palm Beach Post: Palm Beach County “became the first county in Florida to ban the controversial practice of conversion therapy for minors.” The Palm Beach Post reported on December 19 that Palm Beach County successfully passed a ban on anti-LGBTQ conversion therapy for minors after “eight cities within the county … [had] already approved similar bans.” The county is the first one in Florida to ban this harmful practice. [The Palm Beach Post, 12/19/17]
A number of other municipalities in Florida have already passed bans on conversion therapy. In November, The Daily Beast reported that 17 municipalities in Florida had passed bans against conversion therapy for minors, including Tampa, Miami Beach, Key West, and eight municipalities in Palm Beach County. The report noted that “over half of the approximately two dozen U.S. municipalities that have banned the discredited therapy” are located in Florida. [The Daily Beast, 11/17/17]
Other parts of Florida are considering bans on conversion therapy. On January 9, Broward County, FL, will vote on a conversion therapy ban for minors. In addition, representatives in both the Florida state Senate and House have prefiled bills that would ban the practice for minors. [Sun Sentinel, 12/21/17; The Florida Senate, accessed 1/3/18, accessed 1/3/18]
Anti-LGBTQ hate group Liberty Counsel filed a lawsuit against a similar ban in Tampa, FL, and has “threatened to sue Palm Beach County.” Anti-LGBTQ hate group Liberty Counsel, which is based in Orlando, filed a federal lawsuit in December against a ban on conversion therapy for minors in Tampa, FL, and “threatened to sue Palm Beach County” before it passed its ban, according to Sun Sentinel. Liberty Counsel is known for its representatives’ vehemently anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, including calling LGBTQ History Month a “sexual assault on our children” and comparing queer people to pedophiles. The group has a history of pro-conversion therapy activism and litigation and has submitted a brief to the U.S. Supreme Court and testified before Congress against laws banning the process. [Sun Sentinel, 12/19/17; Media Matters, 9/28/17, 10/10/17]
Conversion therapy has been discredited by mainstream medical organizations and can cause mental and physical health consequences
Human Rights Campaign: Conversion therapy has “been rejected by every mainstream medical and mental health organization for decades.” The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) defines conversion therapy, also known as reparative therapy, as “a range of dangerous and discredited practices that falsely claim to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity or expression.” HRC noted that though those practices “have been rejected by every mainstream medical and mental health organization for decades,” the practice is legal and some practitioners continue to conduct it in many places across the United States. HRC compiled the positions of more than a dozen medical and counseling organizations against reparative therapy, including, for instance, the American Academy of Pediatrics which said that the practice “can provoke guilt and anxiety while having little or no potential for achieving changes in orientation.” [Human Rights Campaign, accessed 1/3/18]
The American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, and American Counseling Association have discredited conversion therapy as a way to change sexual orientation or gender identity and have found a number of “potential risks.” Major medical associations including the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association have found no evidence to support the use of conversion therapy and have outlined numerous dangers of the practice. The American Psychiatric Association’s official position on reparative therapy is that “there is no published scientific evidence supporting the efficacy of ‘reparative therapy’ as a treatment to change one’s sexual orientation” and the organization “opposes any psychiatric treatment, such as ‘reparative’ or ‘conversion’ therapy, that is based on the assumption … that the patient should change his or her homosexual orientation.” In addition, it has found that the potential risks of the so-called therapy “include depression, anxiety, and self-destructive behavior, since therapist alignment with societal prejudices against homosexuality may reinforce self-hatred already experienced by the patient.” Similarly, the American Psychological Association has said, “There is insufficient evidence to support the use of psychological interventions to change sexual orientation.” A division of the American Counseling Association known as the Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Issues in Counseling also found that attempts “to alter or change gender identities and/or the sexual orientation of transgender clients across the lifespan may be detrimental, life-threatening, and are not empirically supported.” [American Psychiatric Association, accessed 1/4/18; American Psychological Association, 1/4/18; Lambda Legal, January 2011]
West Palm Beach media featured more clips and interviews from supporters of conversion therapy who opposed a ban on the practice
West Palm Beach media aired 18 interviews or clips of testimonies from supporters of conversion therapy but aired only 11 from opponents of the harmful practice. In the month of December, the four major broadcast television stations in the West Palm Beach media market -- WPBF 25 (an ABC affiliate), WPEC CBS 12, WFLX Fox 29, and WPTV NewsChannel 5 (an NBC affiliate) -- aired 18 interviews or testimonies from proponents of conversion therapy, who were against the ban on the practice. During those interviews and testimonies, media outlets gave numerous people a platform to push misinformation about a practice that has been rejected by every mainstream medical and mental health organization. In doing so, West Palm Beach broadcast stations gave their audiences the false notion that there is a legitimate debate on the use of the therapy. In comparison, those segments featured only 11 interviews or testimonies from opponents of conversion therapy who supported the ban.
WFLX Fox 29 and WPTV NewsChannel 5 featured the largest imbalance of conversion therapy supporters to opponents. Of the four major broadcast stations in the West Palm Beach media market, the local affiliates of Fox and NBC featured the greatest imbalance between conversion therapy supporters and opponents. Two out of the three segments on WFLX Fox 29 included conversations with conversion therapy supporters, and none of those segments included interviews or clips of opponents of the practice. WPTV NewsChannel 5 (NBC 5) also had a similar imbalance, with five of its seven segments highlighting conversion therapy supporters, while merely one of those segments featured opponents of conversion therapy.
Two stations gave a platform to major conversion therapy proponent to push misinformation without contextualizing her background
NBC 5 provided a platform to conversion therapy proponent Julie Hamilton, who suggested that LGBTQ children can “change” during a testimony aired in the segment. A segment on NBC 5 featured therapist and conversion therapy proponent Julie Hamilton. The segment featured a clip of Hamilton’s testimony at the hearing on the ban in which she asserted that it would “harm … children and teenagers” who are “suicidal and depressed” if they were unable to undergo conversion therapy when their “goal is to change,” falsely suggesting that sexuality can be changed. In fact, the American Psychiatric Association has said the opposite, noting that it is actually conversion therapy that has potential risks for those seeking it which “include depression, anxiety, and self-destructive behavior.” From the December 19 segment:
JULIE HAMILTON: What if a mother calls us and says her son is suicidal because he has attractions that he doesn’t want? Should we tell her that the county commissioners say we’re not allowed to work with him if his goal is to change? I could go on and on with ethical dilemmas that this ordinance would cause and harm it would cause to children and teenagers, the ones that are suicidal and depressed. [WPTV NewsChannel 5, The Now South Florida, 12/19/17; American Psychiatric Association, accessed 1/4/18]
WPEC CBS 12 aired interview with Hamilton throughout one segment, in which she claimed that “there is actually no such thing as conversion therapy.” CBS 12, which is owned and operated by conservative local TV news giant Sinclair Broadcast Group, gave an extensive platform to Hamilton, who pushed misinformation about the practice including suggesting that conversion therapy could “help” “depressed and suicidal” LGBTQ minors change “attractions that they did not choose and do not want.” She also claimed that “there is actually no such thing as conversion therapy” and that the ordinance would ban “free speech in the counseling office.” From the December 19 segment:
JULIE HAMILTON: I know personally the teenagers and young children who are struggling and hurting over this issue.
Some of them are depressed and suicidal because they have attractions that they did not choose and do not want, and they deserve the right to seek help.
There is actually no such thing as conversion therapy. According to this ordinance, it’s just counseling, and so what’s being banned is free speech in the counseling office. [WPEC CBS 12, CBS News at 5:30 PM, 12/5/17; CBS12.com, accessed 1/5/18; Media Matters, 7/18/17]
Broadcast stations failed to contextualize Hamilton’s background as a former leader of a pro-conversion therapy advocacy group and editor of a book on so-called “treatment” of “unwanted homosexual attractions.” NBC 5 and CBS 12 failed to note that Hamilton has a well-established history of advocating for conversion therapy, instead referring to her by name or simply as a “therapist.” In fact, Hamilton is the former president of the Alliance for Therapeutic Choice and Scientific Integrity, a group that describes itself as “principled advocates for persons experiencing unwanted homosexual attractions,” as well as its offshoot the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH). The FAQ page on the group’s website currently says that sexual orientation can change, also asserting that “many individuals have reported therapy-assisted change in their sexuality.” Hamilton was also the editor of a 2009 book titled Handbook of Therapy for Unwanted Homosexual Attractions: A Guide to Treatment, which led with a preface -- written by Hamilton -- that suggested a man who was murdered by his former male partner might not have been killed if he had undergone conversion therapy. [The Palm Beach Post, 7/29/16; Southern Poverty Law Center, 3/1/12; The Alliance for Therapeutic Choice and Scientific Integrity, accessed 1/4/18; accessed 1/4/18; Handbook of Therapy for Unwanted Homosexual Attractions: A Guide to Treatment, 2009]
Only 3 out of the total 24 segments mentioned that conversion therapy is a widely debunked practice and that sexuality and gender identity cannot be changed
Only 12.5 percent of segments mentioned that sexuality cannot be changed. Of the 24 segments in the West Palm Beach media market discussing the county’s conversion therapy ban in December, only three included the fact that conversion therapy is a widely discredited practice and that sexual orientation and gender identity cannot be changed. Quotes noting this fact all came from West Palm Beach therapist Dr. Rachel Needle, who explained that gender identity or sexual orientation cannot be changed.
WPEC CBS 12 provided a false equivalency between conversion therapy supporters and opponents. While Sinclair's CBS 12 aired all three segments mentioning that sexual orientation and gender identity cannot be changed, these segments also contained misinformation about the practice of conversion therapy. In one segment, CBS 12 cast doubt on the fact that sexuality and gender identity cannot be changed by saying there were “different opinions from both sides on the issue of if sexual orientation can be changed” before introducing a quote from Needle noting that therapists cannot “claim to be able to change ... gender identity or sexual orientation.” From the December 19 segment:
NIALA CHARLES (REPORTER): There are different opinions from both sides on the issue of if sexual orientation can be changed.
DR. RACHEL NEEDLE: You can talk to a youth. You can counsel them, provide therapy if they’re struggling. You just can’t claim to be able to change their gender identity or sexual orientation.
OPPONENT OF BAN: When in reality, if someone helps them change, they could indeed be fine. [WPEC CBS 12, CBS News at 6 PM, 12/19/17]
Media Matters searched iQ media for the terms “conversion therapy,” “reparative therapy,” and both “ban” and “therapy” between December 1, 2017, and December 31, 2017, in the West Palm Beach television market. The vote took place on December 19. This resulted in 24 segments, which were categorized as “interviews” for when the speakers spoke directly with the news outlets, and as “clips” when the news segments featured clips of people giving testimony at the hearings about the then-proposed ban. The segments were coded for:
- number of appearances by figures for the ban and against conversion therapy;
- number of appearances by figures against the ban and in favor of conversion therapy; and
- any mention that sexual orientation and/or gender identity cannot be changed.