So far in 2021, the Tennessee legislature has passed five laws actively discriminating against trans people -- yet most local media coverage of this legislation in recent months has come solely from one reporter. In fact, Yue Stella Yu of The Tennessean wrote 57% of the total articles on anti-trans laws published in Tennessee newspapers since March. Notably, only 21% of total print articles covering the state’s new laws actually quoted a trans person, in part because just one reporter wrote more than half of all Tennessee print media coverage of the laws.
Thirty three states have passed or introduced legislation openly discriminating against trans people, especially trans youth, so far this year. Tennessee has already signed into law five of these bills, starting on March 26 with a ban on any trans student participating in the school sports team corresponding with their gender identity. Republican Gov. Bill Lee signed four more bills in May, allowing parents to opt out of their child learning about LGBTQ people in school, putting schools at legal risk if they allow trans children to use bathrooms corresponding to their gender identity, requiring businesses and government buildings to display explicit “warning signs” stating that their bathrooms are inclusive to trans people, and outlawing lifesaving best practice medical care for trans youth.
Media Matters’ analysis of print media in Tennessee found 89 articles containing substantial coverage of these laws that were published between March 1 and June 17 -- and 71 of them came from eight of the nine papers in the state owned by Gannett, one of the largest newspaper publishing companies in the country. Sixty-four of the articles were originally written for The Tennessean and then republished in one of its Gannett sister publications (The Daily News Journal, The Commercial Appeal, Oak Ridger, The Jackson Sun, The Leaf-Chronicle, The Daily Herald, and The Knoxville News Sentinel). Furthermore, 51 of those articles -- 57% -- were written or co-written by Yu.
While the majority of Yu’s pieces did not quote trans people, she did write an article that interviewed several trans individuals about growing up in Tennessee and the fear of facing down the myriad new laws targeting them. Furthermore, 27% of her articles on the slate of anti-trans laws cited trans people. Yu also frequently noted in her articles that these laws are discriminatory, though she also centered an article around quotes from GOP state Rep. John Ragan, a sponsor of the ban on health care for trans youth who “called gender dysphoria a ‘mental illness’ and compared transgender children's wish to align with their gender identity to ‘childhood desires,’ such as becoming a firefighter.” Yu did not include pushback or correction of his comments until the 17th and 20th paragraphs of the piece, respectively.
Of all the local coverage tracked by Media Matters during the studied time period, only 21% of articles quoted trans people. The dearth of trans perspectives on laws targeting the community is alarming; GLAAD notes that reporters should cite trans people when reporting on laws that affect them. Unfortunately, this problem with Tennessee’s coverage is not unique -- Florida and Arkansas papers also largely failed to cite trans people in coverage of anti-trans measures in those states.
Additionally, print media in the state did not give equal attention to the five laws recently enacted; 55 articles were published about the law banning trans student athletes from competition (31 of which were written by Yu), while only 15 articles covered the ban on best practice health care for trans youth in any detail (seven of which were also Yu pieces) -- even though the law will have severe consequences for trans children in the state. In fact, measures targeting health care for trans youth are so harmful that the Department of Justice filed court briefs declaring similar laws in Arkansas and West Virginia to be “unconstitutional.”
Coverage that relies on just one reporter for the majority of articles about a vital human rights issue for a state of nearly 7 million people is a problem stemming from local newsrooms continuing to consolidate, shrink, and disappear. For an issue as important as the rights of an underserved and at-risk minority community, more voices are needed -- but as local news contracts nationwide, it’s better to have one reporter than none at all.
While the number of out trans reporters is growing, they are still a small minority of journalists, and their cisgender colleagues have no immediate frame of reference for how these laws will impact trans people. It is important for trans people to be interviewed for these stories, but papers should also hire trans reporters who, through their own lived experience, have a better understanding of the impact these laws will have on trans children and adults.
As more states introduce and pass discriminatory anti-trans legislation, local news cannot rely on one person to carry an entire state’s coverage.
Media Matters searched print articles in the Nexis and Factiva databases from local newspapers in Tennessee for any of the terms “trans," “transgender,” “transphobe,” “transphobic,” “transphobia,” “gender identity,” “gender nonconforming," “gender fluid," “nonbinary,” “transsexual,” “biological boy," “biological male,” “biological man," or “biological men" from March 1 through June 17, 2021.
We included the following newspapers: The Chattanooga Times Free Press, The Daily News Journal, The Advocate and Democrat, Claiborne Progress, Cleveland Daily Banner, The Commercial Appeal, Crossville Chronicle, The Daily Herald, The Daily Post-Athenian, The Daily Times, Elizabethton Star, The Erwin Record, The Glade Sun, The Greeneville Sun, The Hartsville Vidette, Herald & Tribune, Herald-Citizen, The Herald-News, The Jackson Sun, Johnson City Press,, The Knoxville News Sentinel, LaFollette Press, The Leader, The Leaf-Chronicle, The Lebanon Democrat, Memphis Business Journal, Memphis Medical News, Morgan County News, The Mountain Press, Nashville Business Journal, Nashville Medical News, Nashville Post, Nashville Scene, The Newport Plain Talk, News-Herald,, Oak Ridger, The Paris Post-Intelligencer, Roane County News, The Rogersville Review, The Tennessean, The Tennessee Tribune, Times News, and West Tennessee Medical News.
We then noted the outlet, headline, the law that the article discussed, and author of each piece before coding for whether articles included perspective from any trans person, misgendered any trans person, or acknowledged that these laws violate human and civil rights.