Arkansas recently passed three discriminatory laws targeting transgender people, particularly trans youth, including measures denying them health care and banning them from sports. Local print coverage of these laws was often lacking, as journalists rarely talked to trans people they impact and largely failed to push back against bigotry and anti-trans misinformation.
A Media Matters review of local media from February 2 -- when the first legislation was introduced -- through April 7 -- the day after the third law was passed -- found that Arkansas newspapers printed 32 articles on one or more of these laws and only 12, about 38%, included the perspective of a trans or nonbinary person. About 56% of the articles came from one paper, The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
The Medical Ethics and Diversity Act was passed in late March and allows medical professionals to deny nonemergency health care to people, including members of the LGBTQ community, based on “religious, moral, or ethical objections.” This covers a broad swath of common medical issues; according to the Human Rights Campaign, it is now legal in Arkansas for doctors to refuse to maintain hormone treatments for trans people in inpatient care and for pharmacies to refuse to fill prescriptions for birth control, the HIV-prevention medication PrEP, and antiretrovirals used to manage HIV/AIDS.
The Fairness in Women’s Sports Act was enacted on March 25 and bans transgender girls and women from joining female sports teams at school. Over 30 other states have similar bills working their way through their state legislatures, with Mississippi and Tennessee joining Arkansas in actually signing them into law in 2021.
The so-called Save Adolescents From Experimentation (SAFE) Act bans best practice, gender-affirming healthcare for transgender children and has been called “the single most extreme anti-trans law to ever pass through a state legislature.” The title of the law itself is misleading anti-trans disinformation, as gender-affirming health care is not experimental at all. In fact, such care is safe, effective, and can save lives, and it is widely accepted by medical professionals including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Endocrine Society. The Washington Post’s Samantha Schmidt explained:
Medical guidelines do not recommend performing gender-affirming genital surgeries on transgender people before they turn 18. They also do not recommend any medical interventions before a child reaches puberty. But once transgender children reach the early stages of puberty, medical guidelines say they can consider puberty blockers, which are reversible treatments that pause puberty and give children time to decide what to do next. Later in their teenage years, transgender adolescents can consider hormone replacement therapies, such as estrogen for trans girls and testosterone for trans boys, which create more permanent changes to their bodies.
These treatments can lower rates of depression, anxiety, and even thoughts of suicide among trans youth. But despite doctors' opposition to the premise of the law, it was passed over the governor's veto on April 6.
The LGBTQ rights organization GLAAD recommends always citing a trans person in reporting on trans issues, as they are experts on their own lives. However, citing actual trans people in articles about policies that impact them has been a consistent problem for national media; in the week surrounding the passage of the Arkansas bill blocking trans youth from accessing necessary medical care, most TV news networks failed to host a trans guest in their coverage (although CNN and MSNBC have both recently brought on trans activists to debunk some of the misinformation spread by those who support medical care bans). And in January, many national outlets failed to talk to trans people in news pieces about the Biden administration’s repeal of the Trump-era trans military ban.
Articles about the new anti-trans laws from Arkansas newspapers often included quotes from state legislators but seldom featured any trans people to give perspective on how these laws would impact their lives. Instead, these outlets often included claims like this one from a March 23 article in the Van Buren County Democrat:
State Rep. Richard Womack spoke against the assertion by one member of the public who spoke against SB354 at Thursday’s meeting and said the bill endorsed bullying and exclusion.
“If bullying is truly a concern, I would submit to the committee that using [laws] to allow [transgender women] who are clearly and physically dominant to dominate in sports against a weaker sex would be bullying,” Womack said.
Womack’s claim has no basis in fact, as trans women are not dominating in school sports -- and the article notes that one of the bill’s co-sponsors later admitted that “she had no knowledge of any instance in Arkansas where transgender women had competed in women’s sports.” In fact, a March 3 Associated Press report on more than 20 states considering bills to ban trans students from competing found that “in almost every case, sponsors cannot cite a single instance in their own state or region where such participation has caused problems.” Yet the Van Buren County Democrat failed to mention this fact or push back on Womack’s statement, which was followed by another state legislator’s claim that they know a transgender person who supports the bill (that person is neither named nor directly quoted). Instead, the article cited a statement in support of anti-trans legislation from the Alliance Defending Freedom, an extremist organization dedicated to opposing LGBTQ rights.
More than half the articles in this study either misgendered transgender individuals or allowed trans people to be misgendered without pushback, such as quoting someone calling trans girls "biological boys." Misgendering is a form of harassment that stigmatizes trans people and also goes against journalistic standards. One article from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette wrote about trans girls as “students,” “participants,” and “athletes” without acknowledging their actual identities as women:
A bill aimed at deterring Arkansas' schools from allowing transgender athletes to participate in girls' and women's sports won the approval of the Arkansas Senate on Wednesday.
Supporters of the bill and of national efforts to keep transgender participants out of girls’ and women’s sports said it’s unfair for cisgender girls and women to compete against athletes who were assigned the male gender at birth.
More than three-quarters of the pieces reviewed by Media Matters, or 25 articles, framed the issue of rights for trans people as a topic up for debate, with anti-trans perspectives pitted against trans people’s lives -- usually without asking a single transgender person. Each of these new laws in Arkansas restrict trans people’s freedoms in some way, whether by denying them health care or athletic opportunities. But most articles on the subject treat those seeking to enshrine discrimination in law as people with legitimate points of concern. Others, as in the case of this Arkansas Democrat-Gazette article, presented an anti-trans position along with a pro-trans one without properly debunking the factual inaccuracies of the anti-trans position:
Senate Bill 289 by Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, called the "Medical Ethics and Diversity Act," would allow providers to opt out of procedures they don't agree with based on their religious or moral beliefs.
Co-sponsor Rep. Brandt Smith, R-Jonesboro, said the bill gives a remedy to those providers to defend themselves and emphasized that the legislation is procedure-specific, while opponents of the bill say it's unnecessary and will lead to discrimination.
“Why do you need a remedy for something that's not happening?" House Minority Leader Tippi McCullough, D-Little Rock, said. “There will be some that will use this to discriminate or to make folks feel uncomfortable in a lot of ways. To take one of our liberties, religious freedom, to believe as you wish, and to twist it to infringe on other's rights, even medical rights, is reprehensible."
Not all of Arkansas media covered the issue as poorly as some of the print newspapers. Max Brantley, editor of The Arkansas Times, frequently wrote pieces on the magazine’s blog affirming trans identities and directly criticizing the new laws as a form of “persecution.” Weeks after the passage of the SAFE Act on April 6, Brantley’s blog has continued to cover new attacks on trans rights that are working their way through the Arkansas legislature. This includes another bill that would restrict trans athletes even further; a proposal that would require teachers to use a child’s dead name, or birth name, in the classroom even if a student requests otherwise, which can be psychologically harmful; and a bill that would allow people to sue public agencies that let trans people use the restroom corresponding with their gender identity.
Arkansas outlets owe it to their readers and the trans community to be more responsible in covering the potential harms of this upcoming legislation.
Media Matters searched print articles in the Factiva database from local newspapers in Arkansas 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 February 2 through April 7, 2021.
We included the following newspapers: Arkansas Business, The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Arkansas Medical News, Arkansas Times, Baxter Bulletin, Booneville Democrat, Charleston Express, The Courier, The Daily Citizen, Hot Springs Village Voice, Jonesboro Sun, El Latino, Newport Independent, The Paragould Daily Press, Paris Express, The Pine Bluff Commercial, Press Argus-Courier, The Sun Times, The Times Record, and Van Buren County Democrat.
We then coded articles for whether they included perspective from any trans person, misgendered any trans person, acknowledged that these laws violate human and civil rights, framed anti-trans talking points as equal to trans perspectives, referenced real trans athletes, uncritically repeated conservative framing of trans medical care as “experimental” or “child abuse,” or noted that the bills are a direct response to President Joe Biden’s pro-LGBTQ policies.