Gannett- owned papers in Tennessee

Andrea Austria / Media Matters 

Research/Study Research/Study

Tennessee newspaper coverage of drag ban fails the state’s LGBTQ community

Papers owned by one of the largest newspaper companies in the country, Gannett, largely did not speak to the people most impacted by Tennessee banning what the state defines as drag in public spaces

Tennessee’s print news is dominated by one company, Gannett, which has largely failed to cover the discriminatory new law meant to restrict public drag performances in the state’s LGBTQ community. Over about four months, Gannett-owned papers covered the issue in only 43 articles, out of which only 13 articles quoted a trans person and 11 quoted a drag performer.

On March 2, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed multiple bills into law that will harm gay and trans Tennesseans, including Senate Bill 3, which classifies “male or female impersonators” and criminalizes such “adult cabaret” performances on public property, or any location where children could be present. It classifies a first offense as a misdemeanor and the second offense as a felony, with prison sentences of up to six years and fines up to $3,000. 

The law effectively bans drag performances in all public spaces and makes no distinction between a drag performer and a trans person. The law has been condemned by the White House, civil rights groups, and drag artists who say these types of initiatives are a thinly veiled and “malicious attempt to remove LGBTQ people from public life.”

A Media Matters review of Tennessee newspaper coverage via the Factiva database found only 43 news articles from Gannett-owned papers covering the drag ban in almost four months -- from its introduction in November 9, 2022 until March 6. Each article mentioned the possibility that drag performances could be outlawed in public spaces in the headline or lead paragraph. 

Of those 43 articles, only 30% quoted a trans person, 26% quoted a drag performer, 19% acknowledged that the law puts trans people at risk alongside drag performers, and only 21% mentioned that the law likely violates the First Amendment, a supposedly untouchable tenet of conservative legal doctrine. 

  • How Gannett-owned papers failed to cover SB3

    Only 30% of articles on the topic interviewed trans people and just 26% of articles interviewed drag performers. For the most part, the largest newspaper company in Tennessee neglected to talk to the people most impacted by the ban. 

    Actually interviewing members of marginalized groups impacted by policy is vitally important to journalistic integrity and helps debunk false claims about those groups. For example, one Tennessean interview with Alabama drag performer Victoria Jewelle directly challenged a right-wing narrative invoked by SB3 supporters that accuses LGBTQ people of influencing or “grooming” children into identifying as queer:

  • At age 5, long before Victoria Jewelle had any exposure to a gay or trans person, “I knew something was different with me," she said. When her mother left the house, Jewelle would put on her red shoes and feel right. She was groomed to be straight, she said. It didn't work.

  • In another standout article, a drag queen and transgender woman, DeeDee, directly told reporters how the ban will impact her life, “Because of discrimination, disdain and the high rate of transgender murder throughout the country, this bill targeting drag entertainers will only add to the discrimination and hatred that I had faced my whole adult life.”

    However, the majority of the articles on the topic did not give trans people and drag performers a voice, and even fewer explicitly acknowledged SB3’s potentially negative impact on trans people. Only 19% of the articles reviewed acknowledged concerns trans people could be targeted by the ban or explained it offered no distinction between drag performers and trans people simply existing in public.

    Of that 19%, some interviewed legal experts like Maureen Holland, who stressed to The Tennessean the “disturbing” bill was “designed and intended to discriminate against the LGBTQ community,” including “individuals who are transgender and or nonbinary. And this essentially criminalizes cross-dressing as well.” 

    Similarly, just 21% of articles noted that First Amendment rights, namely freedom of expression and speech, could be unconstitutionally restricted by the law. Those 9 articles largely quoted from Tennessee Equality Project Executive Director Chris Sanders’ concerns.

    Supporters of the ban justified it with the false claim that the performance art is inherently sexual. Only 53% of the relevant articles Media Matters reviewed debunked this idea. One article written by The Tennessean’s Danielle Dreilinger noted that drag is narrowly tailored for the intended audience just like other forms of entertainment, saying, “As for the raciness of drag performances, queens said they know how to tailor shows to audiences. Just like Bob Saget could be family-friendly on ‘Full House’ and X-rated in a nightclub.”

    At least 15 other states have introduced similar bans this year; LGBTQ and civil rights activists are connecting the flurry to a right-wing media-led eliminationist campaign against transgender people. SB3 also dovetails with a nationwide uptick in targeted violence of drag events by far-right extremists, including hate groups, inspired by right-wing rhetoric. 

  • Gannett's role in consolidating major Tennessee newspapers

    In 2016, Gannett bought all but one of Tennessee’s major newspapers, becoming “one of the largest statewide newsgroups in the country.” Before the merger, journalism professors warned the consolidation of Tennessee’s papers under a single, profit-incentivized mass media company would limit the number of editorial voices and reduce coverage of the “dysfunctional” state government. In the years since the merger, Gannett has made major cuts to newsroom staff and reduced paper distribution.

    The Tennessean was the original source for most of the coverage reviewed; 93% (40) articles were either from that paper or republished in another Tennessee Gannett paper such as The Oak Ridger, The Jackson Sun, or The Leaf-Chronicle. The other 7% (3) of articles were republished from the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

    Reporter Melissa Brown wrote or co-wrote over half of the articles, continuing Gannett’s worrying overreliance on one reporter to cover LGBTQ rights for nearly 7 million Tennessee residents.

    Factiva did not register any print coverage from the Memphis Commercial Appeal, though some print articles published in other papers were written by a Commercial Appeal reporter. While print coverage was not detected on Factiva, Commercial Appeal is reporting online about the law, including by covering a confrontation between LGBTQ activists and Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee over the law.

  • Methodology

    Media Matters searched articles in the Factiva database from the following Gannett-owned local Tennessee papers: The Tennessean,The Oak Ridger, The Jackson Sun, The Leaf-Chronicle, and the Commercial Appeal. We searched for any of the terms “senate bill 3,” “cabaret,” “drag,” “trans,” “transgender,” “nonbinary,” or “transsexual” or any variation of either of the terms “cross dress” or “transphobia” or the term “gender” within five words of any of the terms “identity,” “nonconforming,” or “fluid” or either of the terms “biological” or “impersonator” within five words of any of the terms “boy,” “girl,” “male,” “female,” “man,” “woman,” “men,” or “women” in the headline or lead paragraph from November 9, 2022, when Senate Bill 3 was filed for introduction, through March 6, 2023.

    We included articles, which we defined as instances when Senate Bill 3 or the possibility that drag performances could be outlawed in public spaces was mentioned in the headline or lead paragraph.

    We then reviewed the identified articles for whether they quoted trans people or drag performers, allowed opponents of trans rights to misgender trans people, or acknowledged that drag is not an inherently sexual act, that Senate Bill 3 could impact trans people, or that Senate Bill 3 is likely a violation of the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of expression.