Update (4/22/22): This article has been updated with additional information.
The Dallas Morning News is one of the largest and most established papers in one of the largest states in the country, and yet its coverage of the Texas government’s targeting of trans children in the month after the attorney general announced that health care for trans kids would now be considered “child abuse” by the state was more sparse than some of its counterparts, and was often weaker in pushing back on right-wing misinformation.
On February 21, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a nonbinding legal opinion classifying gender-affirming health care for trans youth – including puberty blockers and later hormone replacement therapy (HRT) endorsed as best practices by major medical associations – as child abuse under state law. In the following weeks, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services opened several investigations into the parents of trans youth at the direction of Republican Gov. Greg Abbott. While the investigations were halted by a court order and no families have been forcibly separated thus far, the fallout from Paxton’s announcement has put a huge amount of stress on these families, and at least one hospital has ceased providing HRT. Some families with trans kids have already begun planning how to flee the state to protect their children.
Trans advocates have long feared that these kinds of policies will cause a spike in the rate of violent attacks against trans people and suicides by trans children. Trans youth already face higher risk of depression and suicidal ideation than their cisgender peers. Access to affirming spaces, the ability to socially transition, and affirming health care all significantly reduce this risk – and yet local coverage from Texas papers of this issue often failed to emphasize the necessity of gender-affirming care for these children.
A Media Matters review of local print media published between February 23 and March 24, 2022, found 165 articles containing substantial coverage of Paxton’s opinion targeting health care for trans youth printed in Texas-based publications. Only 13 of the 165 articles were from The Dallas Morning News, despite being the largest newspaper in Texas by circulation. The slightly smaller Houston Chronicle had the most coverage published by an individual paper, with 29 articles.
As a point of comparison, Media Matters also found 24 articles discussing Paxton’s announcement in this time period published by nonprofit news organization The Texas Tribune, which has become a significant part of local media since its founding in 2009 and features “the largest statehouse news bureau in the United States.” While the Tribune is an online-only publication, some of these articles were republished in local print newspapers such as The Victoria Advocate.
Not only did The Dallas Morning News devote less coverage to the legal opinion and the actions of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services than some of its major competitors, but also a smaller proportion of that sparse coverage actually combatted misinformation.
Only 6 of The Dallas Morning News’ 13 stories directly acknowledged that the legal opinion and resulting investigations violate trans children’s and their parents’ human and civil rights, or just 46% compared with 75% of those published by The Texas Tribune (18 of 24) and 76% of the Houston Chronicle’s stories (22 of 29).
Meanwhile, 54% of The Dallas Morning News stories (7 articles) treated both sides of the debate over the opinion with legitimacy, giving similar weight to right-wing anti-trans talking points and trans people's perspectives. By comparison, 38% of the Houston Chronicle’s stories (11) and 21% of The Texas Tribune’s articles (5) did the same. While the Chronicle had more articles that weighed trans and anti-trans perspectives equally, it also had more than double the total coverage of the Morning News.
In addition, 38% of The Dallas Morning News’ stories on the opinion (5 articles) failed to debunk right-wing claims that gender-affirming health care for trans youth is experimental or constitutes child abuse. Two of those 5 articles were focused primarily on political horse race coverage of the Texas governor; the majority of the outlet’s overall stories, particularly by beat reporters, did debunk faulty medical claims. During the same period, 14% of the Houston Chronicle’s articles (4) and 8% of The Texas Tribune’s stories (2) allowed conservatives to promote this dangerous misinformation without pushback.
In one article on the race for governor, The Dallas Morning News identified banning trans health care as a strength for Republicans in a section covering each campaign’s “issue to watch for” during upcoming debates. The piece extensively quoted anti-trans rhetoric from Abbott’s chief political strategist, who called the policy “a winning issue,” without fact-checking that gender-affirming care is widely accepted by the medical community or acknowledging the real-life damage this policy could do to Texas families:
Abbott: A new Texas executive-branch policy banning transgender kids’ medical treatments for gender reassignment, which Carney dubbed “mutilation,” is “a 75-80 percent winner” politically in a general election, he said.
Last week, soon after Attorney General Ken Paxton issued an advisory opinion deeming gender-affirming care as “child abuse,” Abbott ordered state agencies to investigate reports of transgender youth receiving such treatment in the same vein — as child abuse. The investigations have begun.
“This is a common sense, Main Street issue,” Carney said. “Seventy percent of Texans agree that a parent who abuses their kid physically, with mutilation, making a permanent, life-altering decision when a kid is 12, 14, and not an adult” is wrong, Carney said.
“It’s a winning issue,” he said.
The Dallas Morning News failed in this case, with the lack of pushback against Carney’s egregious anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and framing the lives of trans kids as a political horse-race issue. Other coverage fared better. Lauren McGaughy, an investigative reporter with a focus on LGBTQ issues, and health care reporter Marin Wolf authored several of the paper’s better individual stories underscoring the awful consequences of Paxton’s announcement.
The Texas Tribune meanwhile, not only wrote more and better pieces on Texas’s campaign against trans youth, but the outlet also included a short note at the top of its articles with the phone number for The Trevor Project’s 24/7 support line for LGBTQ people, along with other crisis lines for mental health and suicide prevention.
The Tribune’s Eleanor Klibanoff and Sneha Dey also published strong reports on the attorney general’s announcement, including noting its personal impacts on Texas families, debunking false claims about best practice care, and covering a family with a trans son that had once hosted Paxton for dinner in an effort to appeal to his humanity – and was now being investigated under the state’s new policy.
“We showed her all the food in our cabinets, the kids’ artwork on the walls, the toys, books, and games in the family room … The gardens and trampoline in the backyard. The beds piled with blankets and stuffed animals,” they said in the statement. “It was impossible for her not to feel the love in our home.”
The investigator told them they were “clearly doing something right,” according to the statement. But the investigation remains open.
“We are the family you would want to place a foster child with, not the family whose children should become foster kids themselves,” they said. “And yet, the government is attempting to rip our family apart because we love our children unconditionally. Is this who we are, America?”
Pieces like this that show the humanity of those impacted by these unjust investigations are vitally important for readers to understand the situation facing trans youth and their families in Texas.
While attacks on trans children continue to escalate across the country, local media have an opportunity — and a duty — to educate the public about trans rights, combat conservative misinformation, and defend trans youth from assaults on their rights and dignity. As perhaps the most influential newspaper in the state, The Dallas Morning News should look to some of its competitors, such as The Texas Tribune, for examples of how a local media outlet can more consistently fulfill this obligation to its readers. National outlets seeking to bring this story to a larger audience should look to the Tribune’s coverage talking to people impacted by this policy and debunking of misinformation and not allow false narratives about trans medical care to slide without pushback.
Media Matters searched print articles in the Factiva database from local newspapers in Texas for any of the terms “Texas,” “Paxton,” “Abbott, “governor,” or “attorney general” and any of the terms “trans,” “transgender,” “youth,” “kid,” “gender affirming,” “gender affirmation,” “gender bender,” “abuse,” “gender reassignment,” “puberty blocking,” “surgery,” “medical treatment,” “medical care,” “health care,” or “healthcare” within the headline or lead paragraph from February 23, 2022, through March 24, 2022.
We included The Texas Tribune, a digital paper that is commonly reprinted in other physical newspapers, and the following print newspapers: Abilene Reporter-News, Advocate: Lake Highlands Edition, Advocate: Lakewood - East Dallas Edition, Advocate: Oak Cliff Edition, Advocate: Preston Hollow Edition, Alice Echo News-Journal, Allen American, The Anna-Melissa Tribune, The Aransas Pass Progress, Athens Daily Review, Austin American-Statesman, Austin Business Journal, Austin Monitor, The Austin Villager, The Bay Area Citizenm, Blanco County News, Bowie County Citizens Tribune, Breckenridge American, Brownwood Bulletin, Burnet Bulletin, The Cameron Herald, Carrollton Leader, Celina Record, Cleburne Times-Review, The Clifton Record, Coastal Current, The Colony Courier-Leader, Coppell Gazette, Corpus Christi Caller Times, Corsicana Daily Sun, The Courier of Montgomery County, The Cuero Record, Cypress Creek Mirror: Champions-Klein Edition, Cypress Creek Mirror: Cypress - Cy-Fair Edition, The Daily Texan, Dallas Business Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Dallas Observer, The Eagle, The Fairfield Recorder, The Flower Mound Leader, Fort Worth Business Press, The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Fredericksburg Standard-Radio Post, Frisco Enterprise, Gainesville Daily Register, The Gladewater Mirror, The Glen Rose Reporter, The Graham Leader, Greenville Herald-Banner, Hays Free Press, Herald Democrat, Houston Business Journal, Houston Chronicle, Houston Press, The Huntsville Item, The Ingleside Index, The Irving Rambler, Jacksboro Herald-Gazette, Jackson County Herald-Tribune, Jacksonville Daily Progress, The Katy Rancher, Kilgore News Herald, Lake Cities Sun, Laredo Morning Times, The Leader, Lewisville Leader, Lexington Leader, Lindale News & Times, Little Elm Journal, Longview News-Journal, The Marlin Democrat, The Marshall News Messenger, McKinney Courier-Gazette, Memorial Examiner, Meridian Tribune, Mesquite News, The Mexia News, Mid-Valley Town Crier, Midland Reporter-Telegram, Midlothian Mirror, The Monitor, Mount Pleasant Tribune, Northeast Herald, NOWCastSA, Nueces County Record Star, Odessa American, Olney Enterprise, The Orange Leader, Palestine Herald-Press, The Panola Watchman, Park Cities People, The Pasadena Citizen, El Paso Times, Pearland Journal, The Pittsburg Gazette, Plainview Daily Herald, Plano Star Courier, Port Arthur News, Preston Hollow People, Prosper Press, The River Cities Daily Tribune, Robertson County News, Rockwall County Herald Banner, The Rosebud News, Rowlett Lakeshore Times, Royse City Herald Banner, San Angelo Standard-Times, San Antonio Business Journal, San Antonio Express-News, San Marcos Daily Record, The Steel Country Bee, Stephenville Empire-Tribune, Sugar Land Sun, Texas Banking, Texas Lawyer, The Texas Tribune, Times Record News, Tiempo de Laredo, The Tomball Potpourri, TXK Today, Tyler Morning Telegraph, Van Alstyne Leader, Valley Morning Star, The Victoria Advocate, The Villager, The Waxahachie Daily Light, Waco Tribune-Herald, The Weatherford Democrat, Wood County Monitor, or Yorktown News-View.
We then reviewed the identified articles for whether they included perspective from any person who identifies as trans or any parent of a person who identifies as trans; misgendered any trans person; treated the perspectives of those trying to take trans kids from their parents or utilize anti-trans policies for political gain as equal to the perspectives of trans people and their parents; or acknowledged that these laws violate human and civil rights.