In their coverage of Florida’s latest attack on the trans community, mainstream print and blog outlets are failing to fact-check false claims made by GOP officials, instead acting as a sounding board for misinformation on gender-affirming care.
As part of its ongoing assault on the trans community, Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA) released a report that proposed ending coverage for gender-affirming health care through the state’s Medicaid program, based on false claims regarding the safety and efficacy of that care. If the AHCA succeeds in denying access to essential care for all trans residents, Florida will become the 11th state to explicitly ban Medicaid coverage for gender-affirming care.
The same day the report was released, Florida’s Department of Health renewed its push to ban both medical and social transition for trans youth, with Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo putting out a letter citing the AHCA report and ordering the state’s Board of Medicine to review it in order to consider banning access to transition for trans youth in the state. This step follows the FDOH’s April release of non-binding guidance that similarly relied on misinformation in an attempt to prevent youth in the state from transitioning.
Mainstream print and blog outlets fail to fact-check anti-trans misinformation while both-sidesing a dispute between doctors and GOP officials
Rather than citing widely available evidence supporting the necessity of gender-affirming care, mainstream print and blog outlets widely quoted false claims from the report and Ladapo’s letter that portray gender-affirming care as unsafe and unproven, and that characterize the organizations supporting it as politically motivated. These claims were echoed without independent fact-checking.
Articles from NBC News, Salon, Politico, Newsweek, and The Associated Press quoted claims from Ladapo’s letter and AHCA’s report which falsely assert that the science supporting the use of puberty blockers, hormone replacement therapy, and transition-related surgeries is weak and that opposition to gender-affirming care was supported by “the highest level of generally accepted medical science.” Despite the abundance of evidence showing the safety and efficacy of gender-affirming care, not one of these outlets attempted to verify these claims with fact-checking.
Even when Ladapo and the AHCA made specific false claims, outlets still quoted the biased sources without testing those claims against hard evidence. NBC News quoted the false claim in the AHCA report that “evidence shows” that gender-affirming care could “exacerbate or fail to alleviate existing mental health conditions.” NBC News did not cite the abundant available evidence directly refuting this claim, despite the fact that NBC News has itself reported on this science on numerous occasions.
While quoting false claims in Ladapo’s letter regarding the supposed risk gender-affirming care poses to youth, not one of the aforementioned outlets provided independent fact-checking on the safety and importance of gender-affirming care for trans youth. This is again despite the fact that, as reported in Scientific American, the issue has been well-studied.
The truth is that data from more than a dozen studies of more than 30,000 transgender and gender-diverse young people consistently show that access to gender-affirming care is associated with better mental health outcomes—and that lack of access to such care is associated with higher rates of suicidality, depression and self-harming behavior.
Similarly, the articles from NBC News, Newsweek, and The AP echoed claims in Ladapo’s letter that medical organizations were guided by “political ideology” and “politics-based medicine” in their support for gender-affirming care without any critical pushback. While every major medical organization in America supports access to gender-affirming care, the officials at the forefront of attacking gender-affirming care in Florida include Ladapo, an anti-vaxxer who appeared on Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight in between spreading COVID-19 misinformation in numerous op-eds for The Wall Street Journal; and AHCA Secretary Simone Marstiller, a lawyer with no background in medicine who is a contributor to the right-wing legal organization The Federalist Society. Both Ladapo and Marstiller were appointed to their current positions by Gov. Ron DeSantis, the leading proponent of Florida’s attack on trans rights. By failing to look critically at scurrilous accusations of political bias levied against the medical community by Ladapo — someone actually engaging in “politics-based medicine” — these outlets are further advancing a platform not grounded in reality.
While articles from the outlets above did quote criticism from medical professionals, they did so in a way that largely framed the issue as a both-sides argument, putting the guidance of political appointees on equal footing with the consensus of the medical community. This framing, combined with a failure to directly fact-check misinformation provided by the Florida officials, provides a wholly inaccurate depiction of the actual safety and science behind gender-affirming care.
Lack of critical reporting by mainstream outlets is contrasted by quality reporting from outlets that focus on issues relating to gender and the LGBTQ community
Unlike mainstream sources, outlets focused on covering issues related to gender and the LGBTQ community showed a strong grasp of the science behind gender-affirming care and a clear appreciation of the risks posed by the misinformation in Ladapo’s letter and the AHCA report.
An article from the online LGBTQ magazine them noted that the Medicaid rule change is based on sources that “contradict overwhelming and repeatedly confirmed medical consensus regarding the necessity of transition-related medical care,” and described the report as “specifically challeng[ing] the existing literature indicating the beneficial effects of top surgery, and repeat[ing] the long-debunked statistic that claimed 80% of trans children eventually identify with their birth-assigned gender.”
The 19th, a nonprofit outlet focused on issues related to women and LGBTQ people, reported on the story without repeating the misinformation contained in the report and Ladapo’s letter, instead focusing on the effect the proposed changes would have on trans people living in Florida, specifically noting how the change would adversely affect low-income residents.
Although an article for LGBTQ magazine Gay Times quoted Ladapo’s letter, it did so while specifically stating that the report relied on “out of date and debunked research.”
Mainstream outlets need to treat misinformation on gender-affirming care as they would any medical misinformation – by meeting opinions with facts
Facing a lack of medical support for his attacks on gender-affirming care, DeSantis is relying on flawed recommendations from the officials he appointed to create the illusion that his bigotry is grounded in science. The entirety of the mainstream medical community in this country has made it clear that it is not.
When those giving a platform to disinformation fail to provide a critical pushback, they are both doing a disservice to their audience and to stakeholders by repeating mistakes made during early reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic. As was the case then, these failures have the potential to cost many lives.