The New York Times has failed to debunk the “bathroom predator” myth in its reporting on North Carolina's anti-LGBT bathroom law, despite its own editorial board acknowledging that the myth “exists only in the imagination of bigots.”
On March 23, North Carolina legislators passed a law, House Bill 2 (HB2), barring transgender people from certain bathrooms and locker rooms that do not match the gender on their birth certificates. Proponents of the law falsely claim it’s needed to stop sexual predators from sneaking into women's restrooms by claiming to be transgender.
The New York Times' own editorial board has described that talking point as baseless, writing in a March 25 editorial (emphasis added):
Gov. Pat McCrory, who signed the bill into law late Wednesday, said it was necessary to undo Charlotte’s ordinance, which included protections for gay and transgender people, because it allowed “men to use women’s bathroom/locker room.” Proponents of so-called bathroom bills, which have been introduced in state legislatures across the country, have peddled them by spuriously portraying transgender women as potential rapists.
That threat exists only in the imagination of bigots. Supporters of the measures have been unable to point to a single case that justifies the need to legislate where people should be allowed to use the toilet. North Carolina is the first state to pass such a provision.
By promoting the ludicrous idea that transgender women are inherently dangerous, the law endangers citizens who are already disproportionately vulnerable to violence and stigmatization.
Despite this, the Times has failed to debunk the “bathroom predator” myth in its reporting on HB2, choosing instead to create a false equivalency by uncritically presenting comments from both opponents and supporters of the law.
On March 28, the Times reported that “some conservatives complained that the [North Carolina] ordinance would endanger women and girls by allowing people who are anatomically male to use their restrooms,” adding that “transgender advocates dismiss that as nonsense, saying that transgender people have been using their chosen bathrooms for years without incident.”
On March 29, the Times reported that lawmakers focused on “the contention that it might allow men dressed as women to enter bathrooms and commit assaults,” and noted that “critics say there is no evidence that has happened elsewhere.”
On April 1, the newspaper reported that “lawmakers had said that they were trying to prevent men from dressing as women to enter bathrooms and commit assaults,” adding that “Critics said there was no evidence that had happened.”
On April 11, the Times quoted Lt. Gov. Dan Forest who perpetuated the myth stating, “If our action in keeping men out of women’s bathrooms and showers protected the life of just one child or one woman from being molested or assaulted, it was worth it,” yet failed to include any pushback to Forest's claim.
The Times adopted that same false equivalency in its reporting on anti-discrimination ordinances in cites like Jacksonville, FL and Houston, TX despite its editorial board acknowledging that the “bathroom predator” myth is "completely unfounded."
That kind of false balance is a form of misinformation -- it distorts reality and makes it harder for readers to figure out the truth. In 2012, The New York Times' Public Editor Margaret Sullivan called attention to the issue of false balance and encouraged journalists “to make every effort to get beyond the spin and help readers know what to believe,” writing:
Simply put, false balance is the journalistic practice of giving equal weight to both sides of a story, regardless of an established truth on one side. And many people are fed up with it. They don’t want to hear lies or half-truths given credence on one side, and shot down on the other. They want some real answers.
It ought to go without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway: Journalists need to make every effort to get beyond the spin and help readers know what to believe, to help them make their way through complicated and contentious subjects.
The more news organizations can state established truths and stand by them, the better off the readership — and the democracy — will be.
The Times' editorial board has correctly and repeatedly stated that the “bathroom predator” talking point is baseless and harmful. But that kind of truth-telling needs to show up in its reporting on laws like North Carolina's, rather than being relegated to its opinion section.