'Not simply neutral reporting’: Experts criticise Press Council decision over article on transgender teens

Source: EPA

The Australian Press Council found The Australian was not in breach of media standards for their story referring to a ‘global epidemic’ of transgender teens. Experts and Transgender advocacy organisations have criticised the decision.

The Australian Press Council’s decision that The Australian was not in breach of media standards for their story titled ‘Health chiefs can’t ignore ‘global epidemic’ of transgender teens’ has been criticised by experts.

“I think that it's quite a disappointing decision. And it's one of a series of very disappointing decisions from the Press Council, in respect of The Australian’s reporting of trans issues,” Dr Katherine Fallah, a law lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney, told The Feed. 

The article published by the national paper in February addressed comments made during a parliamentary committee inquiry in Queensland, and quoted Professor Patrick Parkinson referring to gender dysphoria as a “contagion”.

Parkinson is also quoted from the inquiry warning of a growing phenomenon among young teenage girls experiencing gender dysphoria. 

The inquiry was related to a new anti-gay conversion therapy law being drafted in the state.

'It's not simply neutral reporting'

The Press Council explained their decision in a public statement outlining The Australian didn't breach their general principles.

"The Council notes the words complained about, such as "social contagion" and "epidemic" were words used in two submissions to the inquiry and appear in the headline and article in quotation marks. Accordingly, there was no breach of General Principles 1 and 2," the statement reads.

The first of the general principles require publications to ensure factual material in news reports are accurate, not misleading and distinguishable from opinion, while the second requires fairness and balance in reporting and that the writer's opinions are not based on inaccurate facts.

However, Fallah says this adjudication by the Press Council is narrow and believes it creates
a problematic precedent. In her view, The Australian quoting language from submissions into a parliamentary inquiry doesn't equate to factual reporting.

"It essentially means that if a person makes a submission to a parliamentary inquiry, and in that submission, says offensive things or says harmful things, expresses prejudices and bigotry, then a news outlet is automatically able to adopt that language in its own reporting," Fallah said.

Fallah believes The Australian didn't only report on the story but in her view endorsed "some of the language."

"So for instance, in its submissions to the Press Council, The Australian argued that the word epidemic is an appropriate word when reporting the exponential increase in those attending gender clinics," she said.

"So we can see here an adoption or endorsement of that language, it's not simply neutral reporting."

Another concern of Fallah is the case being considered in isolation, she says, it neglects the "hundreds of articles published by the same outlet disparaging trans rights."

She adds, "And privileging expert voices of people who don't have particular expertise in trans rights, who don't have specialist medical expertise in trans issues and don't have significant clinical experience in treating a trans patient."

One of the voices in the piece is sexologist Ray Blanchard whose tweet about the proposed bill was quoted by The Australian. Blanchard tweeted that gay conversation therapy laws were a trojan horse to stop therapy aimed at “gender-dysphoric children and youth become comfortable with their anatomic sex.”

Blanchard’s theories surrounding a ‘contagion’ of gender dysphoria in children and ‘rapid onset gender dysphoria’ have been dismissed by experts as “bad science”.  

Fallah says The Australian has “cherry-picked” experts like the University of Queensland law dean Professor Patrick Parkinson and others.

Parkinson has been criticised previously for comments about young trans people: in 2019, 37 academics from the University of Queensland law department signed a public letter condemning Parkinson for comparing trans students with teens with eating disorders. 

What impact does this reporting have on trans people?

Carol Muller, is a Director of Trans Pride Australia, she says the story in The Australian that featured language conflating the current COVID-19 pandemic to young teens suffering from gender dysphoria was "highly offensive".

"First of all to get the diagnosis of gender dysphoria, which most trans people have. There are often quite a few visits to a psychologist or psychiatrist. It's not just something you breathe in the air like COVID, for example," Muller told The Feed.

This reporting, Muller says, is harmful especially with trans and gender diverse people already having alarmingly high levels of self-harm and suicides in Australia.

"The impact is that if it's going to affect the opinions of society, whether that be the parents, the teachers at school or other parts of society, where a child navigates their life through. If they feel that it's going to be a negative thing, it's going to be a lot harder for them to come out," she said.

According to the National LGBTI Health Alliance, trans people 18 and over are nearly eleven times more likely to attempt suicide. 

Despite the worrying statistics, Muller believes more young people are feeling empowered to claim their trans identity. It’s something she takes pride in seeing, especially as she only transitioned later in life when she was in her 50s.

“I could articulate that I was trans in the very early 80s. But I was living in a conservative family in conservative Queensland at that time. And it just wasn't possible for me to make that step forward. Or I felt that it wasn't possible,” she said.

But a few years ago, Muller decided it was time to stop “suppressing” who she was, and it’s been transformative.

“I chose to become a more authentic person. And it's quite literally freed me up. It just made me more whole in many different ways,” she said.

What are the origins of the concerns with gender dysphoria?

In 2018, US researcher Lisa Littman released a study in US academic journal PLOS ONE -- a study that’s been widely criticised -- about “a contagion” of young girls suffering from gender dysphoria. A year after the release of the study PLOS ONE apologised and published a correction. 

The study used the term ‘rapid-onset gender dysphoria’ (ROGD), it’s a the theory that has been dissmised by medical experts like the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) and Australian Professional Association for Trans Health (AUSPATH).

“The term ‘Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria’ is not, and has never been, a diagnosis or health condition,” AUSPATH said in a public statement in 2019.

“[It] has been used in a single report describing parental perception of their adolescent’s gender identity without exploration of the gender identity and experiences of the adolescents themselves.”

What needs to change?

Chris Woods is a trans journalist who works at Crikey, they were “disgusted” by the decision made by the Press Council. They worked on a story last year chronicling The Australian’s coverage of trans young people. Woods says there’s a problem in NewsCorp’s coverage surrounding trans issues, however, they believe it’s not just them.

“So I think what actually needs to happen is there needs to be more articles, which point out exactly why this is harmful journalism,” Woods told The Feed.

Woods would like to see an overall increase in industry standards when reporting about trans issues. They would also like to see the Press Council have clearer guidelines on hate speech, and powers to give their rulings more weight.

“I think as an industry, it would be great to draw a line and say, ‘Hey, this is hate speech’. The minute you start comparing people to viruses, I think that's a pretty easy thing to say that is hate speech.”

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