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Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

OPINIONMediaMay 22, 2023

What is the media’s responsibility when reporting trans disinformation?

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

The media doesn’t report on anti-vaccine disinformation without also including a fact check. The same should be true for clearly false anti-trans rhetoric.

The Southland Times published an article this month reporting on an Invercargill City Council meeting where residents complained about a local pool’s changing rooms allowing for anyone to use the bathroom of the gender with which they identified. 

The story leaned heavily on concerns expressed at this meeting about paedophilia and sexual violence, and the old myth (because it has been proven a myth) that allowing trans women into women’s changing rooms opens the door for paedophiles and sexual abusers too. 

Counting Ourselves, a 2018 report into the health and wellbeing of Aotearoa’s trans and non-binary population, found that our community is engaging in sport and recreation at lower rates than the general population. One of the biggest barriers to accessing recreation is the fear and worry about public changing rooms, and the concern about how we might be treated in these spaces. Clear policy and guidance from councils that affirm our right to use the changing room that we feel most comfortable in can help assuage those fears – knowing that if something were to happen, the staff would have our backs, helps a whole lot.

Venues like swimming pools will already have very clear policy and guidance around how to respond to someone acting inappropriately in a changing room – allowing trans and non-binary people access doesn’t change that. All it does is reduce a barrier to a good protective factor for our health and wellbeing.

‘Swimming pools already have very clear policy [on] someone acting inappropriately in a changing room – allowing trans and non-binary people access doesn’t change that.’ (Photo: Getty Images)
In response to complaints, the Southland Times claimed its story “wasn’t so much about the trans community”, but the concerns quoted are in response to a policy that allows trans and non-binary people access to these spaces. It’s impossible to report on those concerns without writing an article that is explicitly about the trans community.

What the story failed to mention – even in the update that was added to the article after extensive complaints – is that these concerns are fuelled by disinformation, imported from the US and being generated and spread in telegram chat rooms across Aotearoa.

The Disinformation Project‘s recent working paper on rising anti-trans rhetoric in the last few months makes this very clear: there is a coordinated campaign to generate and spread this narrative of disinformation about trans people.

The Southland Times editor told me over the phone that their reporters weren’t familiar with the Disinformation Project report, and that it wasn’t possible to know everything. That got me thinking. If it’s not possible to know everything, must we just accept that media will publish disinformation if it’s about a topic they’re not familiar with? When reporting on disinformation, whether about trans people or vaccines or whatever the next target is, what is the media’s responsibility? Are there any accountability processes for when an outlet disseminates disinformation?

The NZ Media Council, which Aotearoa New Zealand media outlets can voluntarily join as members, has 13 principles its members adhere to. None of the principles speak to mis- or disinformation (misinformation being incorrect information, disinformation being intentionally incorrect information distributed with the intent to mislead).

Media Council principles speak to accuracy, fairness and balance; and distinguishing between comment and fact – but have no clear guidelines or guidance on reporting (or reporting on) disinformation.

Searching the Media Council’s previous rulings for “disinformation” revealed both mis and disinformation as ruling categories, but with no further information. Previous complaints around disinformation vary, with a number about vaccine misinformation and Voices for Freedom local body candidates.

In a ruling around comments on RNZ’s Facebook page about vaccines, the Council expressed surprise that comments “obviously” espousing “fake news” weren’t removed. Other rulings have been clear that the media reporting accurately about disinformation espoused by VFF candidates in local body elections is appropriate and in the public interest – this is particularly relevant when we consider the Disinformation Project’s findings that anti-vaccination and anti-mandate disinformation spaces have now overwhelmingly turned their focus to trans people.

It seems clear, then, that the Media Council understands the importance of being clear about disinformation when it occurs.

And the concerns quoted in the Southland Times article are based on disinformation. A recent long-form read by David Fisher in the NZ Herald (paywalled) talks in depth about “scaremongering” around bathrooms and changing rooms: “The arguments espoused most fervently come with the least evidence,” Fisher wrote.

Fisher cites police reporting, both here and overseas:

Police here have no reported cases of women being assaulted in toilets or changing rooms by trans women. That matches with research done in the US after exclusionary bathroom laws were passed in some states. A 2018 study from the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law found no evidence supporting fears of privacy and safety violations involving trans people.

Similarly, there is no evidence of this risk in prisons:

The Department of Corrections reports no sexual violence involving the 16 trans women who have served time since 2018. Violence, too, is low with two non-serious assaults recorded since July 2020 in which a trans woman was identified as the perpetrator. Over the same period, there were 324 assaults in total in women’s prisons.

The disinformation at play in Aotearoa at the moment around gender diverse people, our human rights, and fears of sexual predators have been well covered by media, both in Fisher’s piece and in Stuff’s reporting on the Disinformation Project working paper.

The Southland Times piece about changing rooms at Splash Palace highlights a need for clear guidance and good training around how we report on disinformation. In this case, members of the public are espousing disinformation in a council meeting. How do we report on that safely, in a way that doesn’t further disseminate that disinformation and cause further harm? Where does the principle of balance and fairness fall when a group’s fear and concerns are being intentionally stoked by disinformation?

The Disinformation Project had previously scheduled hui with media on disinformation and responsible reporting last year, which unfortunately had to be canceled due to safety concerns – they’re looking to re-engage in this work before this year’s election cycle kicks into swing.

That’s a big consideration, too. With Brian Tamaki and Sue Grey – two loud voices in this disinformation movement – joining forces under Freedom NZ this election, disinformation is going to be rife. Tamaki kicked off this weekend with his announcement speech where he almost immediately partook in some transphobic dogwhistling, saying Chris Hipkins “doesn’t know what a woman is”. There’s a good chance gender diversity could become an election issue, further fuelling the “genocidal” levels of hateful rhetoric about our community.

I’ve been working in trans community advocacy in some form or another for about a decade now, and have been a relatively public figure. I’ve done a number of interviews over the years both from my own personal experience and in my role in a rainbow social service and advocacy organisation.

This is the first time I’ve had to think seriously about my own personal safety before agreeing to interviews. The situation is dire – our community is under stress and some of us are receiving more death threats than ever. The police have asked our community across the country to report any violence or harassment to 105, showing how seriously it’s being taken.

Real harm could be done by irresponsible reporting that further spreads this narrative. It’s time for New Zealand’s media to take a real clear stand on how they manage this risk responsibly.

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