Journalism is not a platform for anti-trans hate speech

Journalists must cover political discourse in a nonpartisan manner without parroting hate speech. Unfortunately, recent local coverage has fallen short.

With trans rights increasingly at the center of the national culture wars, journalists have a duty to cover political discourse in a nonpartisan manner without parroting hate speech. Unfortunately, recent local coverage has fallen short.

On Tuesday, the Athens News published an article about a demonstration on the Athens County Courthouse steps by a group of anti-transgender women protesters. The article was written by Miles Layton, Ohio regional editor for Adams Publishing Group, which owns the News and the Athens Messenger.

The staff of the Athens County Independent denounces this article. While we do not question the newsworthiness of the demonstration, we strongly believe that the article is not just poor journalism, but deeply unethical and dangerous for our LGBTQ+ community.


Journalism is, at heart, “a discipline of verification.” The journalist’s task is not to merely transcribe statements and events, but to place those statements and events in context so readers can fully understand the situation. 

The News article does neither, which is unethical — and dangerous.

The headline and the copy both refer to the demonstrators as “supporters of women’s rights.” While the protesters may call themselves women’s rights activists, their stance is rejected by the majority of mainstream women’s and human rights organizations. To call them “supporters of women’s rights” without qualification distorts their activities and reinforces anti-trans hate.

In the body of the story, the protesters repeatedly make scientifically inaccurate and false statements, which are presented without a whisper of fact-checking. For example, the story quotes Lauren Levey saying, “The simple truth is that women are female and men are male … Everyone is either female or male … There is no credible scientific evidence to the contrary.”

That is not true. 

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Sex is complicated, involving “anatomy, physiology, genetics, and hormones” — and is not constrained by the either-or of male or female. For example, individuals with androgen insensitivity syndrome are genetically male but have female physical features. Babies born with complete AIS have external female genitalia, so they are often labeled “female” and raised as women — but they don’t have a uterus. In partial AIS (or Reifenstein syndrome), the baby “can have genitalia that look typically female, genitalia that have both male and female characteristics, or genitalia that look typically male,” according to the National Library of Medicine. 

Gender, on the other hand, “encompasses gender identity and expression, as well as social and cultural expectations about status, characteristics, and behavior as they are associated with certain sex traits,” as the National Library of Medicine puts it. “A person’s gender identity (e.g., woman, man, trans man, gender-diverse, nonbinary) is self-identified, may change throughout their life, and may or may not correspond to a society’s cultural expectations based on their biological sex traits.”

The article also leaves unchecked a source’s assertion that trans women are actually men who are “lying about who they are in order to gain illegitimate, unrestricted access to women and to the children we protect.” That statement is not just false — it’s a conspiracy theory that flies in the face of facts. Trans women are not men pretending to be women so they can prey on women and children. Trans women are women — who experience violent crime at rates far higher than cisgender women. 

Publishing such statements without challenge or context is not only unethical, but also dangerous. Anti-trans rhetoric has fueled an increase in violence against trans individuals, and hate groups such as Proud Boys, White Lives Matter and Patriot Front show up at drag events in Ohio

The protesters claim to be “telling the truth,” but they are not. Trans people are real, scientifically and historically. Ancient texts from the Middle East, Europe, Asia and Africa all contain descriptions and references to transgender individuals. Aztec, Maya and other native peoples of the Americas embraced third genders within their cultures. That is the truth.

An ethical journalist has a duty to “seek truth and report it,” which includes identifying sources clearly. Layton’s article fails to do this. It quotes a demonstrator without noting that she is on the board of Women’s Declaration International, which sponsored the event. Nor does it explain that WDI has been denounced by most mainstream women’s rights groups as anti-trans, anti-human rights and a hate group. This information would have helped News readers better evaluate the reliability of the protesters’ stance and statements. 

(The Southern Poverty Law Center has not designated WDI as a hate group because it focuses on domestic organizations. WDI is based in the United Kingdom. However, WDI has worked with designated U.S. hate groups, including the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Family Research Council.)

Hate speech is violence against trans people. Unchallenged hate speech in media coverage has been shown to have a significant impact on the mental health of trans people, a 2020 study found

The News published a companion story, also by Layton, that focused on the views of counter-protesters in favor of trans rights. However, simply presenting both sides of an issue is not ethical journalism. That’s especially true if one side is perpetuating hate speech, and if their hateful comments — for whatever newsworthiness they hold — aren’t challenged by the actual facts in the text. 

Although trans rights are a front in the culture wars, our objection to the News’ coverage is not partisan. Human rights are not a partisan issue. And trans rights are human rights.

As you may know, the Athens County Independent was founded by four former employees of the company that owns the Athens News. Our denouncement of the News article has nothing to do with previous experiences, or competition between news outlets. It’s about ensuring that the tools of journalism in Athens — a place where thousands of aspiring journalists, across the gender spectrum, come to study — are not used to perpetuate hate.

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