The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article published by The Australian headed “Health chiefs can’t ignore ‘global epidemic’ of transgender teens” online on 13 February 2020.
The article reported that “Queensland’s health authorities have been urged to confront an under-reported global contagion involving troubled teenage girls declaring they ‘are born in the wrong body’”. The article went on to report that “’Social contagion’ via online platforms – such as Tumblr, reddit and YouTube – and peer groups is suspected to be a factor in the rapid rise of teenage caseload at gender clinics around the world”.
In response to complaints received, the Council asked the publication to comment on whether in using the words “global epidemic” in the headline and “social contagion” in an article concerning the reported rise in transgender teenagers seeking treatment at gender clinics, the publication complied with the Council’s Standards of Practice. These require the publication to take reasonable steps to ensure factual material was accurate and not misleading (General Principle 1), to provide a correction or other adequate remedial action if published material is significantly inaccurate or misleading (General Principle 2), that factual material was presented with reasonable fairness and balance (General Principle 3) and provide a fair opportunity for subsequent publication of a reply if that is reasonably necessary to address a possible breach of General Principle 3 (General Principle 4). The Council’s Standards of Practice also require publications to avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or to a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest (General Principle 6). The Council noted that complaints had expressed concern that the use of “epidemic” in the headline may imply that being transgender is a disease or something that may be cured.
The publication said the article is a news story reporting on the submissions to a Queensland parliamentary committee inquiry concerning a draft law to impose a criminal penalty on carrying out gay conversion therapy and how that term is defined. The publication said it is an accurate report on what was said in the submissions and the debate surrounding the proposed legislation and the words “epidemic” and “social contagion” were used in submissions and were later referenced in the inquiry report. The publication said the word “epidemic” is appropriate when reporting the exponential increases in those attending gender clinics and the term “social contagion” is an accepted term in social science and was taken from areas such as anorexia and suicide attempts, and where its relevance to adolescents, attitudes and behaviors is widely documented. The publication accepted that some readers may be offended by the reporting, but it is in the public interest to report on the debate.
The Council notes that the article reported on submissions made to a Queensland parliamentary inquiry concerning a proposed amendment to legislation and the potential consequences for those treating adolescents experiencing gender dysphoria. 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 Council considers by using material from public submissions to the inquiry critical of the proposed legislation and its potential impact on health practitioners, as well as material from those who are supportive of the proposed legislation, the publication took sufficient steps to show both sides of the debate, and present factual material with reasonable fairness and balance. Accordingly, there was no breach of General Principles 3 and 4.
The Council acknowledges that the reporting on submissions to the inquiry, and the choice of words used to describe the reported increase in adolescents seeking treatment for gender dysphoria, may cause offence and distress. However, the Council considers there is public interest in vigorous public debate particularly when it concerns submissions made to a parliamentary inquiry. The Council considers that to the extent there was offence and distress it was justified in the public interest. Accordingly, General Principle 6 was not breached.
Relevant Council Standards
This Adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council.
Publications must take reasonable steps to:
1. Ensure that factual material in news reports and elsewhere is accurate and not misleading and is distinguishable from other material such as opinion.
2. Ensure that factual material is presented with reasonable fairness and balance, and that writers’ expressions of opinion are not based on significantly inaccurate factual material or omission of key facts.
3. Ensure that factual material is presented with reasonable fairness and balance, and that writers’ expressions of opinion are not based on significantly inaccurate factual material or omission of key facts.
4. Ensure that where material refers adversely to a person, a fair opportunity is given for subsequent publication of a reply if that is reasonably necessary to address a possible breach of General Principle 3.
6. Avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.