Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Dissecting Politico’s Biased Transgender Story

When reading coverage from the corporate media, readers should keep one question firmly planted in their minds: Is this just an article—or part of a narrative?

That lesson certainly applies to what Politico called a “Special Report” published over the weekend. It chronicles the experiences of families with transgender youths who have moved because of state laws that place restrictions on gender treatments for underage children.

Underpinning the story lies the premise that gender-affirming care provides unalloyed benefits to the youths in question. But just because Politico says something doesn’t necessarily make it so.

Glaring Omissions

I should preface my comments by stating that I do not have a medical background, in endocrinology or otherwise. I won’t pretend know the “right” way or “wrong” way to treat someone with gender dysphoria, although I hope that all God’s children get treated with dignity and respect.

But as someone who works in health policy, I have noticed several developments in recent months questioning the effects of puberty blockers and gender-affirming treatment. Having come across these data points in the course of my health policy work, I found the Politico piece striking for what it excluded:

  • While the section of Politico’s story discussing (or, more accurately, promoting) the medical merits of gender-affirming care began by referencing one recent expose in another national publication, it quickly minimized the concerns that story raised: “Even though the New York Times reported that some research suggests the treatment could seriously weaken bone health in youths, multiple mainstream medical organizations…have taken the position that gender-affirming care is a medical necessity.” By dismissing the Times article as solely related to “bone health,” Politico omitted discussion of other topics addressed in the story, including growing concerns in Europe regarding transgender treatments, and the lack of Food and Drug Administration approval for using puberty blockers for gender-affirming care.
  • In addition to the Times piece, Reuters in October published a nearly 8,000-word article into the growth of gender-affirming therapy, and the lack of research into these therapies’ long-term effects. Reuters noted that, of the 39 parents it spoke with about their experiences seeking gender-affirming care for their children, more than two-thirds (28) “said they felt pressured or rushed to pursue treatment.” Politico did not mention this in-depth investigation at all.
  • The story quoted three individuals—two doctors and the director of transgender justice at the ACLU—all of whom spoke favorably of gender-affirming care; one of the doctors claimed there was “undertreatment” of transgender youth. By contrast, the Times and Reuters stories quoted at least nine separate medical experts who showed some degree of skepticism towards puberty blockers or other types of gender-affirming care. (Some of those nine said they supported the care, despite the potential risks.) Politico did not quote these skeptics, or any other doctors questioning gender-affirming care, in its self-proclaimed “Special Report.”
  • One of the medical experts Politico did cite, Marci Brown, serves as president of the World Professional Association of Transgender Health (WPATH). Politico quoted Brown as saying that “gender-affirming care unequivocally positively affects the lives of those it treats.” But Politico did NOT note, as the October Reuters piece did, that WPATH’s new Standards of Care guidelines acknowledge the lack of evidence examining long-term outcomes for the use of hormones, and admit that in the absence of such evidence “the decision to start gender-affirming medical interventions may not be in the long-term best interest of the young person at that time.”
  • Politico cited the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American College of Physicians, as some of the “multiple mainstream medical organizations” supporting the necessity of gender-affirming care. However, unlike the Times and Reuters stories, Politico did not mention that England’s National Health Service has shut down its main clinic for gender-affirming care, and that Sweden and Finland have limited access to such treatments, over concerns about not just physical ramifications from the drugs, but whether doctors are prescribing them without first assessing patients’ mental health.
  • One of the article’s three co-authors, Joanne Kenen, serves as the Commonwealth Fund’s journalist-in-residence at Johns Hopkins University. The Commonwealth Fund, as a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) non-profit, must remain non-partisan—but like other think-tanks, that does not make it non-ideological. Commonwealth embraces much of the progressive agenda—for instance, by “highlight[ing] policies and practices needed to achieve an antiracist health system”—and has published research in various forms providing largely unqualified support for gender-affirming care. At no point in the article did Politico disclose Kenen’s relationship with Commonwealth, or the Fund’s ideological leanings.

Between them, the Times and Reuters have in the past two months published approximately 13,000 words highlighting potential drawbacks to, and consequences from, transgender care. For Politico to publish a “Special Report” on transgender care featuring three bylined reporters, and 13 other credited individuals, with only one passing and dismissive reference to the debate over the ramifications of such care suggests either egregious sloppiness, ideological bias, or both.

Constructing a Narrative

Politico did not respond to my request for comment by deadline. They might however claim that the article focused largely on transgender youth and families themselves, with any discussion of the medical merits of the treatments at issue secondary. They might also point to quotes from lawmakers who have proposed legislation blocking treatments for transgender youth—including Gov. Kay Ivey (R-AL), a Republican state legislator from Florida, and an attempt to solicit comment from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA)—as showing the publication’s desire for ideological balance.

But a skeptic might argue that this attempt at “balance” takes pains to avoid disrupting the article’s narrative—and indeed, the larger narrative of the Left on this issue. If the article intends to advance a narrative of Neanderthal legislators pass laws that bully and harass transgender youth, then interviewing some of those “Neanderthal legislators” nods at balance—at least superficially—without jeopardizing the narrative.

By contrast, raising any significant doubt about the medical effectiveness of gender-affirming care would undermine that broader narrative, because it could make restrictions on providing such care to youths seem appropriate. That provides one possible explanation why the discussion of the medical merits of gender-affirming care, while brief, was almost entirely one-sided, and why the three Politico reporters failed to quote any medical experts skeptical of such treatment, ignoring the recent work of other major news publications in doing so.

To end where I began: I don’t hold any medical expertise, least of all on matters like endocrinology and transgender care. But having read two lengthy, recent, and prominent recent exposes about the potential hazards of gender-affirming therapy, even this non-expert realizes that Politico could and should have far done better than stating opinion as fact and blithely ignoring concerns that medical experts have raised. Medical degree or not, I can recognize garbage reporting when I see it—and the Politico piece certainly qualifies.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.