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As increasing attention and legislation have been focused on policies affecting LGBTQ+ Americans, especially those who are transgender, the amount of misinformation relating to these issues has also grown and spread.
PolitiFact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking website, is working to help the public understand the facts around this high-profile and often complex and controversial set of issues. In March, PolitiFact added the new role of a full-time reporter fact-checking LGBTQ+ issues, researching and providing facts and context to identify misinformation that spreads quickly on social media and through partisan arguments.
The reporter, Grace Abels, scrutinizes online viral claims and writes explainers and fact-checks to reduce the spread of misinformation. Her work so far has identified extreme and incorrect claims across the political spectrum.
In Kansas, for example, opponents of a bill that bans trans women from playing women’s sports said it authorized genital exams to determine eligibility. PolitiFact found the bill makes no mention of genital exams – neither authorizing or banning them – and leaves it to other organizations to determine how the law will be enforced. Meanwhile, after the deadly mass shooting at a Christian school in Tennessee, where police reported the suspect was transgender, some commentators spread claims that transgender people are becoming radicalized toward violence. After consulting the data and experts who study extremism and terrorism, PolitiFact found no credible evidence of any widespread trend of transgender extremist radicalization. The vast majority of studies showed that trans people are more likely to be crime victims than perpetrators.
The position is being supported by a grant from the Gill Foundation. PolitiFact has editorial independence and control over all content decisions.
Here is a conversation with Abels about her new role and the journalism she is producing:
How would you define this role?
The short version is that I fact-check LGBTQ+ misinformation and political rhetoric. The longer version is I think there is so much misinformation about queer people and issues that impact the LGBTQ+ community and sometimes in journalism I wonder if there has been some hesitance to cover it because it can be so sensitive, interpersonal, and nuanced, that I think it can be easier to turn away. This role is intentionally setting aside energy and a person to look for misinformation related to this community and address it head on.
In this role, it’s my job to seek out the truth. I think LGBTQ+ and non-LGBTQ+ people deserve the facts. If a medication or a treatment is dangerous and there’s reputable scientific evidence to back that up, people should know that. If trans people are at higher risk of violence because of their identity, people should know that. I think reliable access to accurate and nuanced information benefits all of us.
Have you noticed any themes since you started this work?
The majority of the information I encounter is about the T in LGBTQ+ – about trans people, especially about trans kids. Some about drag. I had to do a lot of fact-checking about legislation around health care and all the claims that go with that. What are puberty blockers, are children actually receiving these treatments or not? There’s also been a lot of checks around the various legislation in states that regulate the behavior of LGBTQ+ people – drag bans, banning trans girls from sports, and the custody bill in Florida.
There are claims from both sides making out various legislation to be more extreme than it actually is. Sometimes the people pushing anti-LGBTQ+ legislation were more extreme in describing what it would do than was in the bill. Fear about these issues is high on both sides, and I think that can be seen in the claims that I check.
What are some of the challenges you’ve found since you started?
Sometimes the information available isn’t clear enough to answer a given question. Laws are often explicitly vague to avoid controversy, and other issues lack any data to reference. For example, how many immigrants crossing the border are LGBTQ+? We have no idea because it’s not tracked. It’s really hard to know how many people committing suicide are gender nonconforming. We can measure attempts because people who survive can say how they identify, but for completed suicides, that data doesn’t exist.
A lot of the other fact-checking that my peers do – there’s a clear scientific consensus or there‘s a robust pile of evidence that you can cite. There’s just a smaller pile in this field. I don’t always have 50 years of research on a given topic, I might have 15 or 20 to pull from.
What else should people know about the journalism you are doing?
A fundamental truth I'm operating on is that LGBTQ+ people exist. If we are in disagreement on that, then we’re going to have a hard time.
I think historically the media has told the stories of queer and trans people without listening to their voices. Our pursuit is always going to be towards the facts but we are thoughtful about including queer and trans sources in our stories. And LGBTQ+ sources don’t always agree. They’re not necessarily in consensus. This is a beat that wants to work in tandem with and alongside LGBTQ+ people and experts to help answer some of the questions they might have about their community.
You can read Abels’ fact checks about LGBTQ+ issues here.
PolitiFact started in 2007 as an election-year project of the Tampa Bay Times (then named the St. Petersburg Times). Since 2018 it has been part of the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit that teaches journalists and journalism around the globe. PolitiFact fact-checks the accuracy of political speech through its innovative Truth-O-Meter, which rates statements on a scale of True to Pants on Fire false. PolitiFact won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for its coverage of the 2008 election. PolitiFact partners with news organizations across the country to spread its unique brand of accountability and public service journalism. If you’re interested in learning more about a publishing partnership with PolitiFact contact [email protected]
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