Media’s Moral panic: The Trans debate

(Photo: Kristyn Wong-Tam)

By Rachel Yeldham – Contributor


This article aims to address the increasingly prominent and diversive discourse surrounding the so-called ‘trans debate’. Within the article a discourse analysis of UK newspapers, The Guardian and The Dailymail’s, reporting on trans+ individuals and issues from the last three years is presented. The aim is to establish whether their reporting indicates moral panic over trans+ individuals, issues and allies. 

Whilst the term ‘debate’ can be seen as politically controversial and exclusionary of trans+ identities, it is used in this article to address discussions over the rights of trans+ individuals. This includes (but it not limited to) accessibility and ease of affirming medical care, legal recognition of trans+ identities, access to single sex spaces such as public bathrooms, and the comparision of lived experiences with that of cis people to determine gender and/or sex. In using this term I wish not to exclude trans+ people or suggest these issues should be up for debate – however it is the clearest way to articulate the conversations of which I am studying. 

Establishing the way that trans+ individuals, issues and stories are reported is increasingly important due to rising levels of discrimination such as hate crimes against trans+ individuals as well as increasing amounts of people identifying as trans+ (Stop Hate UK, 2022). Trans rights and representation is also an area of increasing academic discussion and focus, especially within and between the realms of feminism and queer studies. Resultantly, this paper empirically uncovers whether media reporting demonstrates moral panic over the trans debate, and contributes to this academic discussion. 

What is moral panic? 

Sociologist Stanley Cohen coined the term ‘moral panic’ in 1972 and it has since become an increasingly vibrant field of study within sociology. There are two dominant approaches to the field of moral panic – the prosessual and attributional models. Elements of both the processual and attributional models of moral panic are used symbiotically to theoretically ground this study. 

The processual model defines moral panic as “a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests” (Cohen, 2011:1). There are four central agents according to this approach: 1) the mass media, 2) moral entrepreneurs, 3) control culture and 4) the public. The media is most crucial in the inventory stage by constructing deviants, this can be seen by increasing stories surrounding a ‘group’ of people which the media constructs (Cohen, 2011). It is important to note that this group may not see itself as such, and the homogeneity of it can be strenuous. Other agents are important in other stages of moral panic, for example the gatekeepers of morality cement the panic and the deviancy of the group by legislating around issues raised by the media and moral entrepreneurs (Cohen, 2011). 


Cohen (2011) asserts that moral panic may result in changes in legal and social policy, which can be observed in the case of trans individuals with the rise in legal cases surrounding trans rights. I argue that there has been a marked change in the outcome of legal cases surrounding trans rights, with landmark cases ruling in favour of trans individuals in the 1990s and 2000s. 

The 1996 case of P v S and Cornwall County Council, saw the landmark prevention of discrimination in employment or vocational education on the basis of someone being trans (Nevrkla, 2018). Furthermore, the Gender recognition Act was introduced in 2004 which awarded trans people full legal gender recognition and allowed them to acquire new birth certificates (Nevrkla, 2018). However, within the last five years there has been a backlash leading to rulings increasingly ruling against trans plaintiffs. 

In 2020, despite widespread public support for reform the UK government chose not to reform the Gender Recognition Act of 2004 (Parker, 2020). This was despite a June 2020 report published by the European Commission providing a damning indictment of the way the UK was interpreting legal gender recognition acts (European commission, 2020). This year, the government excluded trans individuals from a ban on conversion therapy (Stewart and Sherwood, 2022). 

Meanwhile, the attributional model can be best seen in Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda (1994) work ‘Moral Panics:The Social Construction of Deviance’. They describe it as “behavior of some of the members of a society is thought by others to be so problematic, the evil they do, or are thought to do, is felt to be so wounding to the substance and fabric of the body social that serious steps must be taken to control the behavior, punish the perpetrators, and repair the damage” (Goode and Ben-Yehuda, 2010: 35). 

There are five defining elements that render something classifiable as moral panic according to this approach: 1) concern, 2) hostility, 3) consensus, 4) disproportionality and 5) volatility. Concern over a specified and concise group of peoples may be seen through increased discourse of them, whilst hostility demonstrates a step towards viewing this group or concerns in a negative way (Goode and Ben-Yehuda, 2010). This is at the early stage of a moral panic building whilst consensus builds, and the viewpoint of deviancy of a group is presented as a widespread view (Goode and Ben-Yehuda, 2010). Crucially, these previous three attributes must be disproportional or untrue to the threat a group poses. Moral panic is a short term phenomenon which is volatile by nature. The coding categories of ‘hostility’ and ‘consensus’ are taken from the five criteria of moral panic according to the attributional model. 

Goode and Ben-Yehuda (2010) suggest three models explaining moral panic: 1) grass-roots, 2) elite engineered and 3) interest groups. This essentially means that they believe moral panic can be manufactured by different areas of society, which sharply contrasts with Cohen’s suggestion that it is the media which has a pivotal role in starting moral panic. I attempt to theoretically bridge this gap by arguing that the media constitutes an elite in UK newspaper media and therefore can be counted as elite engineered moral panic according to the attributional model. 


The U.K. media landscape: 

Chivers’ (2021) study empirically showed just three companies – DMG Media, News UK and Reach — dominated 90% of the national newspaper market, up from 83% in 2019 (Chivers, 2021: 2). Furthermore, Facebook controls three of the top five social media services used to access online news in the UK and just two companies—Bauer Radio and Global 

Radio—own 70% of the UK’s 279 local commercial analogue radio stations—a 20% increase in concentration since 2018 (Chivers, 2021: 2). This research goes some way to demonstrate the oligarchal nature of media within the UK. It is also worth noting the connection between the newspaper barons and moral entrepreneurs such as politicians noting the power in which they potentially have. 

I chose The Guardian and The Dailymail because they were respectively the top and fourth most read publications, however they also were owned by different companies (the DMTG group and the The Scott Trust) and sit on different sides of the political spectrum. I omitted 

the second most popular paper, the Daily mirror to account for political bias over the issue as the opinions of the public on trans rights are segregated by political alignment, gender and age (Smith, 2022). Younger, more left leaning and female respondents were all more likely to air positive views about transgender rights in comparision to older, male and more conservative respondents (Smith, 2022). 


The methodology I used to conduct the discourse analysis was simplistic, and conducted on Nexus Advance UK. My search term was ‘transgender’ and I used the filter would UK to filter out results from abroad as I specifically aimed to investigate UK media discourse. I also filtered by media outlets, and searched each publication separately. 

Where there were multiple articles from the same outlet on the same case/story, I read the first one based on chronology. I also excluded articles without direct and obvious mentions of trans issues despite containing the word ‘transgender’ such as things about general LGBTQA+ issues or celebrations. 

I analysed 5% of the total articles returning search hits, per year, per publication. I listed the articles by ‘most relevant’ (meaning the ones with the most hits) and picked analysed the appropriate amount per year, per publication 

Below is a table to show how many articles per year I analysed, per publication. Where necessary this was rounded up. 


As shown, in total I analysed sixty-three articles. I analysed more articles from the Dailymail than the Guardian in line with the amount of material each publication wrote that matched my search criteria. In total, 1,269 articles over the course of three years were written that matched my criteria. 

I have coded the articles individually against the criteria of showing 1) hostility and 2) Consensus of deviancy. 

The definition I have followed for hostility is “[Deviants are] collectively designated as the enemy, or an enemy, of respectable society“ (Goode and Ben-Yehuda, 2010: 38). Negative language is used in reference to the deviant community – in this case, trans+ people or issues. A common way this is shown is by creating an oppositional binary between ‘us’ (normative society) and ‘them’ (deviants). Furthermore, the over-generalise the homogeneity of the deviant community is a common theme. 

The definition I have followed for deviancy consensus is “There must be at least a certain minimal measure of consensus” across society as a whole, or at least amongst “designated segments” (Goode and Ben-Yehuda, 2010: 38). This is done commonly by using collective nouns such as phrases like ‘our concern’ regarding the deviant community. Another way consensus is shown is by citing multiple groups or agents who share the author’s viewpoint, without an opposing view or by heavily weighing the article in one direction. 

I have included a visual example of the way I have done this below: 


Furtherly, I looked at the additional criterion of volatility and increasing levels of concern by analysing the amount of articles written over time. 

Increasing amount of articles shows increasing levels of concern which demonstrates moral panic. Similarly, according to Cohen moral panic is a short term phenomenon. Therefore, I looked at the trends in the amount of articles written to determine whether there were any spikes or rapid drops in the amount of relevant articles written which would indicate the issue is volatile. 


This section provides the graphs based on the data I inputted and coded in line with the coding guidelines I have outlined. 

The following graph shows the number of relevant articles referencing the term ‘transgender’ 5

This graph (hereafter referred to as graph 1) shows a clear and marked increase in the amount of articles written on the subject over the past five years. The increase between 2020 and 2022 specifically increases sharply from just over three-hundred articles in total written in 2020 on the subject to over five-hundred in 2022. 

Throughout the period, the Dailymail writes more on the subject. The gap between the amount of articles written by both publications increases between 2020 and 2022 (inclusive) despite narrowing in the previous year. The amount of articles written by both publications follows the same trend lines from 2018 onwards. 

The following graph shows the percent of articles found to demonstrate hostility and consensus according to my outlined criteria 

This graph (hereafter referred to as graph 2) shows the amount of hostility and consensus demonstrated in articles increased between in the three years to 2022 (inclusive). In all years, the amount of hostility outnumbered the amount of consensus demonstrated. 

It is important to note that in 2020-2021 the amount of both measures dropped from the previous year and was lower than the subsequent year. 

The following graph shows the amount of articles as a percentage of total articles coded as hostile. 


This graph (hereafter referred to as graph 3) shows in total 54% of the sixty-three articles analysed were hostile. 

The following graph shows the amount of articles as a percentage of total articles coded as demonstrating consensus. 

This graph (hereafter referred to as graph 4) shows in total 54% of the sixty-three articles analysed demonstrated consensus. 


Graph 1 shows there is concern over the trans debate as highlighted by the increasing amount of articles written on the topic. This increases from 334 articles written on the subject in 2019-2022 to 531 in 2021-2022. Furthemore, the trans debate is volatile, with articles written about it increasing in the last recorded year. 

Graph 2 shows an upwards trend in the number of articles coded as hostile and showing consensus. 


Graph 3 demonstrates more articles in total than not showed hostility to trans+ people, issues and allies. Graph 4 shows there is also consensus over the supposed threat that stems from the trans debate and trans+ communities. 

As such, there is moral panic as demonstrated by the media over trans+ people, issues and allies.


Overall, the findings for the whole period of 2019-2022 were insignificant. This conclusion is reached as over the entire period only in the final year of analysis were over fifty percent of articles both demonstrating consensus and hostility. However, there is clear evidence throughout the period of increasing concern and volatility. 

However, the year from 2021-2022 presents significant findings that there is moral panic over the trans debate portrayed in the media. In this time period, up to 70% of articles showed hostility and more than half showed consensus. This highlights a worrying trend, as this study highlights a correlation between the sum of articles written per year and the percentage of the material that is hostile and shows consensus. 


The objectivity of investigations that utilise discourse analysis can always be brought into question. Despite best efforts, discourse analysis is subject to interpretation which is subjective. This article was not subject to secondary coding and thus could be influenced by the author’s own opinions. 

The methodology could also be subject to criticism. The relevancy filter used on Lexus Advance prioritises articles which most frequently mention ‘transgender’ which in some cases favours certain journalists for their writing styles. Furthermore, the same story from different commentators were included between and within publications which may skew the data. 

Lastly, this article only includes two publications, and a limited amount of articles from that (5% per year per publication). This is a small number of articles, however as a preliminary investigation provides reason for a more thorough article in the future. 


In conclusion this study has found that over the period of May 2019- May 2022, there has not been a significant moral panic over trans+ rights, issues and individuals. However, over the period of May 2021- May 2022 there has been a significant moral panic over trans+ rights, issues and individuals. 

The volatility over trans+ rights, issues and debates, and increasing concerns indicates that this is a subject ripe for further investigation and study in the coming year. It is also important to view this investigation amongst the backdrop of horrendously high rates of mental health 


crisis within the trans+ community including suicide and hate crime rates increasing. Whilst, it is not within the scope of this study to surmise whether the moral panic of 2021-2022 contributes to this there is a correlation. 



Cohen, S. (2011). Folk devils and moral panics : The creation of the mods and rockers. Taylor & Francis Group. 

Chivers, T (2021). “Report: Who Owns the UK Media?”. Media Reform Coalition. Online. Available at: 2.pdf [Accessed 16 March 2021] 

Critcher, C. (2008). Moral Panic Analysis: Past, Present and Future. Sociology compass, 2(4) pp.1127-1144. [Online]. Available at: errer 

European Commission. (2020). Legal gender recognition in the EU: the journeys of trans people towards full equality. EUROPEAN COMMISSION Directorate-General for Justice and Consumers [Online]. Available at: s_of_trans_people_towards_full_equality_sept_en.pdf [Accessed 26/05/2022]. 

Morgan, H., Lamprinakou, C., Fuller, E., and Albakri, M. (2020). Attitudes to transgender people. Equality and Human rights commission. [Online]. Available at [Accessed 26/05/2020]. 

Nevrkla, S. (2018). The history of transgender rights in the UK. [Online]. Available at: er-rights-in-the-uk- [Accessed 26/05/2022] 

Parker, J. (2020). Changes to gender recognition laws ruled out. BBC news. [Online]. Available at: [Accessed 26/05/2022]. 

Stewart, H., and Sherwood, H. (2022). Boris Johnson backtracks over LGBT conversion practices ban after backlash. The Guardian. [Online]. Available at: -conversion-practices. [Accessed 26/05/2022]. 


Smith, M. (2020). Where does the British public stand on transgender rights? YouGov. [Online]. Available at: d-transgender-rights [Accessed 26/05/2022]. 

Stop Hate UK. (2022). Transgender Hate. [Online]. Available at: [Accessed 10/08/2022] Acknowledgements and contributions: 

I would like to dedicate this article to the LGBTQIA+ community, who I am proudly part of. In particular the Trans+ members of this community, who are not only integral but a treasured part of it. There is no LGB without the T. 

I would also like to thank Dr. Silvia Falcetta (University of York) and Alex Yates for their intellectual support and contributions to this piece. Furthermore, thank you to the York Politics Review for publishing this contribution. For questions, raw data or constructive conversations you can contact the author via email at

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