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No, kids aren’t identifying as cats. We dig up the roots of an awful media rumour

No, kids aren’t identifying as cats. We dig up the roots of an awful media rumour

Jamie Wareham
Jamie Wareham
TL;DR: What began as Republican rumours about litter buckets in classrooms, reemerged into a weeklong story about baseless claims that kids identify as cats. Even in the source material for this week's story, no-one says that kids are actually doing this. Basic fact-checking would have put an end to this absurd conspiracy

What began as a viral TikTok became a massive story for a media hooked on anti-trans clickbait this week - based around whether kids in schools identify as 'cats'.

If you take a minute to listen to the actual audio this story is based on, it's clear to any listener that no one identifies as a cat.

So why did so much media report on this verbatim without fact-checking it? Let's explore.

How did the story hit the headlines?

A three-and-a-half-minute recording of a teacher and pupil arguing about gender identity was shared online. In it the student is quoted as asking:

“If they [another student] want to identify as a cow [indistinct, maybe ‘cat’] or something, then they are genuinely unwell – crazy.”

The teacher argues that this baseless concept is rude and offensive. That it disregards the range of gender identities people can have. In the clip, the teacher calls this attack "despicable".

After being picked up by Fox News, ultra-conservative group Turning Point UK and - you guessed it - GB News, it then hit mainstream legacy newspapers.

Specifically, The Telegraph ran the headline: “Pupil who questioned classmate ‘identifying as a cat’ called ‘despicable’ by teacher”. This propelled the story further, and it even ended up on the BBC and ITV - Byline Times

How the story played out in the media

If you tuned into LBC or were in a cab and had no choice on Monday morning, you'd have heard shock jock Nick Ferrari questioning the absurdity of this headline.

Unsurprisingly, his issue wasn’t that it was vastly misrepresentative. The phone-in debate raged over how children were identifying as cats and how horrendous it was that a teacher would call it "despicable" to question that. As you now know, that was never the case.

In the fiery exchange of the original audio, the teacher sets out why their pupil should respect different gender identities - in line with school policy - and that comparing the way people identify with gender to 'identifying as a cat' was "despicable".

It’s a very different conversation from what the headlines suggested. And it was blown further out of proportion when The Daily Mail platformed (who they dub) 'Britain's strictest head-teacher. The paper dug up month-old comments at the right-wing conference NatCon where she claimed, with little evidence, that kids at her school identified as cats.

All of this led to the Education Secretary, Gillian Keegan, ordering an investigation into the school, Equalities minister Kemi Badenoch demanding a snap Ofsted inspection, and Rishi Sunak condemning “schools (that) are allowing children to identify as cats, horses and dinosaurs.”

It bears repeating - none of this happened. No one at the school identifies as a cat. A fact the school was pained to have to confirm in a statement - Schools Week

Where did the baseless 'identify as a cat' concept originate?

If you zoom out even further, many social media users pointed out that the idea of kids 'identifying as cats' comes from an even more horrifying place.

It comes after Republicans spread the conspiracy theory after they found out some schools keep litter buckets in classrooms.

They're designed to be makeshift toilets in case of school shootings. Schools in the US have them because most now operate with a 'when, not if' strategy - The Mary Sue

Analysis: Basic journalistic craft would have stopped this story

Fact-checking is one of the foundational elements of journalism. But it's done on a trust basis. People have to trust it's done to believe in their news sources.

It's no wonder that trust in UK journalism has one of the lowest scores in the world. ‘Churn’ - stories lifted from other papers with little or no fact-checking to generate ad revenue - are far too big a part of the industry. This story should have never passed the partisan broadcast world of GB News and Fox News.

It should have been thrown on the cutting room floor when it reached mainstream media, which has long prided itself on its commitment to journalistic principles. It should have been dubbed a non-story as fake news.

But it wasn't - because it played right into the hands of a UK media industry addicted to transphobic hate and rage clicks.

Jamie Wareham, he/him, gay queer disabled - A note from me:

What a scandalous week for the UK media. To repeat baseless claims without fact-checking them isn't only awful, it's hugely harmful.

In a week that the media should have been critiquing planned schools guidance which will restrict the liberty of children - it instead gave proponents of the action even more permission and reason.

All while spreading false misinformation and pretence. And as we report further on in this week's newsletter, that guidance is looks set to be far worse than Section 28.

It's time for this outrageous behaviour to end in the media.

And I get it - it can feel insurmountable, the idea of changing the media? But we know it's possible.

We show you it's possible. Here. Every week.

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