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Continued apathy by sports media toward women’s sports a bigger problem than first meets the eye

When’s the last time you can remember seeing major coverage of a women’s sports story that didn’t involve Venus or Serena Williams?

Milka Duno’s racing efforts? ESPN sideline reporter Erin Andrews’ stint on Dancing with the Stars? Rutgers University’s women’s basketball team reacting to Don Imus’ insults back in 2007?

Okay, that last one’s an overstatement. But such depressing thoughts come to mind after wading through the new study from researchers at the University of Southern California and Purdue University titled Gender in Televised Sports: News and Highlight Shows 1989 to 2009. Their findings, the latest installment of a 20-year tracking effort, finds coverage of women’s sports lower than ever in 2009, down to 1.6 percent of airtime on local TV stations and ESPN’s SportsCenter.

The study unearths a litany of depressing numbers: 100 percent of the shows surveyed started with a story on men’s sports; 72 percent of all coverage focused on just three sports, men’s basketball, football and baseball; the highest proportion of coverage occurred ten years ago, when local TV stations spent 8.7 percent of airtime on women’s sports (SportsCenter was still at 2.2 percent); reporting on the most popular women’s sport, basketball, was often shunted to the rolling “ticker” at the bottom of the TV screen.

“I confess to being shocked to learn that since 1989, very little has changed in the world of televised sports news,” wrote Diana Nyad, a one-time world-record swimmer who has worked for Fox Sports, ABC Sports and National Public Radio, in the study’s introduction. “It is frankly unfathomable, and unacceptable, that viewers are actually receiving less coverage of women’s sports than they were 20 years ago.”

But what may be most surprising is the reaction to the study: Apathy.

A handful of media outlets reported on the study when it was released last week, and comments on various blogs and Internet message boards offered the same insulting rationalizations:

This is what the sports audience wants. Broadcasters are focusing on the most interesting sports. Most female-centered sports are no good, anyway. And much, much worse.

There are a few caveats worth noting; 2009’s economic slump slashed reporting budgets for most news outlets and developing audiences for women-centered sports organizations has always been a challenge. Also, the study looked at a sample of three network affiliates in Los Angeles and ESPN’s SportsCenter; with all due respect to the City of Angels, their local newscasts often look a lot different than coverage offered in other parts of the country.

Still, there’s a larger principle at stake here: Journalistic accuracy.

According to the study, as the gap closes between numbers of girls and boys participating in high school and college sports, the gap in coverage has widened. At the college level, the average number of women’s athletic teams per NCAA school has risen 4 times since 1972, to 8.64 teams.

So why did coverage on local affiliates drop 80 percent over 20 years and nearly 50 percent over the past 10 years on ESPN?

Regardless of the gender dynamics, sports journalists should be concerned over the myopic focus of reports on just three professional sports leagues, even at local TV stations. For years, we have heard that the local audiences can get pro sports news from ESPN and online – so why should local TV sports departments keep focusing on the same stuff as the big boys?

The study also noted that sports departments can spend precious minutes focused on trivial stories such as supremely unhealthy hamburgers on sale at a minor league baseball park or basketball star Shaquille O’Neal’s contest with a 93-year-old woman to pick the most NCAA basketball tournament winners.

So clearly time constraints don’t tell the full story on the disparity of coverage; even when spare minutes exist, they are often filled with coverage cut from the same myopic mindset. Again, it seems a question of journalism values; accuracy, fairness and completeness of coverage.

Too often, some people seem to think these issues are about some fuzzy concept of social responsibility – and to be sure, there is a component of this at work. The study’s authors aren’t shy about speaking on the impact of this coverage imbalance on how the audience sees women, who are often depicted as spouses, wives, mothers and adjuncts to successful men – despite their own athletic achievements.

Even when men were the subject of unflattering coverage, the study notes, “they were embedded within a seemingly unending flow of respectful and celebratory stories about men’s sports and male athletes. By contrast, a negative story on a woman athlete usually stood alone as the only women’s sports story in a particular broadcast.”

Such lines remind me of similar observations made on coverage featuring people of color, especially regarding crime. Journalists realized long ago how easy it is to pass along assumptions about racial minorities in news coverage, spending lots of time thinking about ways to break down and subvert those dynamics in the interest of fairer more accurate reporting. Don’t women in sports deserve the same effort?

The study offers some recommendations on solutions; hiring more female journalists and encouraging sports organizations to pitch female athletics better, for instance.

But the gap won’t really improve until sports journalists see the disparity as an essential journalism failure – a continuing and worsening inequality that is distorting how sports fans see female athletes and women in general, continuing a cycle that intensifies their marginalization in a vibrant marketplace.

How can any of us stay apathetic facing a possibility like that?

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the St. Petersburg Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Village Voice, VIBE magazine, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed, at blogs.tampabay.com/media.
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