(Don’t you) Mind the Girls: Bias in Sports Reporting 

Originally published at International Sports Press Association (AIPS) website

Sports journalists are failing girls and women worldwide. No, I am not speaking of fellow female reporters here, as some of the readers may think. I will not go on a tirade on sexism, bias and disrespect me and my female colleagues may have faced over the years of their careers. I am speaking of athletes. We, sports journalists, are failing the athletes, and by that, we are failing thousands and thousands of girls, because some of us make it look like women’s sports just doesn’t matter.

5% important 

‘Wait… us? What do I have to do with this?  I like girls’ sports, I enjoy watching women run on the track, or participate in the Olympics…’  See, that’s just not enough. The coverage of women in sports goes up and down in cycles, spiking during the Olympic years and rolling downhill for the next four. The numbers published ahead of the London Games almost three years ago spoke wonders. Almost 95% of the sports coverage in the British media was devoted to men. The “enthusiasm” of the local press ahead of the big event seems quite astounding.

A research article, published in the Oxford Journal of Public Health in 2014 only reiterated the previous findings. Yet again, British newspapers were found to have published 4.5% of the articles about women ahead of the Games. Five months after the the Olympics the coverage went down to a 2.9% average. Roll forward to 2013, University of East Anglia report. Here, researchers give us 3.6% of articles, the average reviewed over two years, only 3.6% in a host-country where 36% of its 2012 Olympic medals were won by women.

Let’s jump the Atlantic now. An American study, spanning 20 years and countless television reports, undertaken by sociologists from University of Southern California and Purdue University. The situation in the US is not much better. American television channels dedicated less than 5% of their news reports to women in sports, for some of the networks the average came down to only 2%. Australian figures from a several years ago show 9% to 81% correlation, the other 10 being mixed sports.

If this is happening in the nations, where sport is a true part of the national identity and where athletes – both male and female – constantly bring home scores of medals from diverse World Championships and Olympic Games, what can we speak of the rest of the world? Studies on gender representations in sports coverage are not a complete novelty. There is clearly something very wrong about the way we, sports journalists, are doing our jobs, and the fact that the scholars are the ones to show it to us – is a disgrace.  The vicious circle was right in front of us.

Sports journalists don’t cover enough female sports and unfortunately that is a fact. It is also clear as day, that the disinterest, and in some cases, incompetence, of the media is affecting the very nature of sport and it’s image, it dashes the hopes and aspirations of future athletes and decreases their chances of a professionally and financially sustainable careers. Which, in turn, leaves us with weak sports, unable to interest neither the fans nor the athletes themselves.

She’s [pretty] talented: reporting and the image of sport 

The “twirl-gate” incident caused quite a stir at this year’s Australian Open. Victorious Canadian tennis player Eugenie Bouchard was asked to do a twirl by the on-court interviewer to show-off her colorful outfit. Visibly embarrassed, Bouchard laughed the incident off. As Serena Williams has later commented, Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal would not have been asked to do the same.

All too often, female athletes get judged – and described by journalists – by the way they look first, and by their talent only second. They tend to be represented as second-class athletes, weaker and less capable of showcasing exciting sportive prowess. Put simply, their are not interesting enough to be reported on and even the viewership figures are low. The question here is, how would women sports be known and liked, when women in sports do not even get a tenth of men’s coverage? How would sports develop and grow? Considering the difficulties girls face on their way to the podium, it is our responsibility to hail their exceptional talent, or at least, note their distinguished successes in a dignified way. Girls must know that what they do matters and quality reporting is paramount. Unfortunately, sometimes even the meagre sports coverage gets tainted by sexist undertones.

Of course, some of us may argue that their own articles on women in sport little to do with the gossip columns and swimsuit shots that may turn up in Sports Illustrated. That they do not contribute to the coverage that devalues feminine talent and grit. Yet, silence on the topic means consent. I write “we” because I accept that it is my responsibility as well, even though I am a woman, and even though female sports journalists are proven to be less likely to disrespect female athletes.

A sports journalist may comment on female body parts, new hairstyles, stylish uniforms and sexualized sports advertisements.  A odd reader may think it is ok. That is enough to make things snowball. The result? Type “sexy athletes” in Google image search and “enjoy” thousands and thousands of female athletes coming up on your screen. We are partly responsible for making it seem ok to ask top-rank athletes to do a twirl, because the outfit is pretty. We are also responsible for creating the image of the likes of Anna Kournikova – one of the most famous and most recognized tennis players who didn’t happen to win a single major tournament, but did start in quite a few revealing photoshoots… Some sports journalists help create a world where looks conquer talent, where sport is about sex and this is certainly not a negligible matter.

Sports, and the Olympics in particular, are the greatest celebration of diversity also in the sense that they celebrate women of all shapes and sizes, creating a legion of positive role models for girls. Are you tall? Bulky? Thin? Are you fast? Whoever you are – you are beautiful, you can be strong and you can be victorious. It is better to be a football player, than to have your life’s aspiration center about marrying one. Girls need to know that women in sports may be similar to them in appearance, that they have stories to tell and ultimately that female athletes are not some mythical creatures that reappear just in time for the Olympic games. They need somebody to tell them that being a girl in sports can be exciting, and that and that’s where sports journalists should come in.

No betting on the girls 

  Reporting affects the female athlete’s sponsorship opportunities in a major way. Reports and all the subsequent attention that come with it create exposure for sponsors, thus making their investment into athletes, teams and sports facilities worthwhile. The absence of sponsorship deprives of funding, hindering development and performance. The absence of coverage makes the sports seem less interesting, both for the spectators and the sponsors. One thing after another, and we are once again left at a standstill.

According to Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation data, British women athletes only get about 0.5% of sponsorships contracts. John Antil and Matthew Robinson in their study on sports sponsorship published in Journal of Brand Strategy suggest that it is the visibility of female athletes, or rather the lack thereof, that hinders their sponsorship chances. That is why sponsorship contracts also spike around the period of the Olympic games, when potential hopefuls and recent medalist are in the spotlight. Then, as the coverage wanes, so does the money…

Sponsorship is about recognition, when there is none, female faces are less profitable. Moreover, when the sponsor bets on the wrong female athlete, it could spectacularly backfire. The tendency to over sexualize female athletes does not help the sales, as women like to see an accomplished, relatable athlete, rather than a beautiful face and a hot body.

Some competitions also offer prize-money, and once again, the male-female rivalry gets in the way of decency. A 2014 BBC sports study on the 35 global sports that pay prize money has found that 10 sports, or 30%, still do not do so equally. A Times columnist, in his piece on the findings of the study, stated that the female tennis player are simply “snaffling money from men”…

Girls matter too. Embrace it. 

  The myths about women and sports are quite common, but myths can be debunked if one is willing to only look. Women like sports. Women watch sports. The number of female athletes is growing.  The ranks of female reporters are growing. Female athletes are able to compete on the same level, some do so by swimming past men’s records from 30 years ago, some, like ski jumper Lindsey Van in 2010 , by jumping farther than most men can (obviously, not to be confused with ski racer Lindsey Vonn)… Like it or not, women sports are here to stay. Like it or not, what you report and how you report, the disinterest and disrespect you show today may one day discourage your daughter from developing her natural talent. So, now, I address my male colleagues – for men represent an overwhelming majority in sports media worldwide. For years, sports press has been letting women in sport down by not giving them their voice and staying silent about their successes. This has to stop.