Where Are All The Women?
Female athletes and teams rarely play on our screens or hit our papers. Sportsgirls reporter MADDIE ATKINS spoke to sports journalists about the inequalities facing women in sports coverage, and asked the question: is it the media's responsibility to level the playing field?
For most, it will come as no surprise that female sportspeople sit on the sidelines of mainstream media coverage. In 1996, Dr. Murray Phillips found women’s sport coverage reached a maximum of 13.8 per cent of sports reports that year. This was an improvement on the 4.5 per cent maximum in the years 1980-1992. But today women’s sport barely gets a shot at our TV screens and newspapers.
A 2006 Senate Inquiry into women in sport and recreation in Australia (“About Time!”) found females are just as likely to participate in sport as males, and watch sport on a similar par too. So although women play and consume sport almost as much as men, they don’t often get to see sporting stars of their own gender in mainstream media coverage.
Not worth a mention
If you ask about media coverage of women’s sport, you might hear things like: ‘Women just aren’t as good as men,’ ‘women don’t run as fast’, ‘they aren’t as strong’. These denigrating ideas are pervasive amongst sports journalists. The 2006 Senate Inquiry quotes John Mangos of Sky News: “There’s no way to say this nicely without sounding sexist, but the fact of the matter is blokes hit the ball further, kick the ball harder, go in harder, it’s better to watch, end of story”.
Greg Baum is a sports writer for The Age. He too argues that men’s sport tends to have a higher standard than women’s due to men’s physiological features, which lead to better performance and thus more coverage. “The reality of sport is that people gravitate toward the highest level, watch it at the highest level and that’s what gets covered,” he says.
Yet the Senate Inquiry argued biological facts and standard of play alone couldn’t account for the media’s neglect of women’s sport. The report noted that if sports coverage was dictated by a measure of highest performance, we would also see more coverage of sports in which females dominate at the elite level, such as netball. There’s definitely more complex issues at play.
Show me the money!
It seems media outlets aren’t interested in increasing sports reports on female athletes and teams because of a strong industry perception that women’s sport doesn’t sell.
Andrew Swain is a reporter for Fox Sports. “The general rule across the media is that [men’s sport] is more popular and in higher demand,” he says. “Journalism these days is quite blurred with advertising and agendas... It’s all about cash and the men’s [sports] have cash and the women’s sports don’t unfortunately.” The commercial media heavily relies on advertising revenue, ratings and circulation figures. Men's sport gets all the focus because it brings in the big bucks, readers and viewers.
Women's sport, then, is stuck in a brutal cycle. It lacks media coverage and hence struggles to find funding, sponsorship and interest. Without this financial backing and popularity, it's hard to encourage or justify improving its coverage.
It's all about structures
There's a complex history behind why men’s sport rakes in the mega money and steals the media spotlight. According to the 2006 Inquiry, men’s sport has “the advantage of incumbency”, where team loyalties and established business models protect the status quo of highly-funded, professional male sports, leaving little room for female players in the sporting spectrum. For example, in newsrooms experienced male journalists do most of the sports reporting and reports on female teams and competitions are left to junior journalists.
There have been improvements in the proportion of women’s sport coverage. As a public broadcaster, ABC airs female sporting competitions such as national netball games, albeit not in primetime hours. According to Swain and Jacquelin Magnay, a sports journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald, women’s sport has gained more coverage with the advent of pay TV because channels like Fox Sports, always hungry for content, are looking to new areas to fill the twenty-four hours of viewing slots.
It’s not our responsibility
If you want to see more women’s sport in the media, don’t expect the sports media to take the first step. “I don’t think it’s the role of journalists and journalism to promote any sport, nor do I think it’s the role of journalism to suppress or denigrate any sport," says Baum. "I think it’s our role to report on and comment on the efforts of the sports to promote themselves.”
Sports reporters “answer to their employers,” Magnay says. “Their responsibility is to publish sport that is the most attractive, newsworthy, and whatever is going to attract readers and viewers, not to be the PR agent of women’s sport.”
Magnay has found people often expect her to cover women’s sport because of her gender. Although she enjoys women's sport and does try a little harder than her male colleagues to get it in the paper, she believes her job is to report on all sport regardless of the gender of participants.
Perhaps more coverage will only come when women’s sports push for it, rather than waiting for the media to increase coverage. “There is this feeling that when people watch women’s competitions and see how great they are, then they will be attracted to it and watch it,” Magnay says. “But the media doesn’t actually generate the coverage or the interest in sport. The interest in sport has to be there and then the media reflects that interest.”
Magnay believes increased coverage could be achieved if sports organisations and teams establlish better "dialogue" with media outlets, promoting their sport and updating journalists on newsworthy events and issues. In fact, Recommendation 17 in the 2006 Senate Inquiry suggested the national government provide financial support to train athletes and sports administrators to better utilise media opportunities. Not all recommendations were met with affirmative responses.
Don’t quota me on that
A controversial submission to the 2006 Senate Inquiry was the concept of quotas for women’s sport coverage in the media. The suggested quota was a minimum of 30 per cent. Baum slammed the idea in a 2006 article (“Count me out: women must earn coverage”) because the quota would be “a measure of quantity, not quality” and “could consist of any meaningless bilge”.
Speaking to Sportsgirls this week, Baum stands by his views. “I don't think quotas work in anything, because they don't take account of quality,” he says. “I think media coverage has to be looked at as part of everything else, it has to be earned and also be proportionate to what appeals to people.”
Instead, Baum says that women’s sport needs to work on improving its standard of play to increase media coverage. “It should continually strive to be the best sport it can," he says. "The first priority must be to concentrate on improving, refining and rarefying standards within your own sport.”
So if you want to see more female athletes, teams and competitions on TV, you simply need to be more interested and show it. “People involved in women’s sport and who follow women’s sport have a responsibility to take an interest in it and follow it, and also encourage the media to cover it,” Magnay says. “I think that has a more direct impact than just sitting back and bagging the media.”
Tags: women; sport; media coverage; the age; fox sports; sydney morning herald; abc; television; newspaper; gender; female; sport reporting
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