Yet Another Fight Against Male Dominance: Increasing the Number of Female Sports Journalists Is The Solution to Unequal Media Coverage

By Audrey Boennighausen

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Photo by Jeffrey F Lin on Unsplash

Another football video?

I do not groan. I do not make a fuss. I do not run up to the projection screen and pound my fist on the moving images of the football team practicing. Nobody sitting with me in Room 401 at Los Altos High School is able to recognize the frustration building up inside me as the video continues to play. Perhaps if I were in a movie, a skilled viewer would see all these emotions flash across my eyes in a tight closeup. But I am not in a movie, and I do not vocally or physically demonstrate the impatience I feel as yet another display of male dominance in sports plays out before me.

As a female athlete and journalist, seeing the all-male Sports Beat of my high school journalism class, New Media Lit, create football video after football video irked me. In the professional world, only “3 percent of newspaper sports stories are about women’s teams” and “women’s sports and athletes account for...less than 2 percent of broadcasting time on network news and ESPN’s SportsCenter” (Schmidt). This situation likely stems from a number of possible causes, the first of which is unequal funding for women’s sports. The contrast between the American Basketball League (ABL) and the National Basketball Association (NBA) demonstrates how the financial situation of a league or sport plays an important role in grabbing the media’s attention. The ABL was the first attempt at creating a professional men’s basketball league in the early 1900s while the NBA is the later, more successful version. In a panel discussion for the academic journal Media Report to Women, David Aldridge states the NBA was so successful compared to the ABL because the NBA had substantial financial backing (“Coverage of Women’s Sports Debated”). Currently, the relationship between the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) and the NBA is in a comparable, though less extreme, situation. The lesser financial backing means the WNBA cannot afford the same media-attracting extravagance that the NBA puts on. With unequal funding, it is difficult for women’s sports to compete for the media’s attention. Another possible reason for the lack of women’s sports coverage is the claim that nobody wants to watch or read about women’s sports because they are less popular men’s sports (Hardin). But one could also argue the opposite: women’s sports are less popular because they lack media coverage.

These reasons are just excuses for the fact that the problem is not with women’s sports themselves, but with the media’s bias against women. One male reporter even acknowledged this fact by explaining he does not cover women’s sports because “We’re not social change agents” (Hardin). This preservation of the status quo built from generations of gender inequality cannot be addressed by fixing external factors like money and popularity. It needs to be addressed from within the media system itself.

The lack of media coverage for women’s sports occurs at all levels of journalism. Tackling such a large issue on the national scale is nearly impossible, as it would require overthrowing some parts of what centuries of journalism have solidified as the male-dominated status quo. This issue should instead be addressed at the high school level because of its relative feasibility. At first glance, high school journalism programs do not seem to push for lots of social and professional change. Would it not be more effective if outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post could lead other major media companies through a change that lower levels of journalism eventually look up to? Yes. But convincing large, professional media companies plagued by large-scale commercialization is a much more difficult feat than convincing high school teachers that proper, ethical journalism is worthy of being taught in schools.

Many professional sports journalists learn reporting techniques beginning in high school media programs (Hull, et. al). That learning includes “the ethics of responsible journalism, media literacy in the era of false news, and citizenship in their school community and the wider world” (Hull, et. al). Ensuring that future journalists grasp proper ethical practices at the high school level increases the chances of them resisting the male-dominated status quo of sports journalism when they enter the professional world (Schmidt). As a result, addressing the problem at a lower level raises future generations of sports journalists to be less prone to male-dominated thinking.

More specifically, my high school’s broadcast journalism class, New Media Lit, should adopt changes and experiment with solutions because of its status as a relatively new class. Last year was the first year we ever structured the class with reporter “beats” for different sections of news, so changing the class structure bears less weight than changing the structure of major national media outlets. Given that New Media Lit cannot remain a new class forever, it is urgent to address the lack of coverage for women’s sports before the male-dominated athletics videos become “the way it’s always been.”

The New Media Lit editors-in-chief and the teacher, Mr. Barker, hold the most power to enact proposed changes to the class. The editors-in-chief run the day-to-day operations of the class while Mr. Barker oversees its general organization. Together, and usually in consultation with the rest of the class, these people have the ability to take certain approaches to the structure and priorities of the class. One such structural change could be to enforce quotas that require the Sports Beat to create equal amounts of videos for both men’s and women’s sports. For example, Mr. Barker could link student grades to whether or not they meet the set quota. However, New Media Lit reporters already discussed the possibility of a general quota for all reporters last year and ultimately decided against it. The class was mainly concerned with how a quota would affect the quality of videos produced. An analysis of media systems from AV Communication Review goes further to say that not prioritizing story subjects over, say, trying to meet a quota makes “the treatment of those subjects more revealing of the underlying assumptions cultivated in the story-telling process” (Gerbner). Female athletes are already “more likely to be framed in domestic or supporting roles than male athletes and...respectful coverage of women has not increased over time” (Schmidt). Therefore, installing a quota system for New Media Lit risks degrading the quality of sports stories when women’s sports media coverage is already lacking in that area.

Social media is another possible solution to increasing women’s sports coverage at my high school. A study about the role of social media in a women’s Australian netball league found that “[t]he presence of social media content throughout a television broadcast directs the live audience to social media platforms, while high levels of activity on social media provides evidence of fan participation and demand for the broadcast” (Vann). Based on these findings, New Media Lit could actively promote men’s and women’s sports equally through social media to increase student interaction with the teams and therefore demand for content. The posts would not have to be in depth stories, but simply announcements about upcoming games or score updates, for example. Despite this convenience benefit, there is a major flaw in the solution. It implies that reporters have a desire to produce social media content for women’s sports, in which case we could also assume they already have a desire to produce more video content for women’s sports. Therefore, this solution depends on the problem already being solved. We see again that the issue is an internal one. Specifically, it is the bias journalists have towards women’s sports.

Numerous scholarly articles and journals have discussed the lack of women’s sports coverage. Of the ones I read, a large proportion seem to suggest the same thing: increasing the number of female sports journalists may help reduce the second-class treatment female athletes receive from the media. One article from Newspaper Research Journal proposes that “journalism educators can take steps to encourage the increased participation of women in sports journalism programs and help the next generation of reporters to be more aware of the importance of covering both women and men in a balanced and respectful fashion” (Schmidt). This solution would help increase coverage for women’s sports by decreasing the likelihood of hegemonistic thought motivating the selection of sports stories and promoting the consideration of female input in sports journalism. Based on these reasons, Mr. Barker and the editors-in-chief of New Media Lit should strongly encourage female participation on the Sports Beat at my high school.

Hegemonic masculinity is the concept that the “norms and expected behaviors that are socially associated with men become a dominant cultural force that exercises control over others” (Schmidt). This concept largely relates to why many issues of gender equality persist. In an American University School of Communication discussion of women’s sports coverage, panelist and ESPN commentator Christine Brennan connects hegemonic masculinity to the stories reporters choose to pursue. She examines with her fellow panelists that “most of [reporters] are men…who say, ya know, I love baseball, football, basketball, hockey and they’re not thinking…of box scores for women. They don’t think, Rich, that you care about that, but you do” (“Coverage of Women’s Sports Debated”). Brennan argues that because most sports reporters are men, they believe their interest in men’s sports properly reflects the interests of readers when they do not. These false beliefs cause male reporters to overestimate interest in men’s sports and underestimate interest in women’s sports.

An opponent could dismiss Brennan’s argument as an opinion. However, Brennan’s argument turns from an opinion to a research-supported claim when we consider related studies. For example, a study from Newspaper Research Journal applies the concept of hegemonic masculinity to sports editors’ gatekeeping role of deciding what stories are published. The study explores what editors believe their readers’ interests are, what (if any) kinds of research editors do to understand those interests, and what editors’ personal beliefs are about covering women’s sports. The researchers found that “(1) Sports section gatekeepers determine content based more on their own sense about audience interests than on the audience itself; and, (2) Their sense about audience interest is driven, at least in part, by personal beliefs and hegemonic ideology about women’s sports” (Hardin). Based on these findings from a sample of mainly male subjects, sports editors are likely to not only have hegemonic ideology, but they let it influence their journalistic decisions. This study also found that “female editors do see things differently, at least to a degree” than male editors because “they judged interest in women’s sports as higher than did their male counterparts” (Harding). Given that male editors’ decisions are less favorable toward women, it can reasonably be said that the fewer male editors there are at a news organization, the less hegemonic thought will motivate their gatekeeping decisions.

The discrepancy between “editors” and “reporters” invites a potential concern about how well this study translates to my high school journalism class. News editors, whom the study spotlights, generally have more gatekeeping power than news reporters, whom my proposal focuses on. How does a study demonstrating the benefits of more female editorssupport the proposal for more female reporters if they do not have the same decision-making power? This concern is extremely valid, but it lacks strength when considered in the context of my high school. New Media Lit is an extremely flexible class. While there are editors-in-chief who make important decisions on how to make the class better, they do not have the same control as professional editors over what stories reporters pursue. Especially since New Media Lit focuses on learning and practicing journalism, student reporters have a great deal of power over their own work. Therefore, Newspaper Research Journal’s study concerning sports editors still supports the push for more female sports reporters in New Media Lit.

While I do not believe the power discrepancy between editors and reporters should matter within the context of New Media Lit, let us pretend for a moment that it does. Even if an increase in female reporters does not effectively minimize the hegemonic motivations behind male-dominated story selections, it still promotes the consideration of female points of view. The content of women’s sports coverage is just as much a concern as the amount (“Coverage of Women’s Sports Debated”). In an article by Sports Journalism, campaigning sports journalist Anna Kessel describes a time when men debated whether or not to publish a story about a female tennis player’s struggle with menstruation during an important match (Bradshaw, et. al). Female journalists could have provided valuable input about how to properly handle the story, especially since their voices are more representative of the story’s subject. When men make decisions on stories about women, they risk sexualizing, objectifying, or otherwise demeaning women under the pretense that they are giving media attention to women’s sports. The presence and input of female journalists at news organizations of all levels, including my high school journalism class, would help male journalists realize when their decisions are biased against or mistreating female athletes.

A common objection to the push for more female sports journalists is that women “don’t want to be pigeon-holed as the women’s sports correspondent. They’ve wanted to report on sport at the highest level and that has meant covering men’s sport” (Bradshaw, et. al). If female journalists are denied opportunities to report on men’s sports, then the larger problem of gender segregation emerges. Male reporters only covering men’s sports and female reporters only covering women’s sports would contribute even more to the already established conception that women’s sports are second-class to men’s sports. While this opinion is completely valid and a serious concern, the benefits of more female sports journalists outweigh the costs. If Mr. Barker and the editors-in-chief of New Media Lit do not encourage more female journalists to join the Sports Beat, then the potential decrease in hegemonic masculinity and increase in promotion of female input never get the chance to be realized. As a result, the Sports Beat will likely continue to be male-dominated year after year until time establishes it as the norm. Fearing that an otherwise beneficial solution will have a few negative consequences should not be reason enough to deprive the issue of any benefits at all.

This objection also raises the concern of whether or not women actually want to pursue sports journalism. Mr. Barker and the editors-in-chief of New Media Lit cannot force female students to want to be on the Sports Beat, but studies have shown that “the involvement of women in sports writing has increased significantly over the course of the past three decades” (Schmidt). The fact that female sports journalists have increased in prominence indicates that women must be interested in the profession, and they have likely acted on that interest as Title IX significantly increased opportunities for women in sports. However, this fact should not be used to argue that a further increase in female sports journalists is unnecessary. In 2016, women accounted for “just 9.6 percent of newspaper sports editors and 11.7 percent of newspaper sports reporters” (Schmidt), which is not a very representative percentage.

While the increasing number of female journalists indicate an increasing interest in the field, there are also ways the editors-in-chief and teacher for New Media Lit can strongly encourage female students to join the Sports Beat. One way to do so is through role models. There is a motivational theory to role models because “[o]bserving a role model having achieved a particular goal may, under the right circumstances, be enough to motivate role aspirants to believe that they too can reach that goal” (Morgenroth, et. al). Role models are “representations of the possible” and serve as proof that someone like them can achieve the same dreams, both new and existing (Morgenroth, et. al). Within New Media Lit, Mr. Barker can incorporate successful female sports journalists such as Erin Andrews, Maria Taylor, and Hannah Storm (see Fig 1.) into the curriculum to potentially inspire female students to explore the Sports Beat. Simply educating New Media Lit students about certain shortfalls of modern journalism can also serve to encourage female students. Understanding that women are underrepresented and mistreated in sports journalism is sometimes enough to appeal to a woman’s sense of duty to fight for gender equality.

  • Three female sports anchors
    Fig. 1. From left to right: Erin Andrews, uncredited ("Erin Andrews"); Maria Taylor, by Joe Faraoni, ESPN Images (McCarthy); and Hannah Storm, by Kelly Backus, ESPN Images (Barron).

Even if these methods fail to motivate more females to join the Sports Beat, incorporating role models and the flaws of journalism into the course material will instill proper journalistic habits into a room full of potential future reporters. The purpose of New Media Lit is to raise ethical, responsible journalists. So everyone, no matter their gender, will be more resistant to toxic, male-dominated cultures that currently exist in the professional world because of the way they were introduced to journalism.