Women’s Sports in the Media and Women in Sports Media - Are They the Same?

BlogHer Original Post

women's sports mediaThroughout the Women’s Final Four earlier this month in Indianapolis, a number of special interest events took place. Of particular note were two panels that addressed women, sports and the media. Women Talk Sports was fortunate to be able to host a town-hall style discussion April 2nd at the Canterbury Hotel featuring Ann Killion (Sports Illustrated), Christine Brennan (USA Today), Jeff House (Chicago Sky), Jere Longman (New York Times), Mariah Burton Nelson (AAPAR) and Wendy Parker (Basketball News).

The topic of the WTS discussion was “The State of Women’s Basketball in the Media.” Veteran sportswriter Christine Brennan pointed out that women’s basketball is played better today than it was yesterday, and it will be better tomorrow than it is today. Yet mainstream coverage of the sport is simply not improving. Why? Because despite growth of the women’s game it is still not as popular as the NFL or the NBA and major publications cater to the masses.

The panel agreed that the impact of digital media on women's sports journalism is the single most important factor in creating change. The panelists also discussed perspectives about the media from coaches and players, as well as coverage of specific issues relating to women’s basketball such as homophobia and negative recruiting. Wendy Parker, who reports on gender issues as well as basketball, noted that while most news bureaus ignore women’s sports, it has strong niche appeal and is rife with opportunity. A video of the entire WTS panel discussion can be found here.

On the afternoon of April 4th, Christine Brennan and Ann Killion headed over to the Indiana University National Sports Journalism Center where they were joined by Shelley Smith (ESPN), Michael Anastasi (AP Sports Editors) and Dave Goren (National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association) in a panel co-sponsored by AWSM. The audience of mostly students listened intently as the panelists discussed topics ranging from the need to diversify management ranks to past and current treatment of female journalists.

Both panels tried to delve into why traditional media ignores women’s sports. Killion noted that while there’s more coverage of women’s sports than in the past, primarily because of the Internet, traditional media outlets are under pressure to deliver large audiences and women’s sports don’t move the needle as much as LeBron James orTom Brady. There are also very few writers assigned to the women’s sports beat and with constant budget cuts and shrinking news space, those beat writers are generally the first to be laid off or reassigned.

Female sports journalists who cover men’s sports seem to have a bit more job security but they run the risk of being attacked by men who believe sports are a male birthright and women aren’t qualified to write about the subject. Apparently diversity is still a foreign concept to a segment of backward thinking sports fans and the panelists lamented the fact that this has been an issue since the legendary Mary Garber launched her sports writing career more than 60 years ago.

After several hours of public discussion between the two panels, and many more hours discussing the issues with friends and colleagues over the course of the weekend, one thing became crystal clear. There is still confusion between covering women’s sports in the media and women in the media covering sports. A general assumption is often made that female sportswriters are naturally women’s sports fans; and the only ones covering women’s sports are female journalists. In both cases, the statements couldn’t be further from the truth.

In fact, a xx chromosome isn’t a prerequisite for following women’s sports. There are plenty of men who are fans and actively support female athletes, including a very large contingency of dads who make a point of attending every basketball, softball and soccer tournament their daughters play. Sports fans who enjoy the purity of the game, and aren’t interested in scandal and showboating, are also big supporters of women’s sports. A great post on this subject can be found here.

A number of male sportswriters are also passionate about women’s sports and cover female athletes with knowledge, skill and insight. Swishappeal.com is an example of male journalists expertly covering the women’s game.

At the same time, it is often assumed that female sportswriters are exclusively watching and reporting on women’s sports when that’s not the case. Panelist Shelley Smith may, or may not be, a women’s sports fan. Hard to tell since as a correspondent for ESPN’s SportsCenter she primarily covers men’s sports. Killion is best known as a columnist covering Bay Area football and baseball teams. There are indications that both are supporters of women’s sports but they don't make a living reporting on them. They have each endured a great deal of sexism and discrimination on the road to becoming respected sports journalists in a profession dominated by men. But it’s wrong to assume that since they’re female sportswriters, they’re only interested in covering women’s sports.

Do female sportswriters cover their beat differently than their male counterparts? Their reporting may be a bit more nuanced but one might argue that in order to be taken seriously they have to know their subject matter even better than the male journalists. Brennan, Killion and Smith have covered countless Olympics, Superbowls, World Series and World Cups as well as Grand Slams and Masters Tournaments. They know their stuff as well, if not better, than many male sportswriters. While they still endure some harassment, they’ve proven they deserve a seat at the table. Their love of sports, which they’ve cultivated their entire lives, has provided each with a level of well-earned professional success and the right to be taken seriously.

While there may be cultural differences between the genders, that doesn’t necessarily mean female fans want to consume sports differently. Or female sportswriters must always be relegated to covering women’s sports. Inevitably, a conversation about women, sports and media ends up lumping disparate groups together. Plenty of women are fans of the guy’s game and plenty of women AND men support women’s sports, but these factions are not one and the same. Publishers, editors, and media executives who don’t make a distinction will be accused of marginalization and end up alienating each group.

So why is it a good idea for the media to spotlight female athletes and women’s sports? One reason is that girls are looking for positive role models and female athletes fit the bill. Negative images in the media have a powerful impact, and positive ones can be equally influential. If girls see women as athletes and active females they're much more likely to pursue these activities. If they see women competing on the professional level, they can aspire to similar goals. With more and more women competing in athletics, it is a huge disservice to the public to ignore their accomplishments. And a good story is a good story. If that’s the litmus test, women’s sports are packed with good stories.

During the IU panel, AP Sports Editor Mike Anastasi noted that there is a fundamental need for media outlets to report on community events. He cited City Council meetings as an example of an event that rarely draws big ratings but are covered because responsible journalists act as community watch dogs. If traditional media is afraid of becoming obsolete, perhaps they should focus on untapped opportunities and underserved markets by reporting on events that serve their constituents.

At the WTS panel, New York Times’ Jere Longman stated “it’s not always necessary to give the public what they want; sometimes it’s better to give them what they don’t know they want. “ More importantly, media outlets should cover women’s sports because there’s a proven and growing appetite. It may still be considered  niche and therefore not worthy of attention by mainstream media but there is widespread interest nonetheless.

Previously it was difficult to find sources of information on women’s sports however digital media has been the great equalizer. Brennan noted that SIDs, publicists and coaches of women’s teams can now connect directly with their fans via the Internet. Numerous women’s sports blogs and websites have devoted audiences. If one compares coverage of women’s sports to men’s sports at an equal arc in its development, then we’ve barely seen the tip of the iceberg. And in an age where consumers are platform-agnostic, it makes no difference where the coverage originates; they’ll find what they’re looking for in any form and it makes little difference if it’s published by a big or small media outlet.

Michelle Smith, an audience member who is an award-winning sportswriter (and WTS contributor), pointed out that online metrics provide the equivalent of ratings or subscriptions. Every story is measurable and clicks drive editorial decisions. So how does a paper like USA Today respond to the realities of the digital world? They recently created a structure whereby writers with the most impressions receive bonuses. How will women’s sports fare under this structure? There’s a high likelihood that writers will exploit female athletes by posting titillating pictures in an effort to garner more page views. One step forward, two steps back. 

It seems true fans of women’s sports looking for authentic coverage need to make some noise. Brennan advised, “If we want to see more mainstream coverage of women’s sports, we need to comment, share, like, email and drive the metrics that dictate coverage. “ Women may be conditioned to be more polite and less forceful than men but Brennan and her colleagues encourage women’s sports fans to “throw some elbows around” if they want attention.

Fans of women's sports CAN help move the needle. For decades, men have tried to own and direct all conversation relating to sport. Fortunately, we canchange that conversation .

Crossposted on Women Talk Sports.

@jschonb - dare to dream

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