Television news coverage of women’s sports has shown little improvement over the past decade and often portrays female competitors as sex objects, according to a University of Southern California study.
This occurred despite the growing number of female athletes training for the 2000 Olympic games, the launch of several professional women’s basketball teams and the popularity of the Women’s World Cup soccer final last year.
The study, “Gender in Televised Sports,” sampling six weeks of television news coverage, found that men’s sports continue to receive the bulk of air time – 88.2 percent compared to 8.7 percent for women’s sports and 3.1 percent for gender-neutral topics on Los Angeles’ three network affiliates, KABC, KNBC and KCBS.
In addition, men’s sports reports (918) outnumbered women’s sports stories (160) by a margin of six to one at the Los Angeles stations.
Findings were more dismal on the national cable program, ESPN’s “SportsCenter.” The show devoted just 2.2 percent of its air time to women’s sports, and its stories on male athletes outnumbered those on females by a dramatic 15 to one margin.
A mere 3 percent of the 251 local news programs featured a lead story about women’s sports. Not a single “SportsCenter” program led with a sports story featuring female athletes.
Michael Messner, professor of sociology at USC’s College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, conducted the study, sponsored by the Los Angeles-based Amateur Athletic Foundation. He found that little progress has been made since he conducted similar studies in 1993 and 1989.
Perhaps most disturbing, Messner said, is that the longer, more in-depth stories on female athletes were centered on visually entertaining “pseudosports,” including nude bungee jumping and professional women’s wrestling.
“Several sports news commentators seemed to believe that an important part of their shows’ entertainment value was to engage in sexual voyeurism,” Messner said. Commentators often shared jokes about scantily clad female athletes, referring to the “wrestling porn” of female wrestling star Sable and the Laker Girls cheerleaders “sexing it up.”
They also made jokes about soccer champion Brandi Chastain’s “stripping” down to her “sports bra,” and offered lascivious comments about tennis player Anna Kournikova’s physical appearance.
Often female spectators at sporting events are featured in news segments, Messner found. For example, KNBC and KABC focused several shots of young bikini-clad women in the sun-drenched stands of baseball games.
In one particular instance, a blonde woman wearing a revealing crop top at an Angels game was featured in a news segment, while one KABC commentator salivated: “Speaking of perfect, it was a perfect day in Anaheim.”
Anita L. DeFrantz, president of the Amateur Athletic Foundation, which funded Messner’s study, said the findings are troubling.
“We used to be told by print and electronic journalists that they should not be expected to cover women’s sports because no one cared. That excuse simply does not hold water any more,” DeFrantz said.
“There is a name for a pattern of behavior that ignores and belittles women’s accomplishments. It is sexism, plain and simple. It was unacceptable when the AAF published its first study a decade ago, and it remains unacceptable today.”
While broadcasts of national events, such as the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament and the U.S. Open Tennis Championship, demonstrated a significantly higher level of respect for women and their accomplishments as athletes, there still were noticeable difference when compared to their male counterparts.
Tennis commentators were three times as likely to refer to a female athlete by her first name, while men were twice as likely to be called by their last name. In contrast, commentary in college and professional basketball showed no differences.
On the positive side, the proportion of stories on women’s sports that were accompanied by an interview with a woman athlete or coach came close to matching the proportions in men’s sports coverage, 21 percent and 25 percent respectively. This is an improvement over 1993, when women’s sports stories were accompanied by interviews only 7 percent of the time.
Messner found that coverage of women’s sports on weekdays represented a noticeable increase over 1993. In addition, ESPN’s production of the NCAA women’s Final Four basketball tournament substantially improved from those games analyzed in the 1989 and 1993 studies. However, the technical quality of the broadcasts fell far short of CBS’s men’s Final Four.
Messner also found that white males continue to be the dominant voice of authority in sports commentary while women and minorities are used for more peripheral on-court commentary.
Messner offers several recommendations, including the following:
� Producers and commentators of televised sports events and sports news programs should educate themselves concerning the ways that they sexualize and put down women.
� Announcers should consciously adopt a standard usage of first and last names and it should be applied equally to men and women athletes of all races.
� When gender marking is necessary for clarity, it should be done in ways that are symmetrical and equivalent for women’s and men’s events. If announcers use such phrases as “women’s game,” or if on-screen or on-court graphics refer to the “women’s national championship,” then verbal and graphic descriptions of men’s contests should be equally gender marked as “the men’s national championship game.”
� Televised sports news, “SportsCenter,” and live sports producers should commit themselves to further desegregating the broadcast booth, to include more women and people of color, especially in the central roles of news anchors, play-by-play and “color” commentators.