Gender Bias in TV Coverage at the Olympics
International Olympic Committee figures reveal that the latest Olympics at Rio had a record 4,700 female athletes competing — which makes up nearly 45% of all participants. Many countries including the U.S. and Australia broke records with regard to female participation — the former nation’s delegation included 292 female athletes, which is the greatest number of women ever, from a single nation, to have participated in any Olympics, whereas the latter’s delegation had more women competitors than male (Hunt, 2016). Despite this progress in women participation, numerous instances can be found during the Rio Olympics when commentators have been slammed for the use of sexist language when referring to female athletes. Sarah Grieves — Cambridge University Press’s language researcher — recently completed a research which reveals that this issue is graver than mere commentating blunders. Several viewers have raised this issue on social media and criticized commentators. For instance, immediately after Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu’s 400m individual medley world record, the camera switched over to her husband and coach, Shane Tusup (NPR, 2016).
Sportswomen have continually been considered less serious and athletic compared to sportsmen. The first two days of Rio 2016 witnessed female competitors being subject to gender-based ridicule. NBC, Chicago Tribune, and other broadcasting giants also faced censure for their remarks on female athletes. The latter newspaper was condemned in media circles for its infamous remarks on trap shooting Bronze Medalist, Corey Cogdell-Unrein. The daily’s tweet and article on Unrein’s achievement bore the following headline: “Wife of Bear’s lineman wins a Bronze medal today in Rio.” The article’s contents included praise for her footballer husband, rather than Unrein’s own remarkable achievements (VP, 2016)
Despite the aforementioned headline not exactly giving direct credit to the Olympian’s husband, the issue here is the newspaper’s failure to focus mainly on her accomplishment. While there was no mention at all, of the event in which she earned an Olympic bronze, the Tribune did not forget to mention her husband’s professional football team’s name. However, the worst sexist remark in the Games’ media coverage came from NBC, whose commentator made the following remark about female gymnasts awaiting their performance: They “… might as well be standing in the middle of a mall.” The above statement shows that the world does not take female sportspersons seriously, despite their events being equally, or sometimes more, challenging compared to the events male athletes compete in. Female athletes deserve just as much respect as the males, as they too compete and win at extremely high endurance levels. One will never hear such a remark, as the one above, on Michael Phelps or other male athletes (VP, 2016).
Brief History of Sexism in Olympic Games’ TV coverage
Differences observed by University of North Carolina (UNC) researchers would be expected in the Summer Games, which is characterized by a wider collection of sports, more skin exposure, totally different outfits, and more examples of athletic skill and femininity views coming into contact. In his 2008 TV and New Media article on all Olympic Games that took place from 1996 to 2006 (3 Winter Games and 3 Summer Games), researcher Billings stated an interesting discovery of his, that: all sporting events wherein female athletes enjoyed maximum coverage involved leotards or swimsuits as outfits. (Billings was also the co-author of the 2002 Games-related research). However, following the above analysis of 6 Olympic Games, the researcher discovered that the Winter Games witnessed starker gaps in female and male athletes’ broadcast coverage. In terms of total clock time for females and males, the gender gap was 5 times greater in case of the Winter Games, as compared to the Summer Games (Feeney, 2014).
The 2002 Winter Games witnessed men’s events receiving over 6.5 hours of more coverage than female events. In figure skating, which received maximum media coverage for females as well as males, the latter’s events enjoyed about 66% of the total figure skating coverage. Also, whereas men’s luge was given prominent media coverage, women’s luge was not covered at all. Research scholars, who also looked at national and ethnic bias as part of their analysis, claim that the most significant and conspicuous discovery of this research was the huge gap in male and female athletes’ clock time — a huge regression from prior Olympic broadcasts’ balanced coverage. If particular athlete populations fail to receive a fair amount of media coverage, they will naturally be accorded ‘second-class participant’ treatment in all other kinds of analyses. The attainment of equality requires constant effort, and the above research highlighted just as many regressions as progresses, within the latest coverage by NBC (Feeney, 2014).
Akin to the numerous Olympic Games before it, the Beijing Olympics also saw male athletes and events enjoying greater screen time. Although the total share of female competitors rose to 42% of all competitors in the Beijing Games, their media coverage declined. University of North Carolina’s 2012 research on the subject proved that although the medal count of U.S. female athletes rose to 48% of the nation’s total medal count, NBC’s coverage of female athletes dropped to 46.3% of airtime (a 2-point fall). While small differences in percentage might not appear to be a big deal, high concentration of female athletes’ coverage is witnessed only in some events. Research works dated as early as the eighties reveal the fact that female athletes’ media coverage concentrates heavily on “socially acceptable” or “feminine” sports, like golf or tennis. The UNC research discovered comparable trends in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Sixty percent of the total primetime coverage enjoyed by female athletes was devoted to gymnastics, diving, and swimming — events described by prior studies as acceptable or feminine (Feeney, 2014).
Scarce coverage of female accomplishments bolsters sportsmen’s stereotypical dominance. Researchers claim this makes female athletes appear unimportant or even almost invisible. Additionally, numerous examples of UK-based researches are cited, which revealed that little girls who actively participated in athletics struggled with preconceived notions and expectations with regard to femininity, while an exponential growth in school girls’ participation in school-level sports has been seen since the seventies, in the U.S. and other nations (Feeney, 2014).
The Coverage of Female Sporting Events, on the Whole, is Woeful
A joint Purdue University — South California University research performed in 2009 reveal that in a two-decade period, 96% of LA network affiliates’ and ESPN Sportscenter’s sports airtime was devoted to male sports. Nevertheless, as indicated by the Women’s Sports Foundation, this figure held true even with more females than ever competing in sporting events at all levels. Ironically, with increased female participation in sports, their media coverage has decreased. In 1999, Sportscenter devoted 2.2% of airtime to female athletes; the corresponding 2009 figure is a dismal 1.4% (Garcia, 2016).
Apparently, marketing of female athletes as sex symbols damages their athletic image. Janet Fink, a professor and chair of University of Massachusetts Amherst’s department of sports management, claims her investigation revealed that whenever a sportswoman is given a sexualized depiction, the public’s opinion of her sporting skills weakens. Even beach volleyball players, whose outfit is similar to a swimsuit, will firmly claim that their object is not sex appeal. Much of this, in fact, boils down to the ‘money’ factor. Media popularity guarantees athlete endorsements and advertiser support, without which a majority of female athletes remain unpaid. This inequality usually starts at college level or even earlier, when scholarship prospects are few and female athletes are many. The National Women’s Law Center asserts that although title IX might formally ask American high schools to accord girls equal opportunities to play, they continue to offer roughly 1.3 million lesser opportunities to high school girls than to boys, to compete in sports, on the whole. This is especially true in case of non-White girls (Garcia, 2016).
One study, which analyzed the total primetime coverage (348 hours) of 3 Winter and 3 Summer Games’ telecasts (from 1996 to 2006), highlighted media coverage trends of female and male sporting events. Study outcomes suggest that although men’s events and sportsmen received maximum coverage in all the above Olympic telecasts, female athletes were accorded far more equitable treatment in Summer Games broadcasts than in Winter Games broadcasts. The longitudinal research provides no impression of improvement in female sports coverage over the years — the amount of coverage accorded to female and male sporting events remains almost the same from 1996 to 2006 (Billings, 2008).
White Male Athletes Heralded Over Other Athletes Who Excel
Texas-based daily, The Eagle, focused its 14th August, 2016 swimming news headline on the silver medal earned by Michael Phelps, rather than on world-record-breaker Katie Ledecky, who set a record at Rio in the women’s 800m freestyle event. Emily Crockett of Vox highlighted the fact that besides this achievement, Ledecky became the very first Olympic competitor since Debbie Weber (nee Meyer) (1968), to win the 200m, 400m, and 800m freestyle golds. Readers were quick to spot The Eagle’s attempt to play down Ledecky’s historic achievements, whilst highlighting Phelps’s silver-medal win. This is not the first time Phelps’s less important victory has received center stage, over a female athlete’s accomplishments. California-based San Jose Mercury News described Simone Manuel’s and Michael Phelps’s gold medal victories together using the following unfair headline “Olympics: Michael Phelps shares historic night with African-American.” (Manuel’s name is not mentioned, only the term “African-American!”). The evening was of extreme importance to Manuel, as she tied for the 100m freestyle gold and became the first ever African-American female athlete to bag an individual gold medal in swimming (Desmond-Harris, 2016).
In Manuel’s case, the excuse of “news judgment” does not stand, as she is a Stanford University swimming team member. This links Manuel to San Jose, making her win a genuine local story. Following readers’ response that the headline totally diminished Manuel’s accomplishment, ignored her personal identity, and slighted the African-American race, in general, the newspaper apologized and changed the headline to read “Olympics: Stanford’s Simone Manuel and Michael Phelps make history” (Desmond-Harris, 2016).
Furthermore, Phelps’ example may be used to reveal the discriminatory media reaction to Gabby Douglas, the gymnast of African-American descent, who was slammed as “un-American” and “unpatriotic” by newspapers and social media users for not placing her hand on her heart when the U.S. National Anthem was being played during a medal ceremony. Doubts were raised regarding whether her behavior was a form of protest (some immediately assumed her cause was ‘Black Lives Matter’, despite no indication of it by Douglas, besides her skin tone). The gymnast apologized on social media, reasserting her patriotism and support for America. On the other hand, as observed by David Schilling of the Guardian, when Phelps actually laughed in the middle of the National Anthem during one of his medal ceremonies, nobody questioned his patriotism. Casey Cipriani of the Bustle claims this is clearly a double standard — people condemned Douglas for just standing respectfully, whereas Phelps’ blunder is nothing, but adorable (Desmond-Harris, 2016).
A few Muslim female athletes dressed in modest outfits in line with the custom and teachings of their religion. While this generated a curious graphic contrast when scantily- and heavily- clothed athletes competed, this was not worth making headline news. Shireen Ahmet of Vox highlights BBC Africa’s inaccurate headline in this regard: “Rio 2016: Bikini vs. Burka.” Doaa Elghobashy, the volleyball player, was wearing a hijab, not a burqa. Further, BBC Africa totally missed the game’s point (Desmond-Harris, 2016).
To all the above-mentioned examples, one can add the challenge of delivering live commentary, when events are unfolding. Headlines are composed under very tight deadlines, the moment events are completed and medals are awarded. Thus, journalists will not have the time to be particularly thoughtful, or question the prejudices cropping up in their news stories, or even ask coworkers belonging to different marginalized identity populations to go over their work and control for likely blind spots (Desmond-Harris, 2016).
Certainly, social media provides a frank view of the thoughts of individuals with no obligations to appear fair or objective. This is a decent benchmark for cultural consensus not filtered by media reporters. Newspapers may be careful not to make any harsher remarks on Gabby Douglas compared to Michael Phelps, but the public, on social media, clearly lets the world know whose conduct is acceptable to them and whose conduct bothers them (Desmond-Harris, 2016).
Billings, A. C. (2008). Clocking Gender Differences: Televised Olympic Clock Time in the 1996 — 2006 Summer and Winter Olympics. Television New Media, 429-441.
Desmond-Harris, J. (2016, August 20). Olympics coverage and commentary managed to offend, annoy, and alienate almost everyone. Retrieved from Vox Identities: http://www.vox.com/2016/8/20/12526000/rio-2016-olympics-racism-sexism-homophobia-coverage-media-commentary
Feeney, N. (2014, February 21). A Brief History of Sexism in TV Coverage of the Olympics. Retrieved from The Atlantic: http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/02/a-brief-history-of-sexism-in-tv-coverage-of-the-olympics/284003/
Garcia, M. (2016, August 19). More women compete on primetime TV at the Olympics than any other point in the year. Retrieved from Vox Identities: http://www.vox.com/2016/8/19/12547192/women-primetime-tv-olympics-sexism
Hunt, E. (2016, August 09). Commentators take gloss off female Olympians’ efforts and medals. Retrieved from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2016/aug/09/rio-2016-commentators-take-gloss-off-female-olympians-medals
NPR. (2016, August 17). Olympics Coverage Highlights Sexist Language In TV Sports Commentary. Retrieved from npr.org: http://www.npr.org/2016/08/17/490387036/olympics-coverage-highlights-sexist-language-in-tv-sports-commentary
VP. (2016). The Unbelievable Gender Bias In Media Coverage Of The Olympics. Retrieved from Viral Piranha: http://www.viralpiranha.com/media-coverage-olympics/
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