Two weeks into the Olympic Games, journalists have been pilloried for repeated sexist and demeaning coverage of female athletes.
Some examples: The Chicago Tribune did not initially include American trap shooter Corey Cogdell-Unrein’s name in its headline after her bronze medal win, opting for “Wife of a Bears’ lineman wins a bronze medal today in Rio Olympics.”
People Magazine called Simone Biles “the Michael Jordan of gymnastics,” and NBC anchors asked whether Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom was going to “do the samba on Copacabana beach” if she won the 100-meter butterfly swim.
This type of reporting is, of course, not exclusive to the Olympics. Last January, a male broadcaster from the U.K.’s Channel 7 asked Eugenie Bouchard, the world No. 7 woman tennis player, to “give us a twirl” after her victory on court. When she repeated his request in disbelief, he clarified, “A twirl — like a pirouette.”
A recent study by Cambridge University Press experts analyzed millions of words used by media organizations to describe men and women competing side-by-side in Olympic sports. While the word associations for the men were more likely to be “fastest,” “strong,” “great” or “big,” women were often described with words such as “aged,” “older,” “pregnant,” “married” or “unmarried.”
When it comes to performance, it seems as though men also have the competitive edge. We see “men” or “man” associated with verbs such as “mastermind,” “beat,” “win,” “dominate,” and “battle,” whereas “woman” or “women” is associated with verbs such as “compete,” “participate,” and “strive.”
“I think part of the problem is that a large number of journalists covering the Olympics aren’t terribly familiar with many of the sports, athletes and issues,” said Jason Stallman, sports editor for The New York Times covering his fifth Olympics. “This fresh-eyes approach yields a lot of novel stories, but it can also be perilous. It’s easy to slip into lazy commentary when your knowledge base is zero. We wrestle with this constantly.”
Part of the problem is that many reporters don’t cover women, or women athletes, on a regular basis, said Jennifer Holmes, deputy editor, espnW. Instead, they fall back on familiar tropes traditionally associated with women: wife, mother, appearance and sexuality.
“This is the gendered lens most people view the world,” she said. “How do you see and experience the women in your life or elsewhere? So many of these reporters seems to emphasize traditional roles (caregiver, etc) over the role of accomplished athlete.”
The root of this problem may be the gender disparity in the press corps, according to the Cambridge University report. While 45 percent of the athletes in Rio are female, only 21 percent of the press covering the Olympics are women.
“The vast majority is men,” Stallman agreed. “Anecdotally, it seems like it’s 90 percent. Of course, men can and do write skillfully about female athletes. But I think a more diverse press corps would probably mean fewer of these blunders.”
There are actually more women on TV reporting the news and sports than ever before, Holmes said.
“The AP wrote a story that cites a recent study saying more than 58 percent of NBC’s Olympics coverage in Rio has featured women’s contests,” she said. “They’re showing those because they’re the most competitive. That’s progress.”
Sexism in sports reporting might seem worse because more people are calling attention to it, but it’s good to hold the media accountable in hopes of a better-reported 2020 Olympic Games, Stallman and Holmes said.
“I think the next step will be for the media who are making these sexist comments to learn, and pivot,” Holmes said. “That shouldn’t be difficult. I have faith that most of these comments are not actually overt sexism but unconscious bias, and there’s a difference. In the latter, I think there’s room to educate, and to improve.”