Mass media is very important for sports because a majority of spectators will observe a sporting event through mass media. The media also has a significant influence on individuals and culture, supporting the agenda-setting theory that the media are the gatekeepers of information. Some feel that “the mass media have become one of the most powerful institutional forces for shaping values and attitudes in modern culture” (Cunningham, 2004). The media has not used this influence to cover women’s sports.
Even though the 1996 Summer Olympics and the 1998 Olympics were landmark events for U.S. women’s sports teams, the media still stereotyped the athletes and did not give them the same type of coverage that male sports received during the Olympics. The 1996 Summer Olympics was the first year for some popular women’s sports in the Olympics and several teams such as basketball, gymnastics, soccer, softball and synchronize swimming won gold medals and in the 1998 Winter Olympics the U.S. women’s hockey team won gold (Jones, Murrell, & Jackson, 1999). These women received loads of media attention and followed their performances closely. The intense media coverage of these women’s accomplishments gave researchers a perfect opportunity to analyze how the print media coverage of female athletes’ performance reflects beliefs about gender (Jones, Murrell, & Jackson, 1999).
The study extends the work on the gender appropriateness of sport by Matteo by showing how these beliefs are conveyed in print media’s description of female athletes’ performance in male-appropriate, female appropriate and neutral sports (Jones, Murrell, & Jackson, 1999). Female athletes are judged and evaluated using traditional beliefs about gender whether they are competing in a traditional gender-appropriate or in a nontraditional gender-appropriate sport. The study found that all five gold medal winning contests described within the print media contained a high frequency of gender stereotypic comments that were clearly related to the overall gendered nature of the sport.
Female athletes playing male-appropriate sports; basketball, hockey, and soccer, had achieved a superior performance level; however, the print media frequently deemphasized task-relevant aspects of their performance and focused instead on performance irrelevant dimensions (Grau, Roselli, & Taylor, 2007). The sportswriters frequently compared female athletes on gold medal winning teams to their male counterparts. Even though the women play and succeed in the male-appropriate sports, their success is socially constructed as an alternative to their male counterparts, who play the version of the sport that really counts (Jones, Murrell, & Jackson, 1999).
On the other hand, female-appropriate sports, reporters were more focused on describing their performance and providing details of what the athlete had done to succeed in the sport. However, the athletes that played female-appropriate sports were more likely to have female stereotypic comments (Jones, Murrell, & Jackson, 1999). The athletes’ beauty was often an emphasis of the coverage. The reporters are framing the female athletes differently then male athletes.
Media coverage of female athletes on major sports publications are lagging behind their male counterparts. For example, women were featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated a total of 4 times out of 53 issues in 1996 (Knight, 2001). This is an old statistic but can still be held true. As a subscriber of Sports Illustrated for 2007, I have only received 3 issues with a prominent female athlete or celebrity on the cover, one being the swim suit edition. As the gatekeepers of information, Sports Illustrated sets the “agenda” for the magazine.
Women are often ignored on a national media level as well. ESPN, a popular sports television station, has paid little attention to women’s sports in its nightly Sports Center coverage. Yes, there is a mention here and there regarding female athletes; however, a story of substance is rarely seen. According to a study in 2003 by Dr. C. A. Tuggle, associate professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the nation’s primary evening sports news program, Sports Center, pays less attention to women’s sports then when the study was preformed previously in 1995. The continuing research recorded and analyzed 30 days of the ESPN program in 2002. The study found 807 stories on the hour-long show. However, during the 30 days, ESPN ran 778 stories about males, only 16 about females and another 13 that mentioned both male and female. The program devoted on average more than 70 percent more time to stories featuring males than those about females (Williamson, 2003). Tuggle says, “Television coverage is considered a frame, a window on the world through which we learn about ourselves and others. The very act of selecting certain events to cover and then the process by which that coverage is edited to fit with time or space constraints, constitutes framing” (Williamson, 2003). This study shows just how much women athletes are ignored by the major sports media outlets. In today’s sports world, networks are determining what sports will and will not cover.
A more recent study done by Michael Messner, professor of sociology and gender studies in the USC College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences, researched coverage on television news and sports highlights shows. This particular study found that 90 percent of the coverage on television news and sports highlights shows is of men’s sports (Sutliff, 2005). The study began in 1989 and has been updated every five years up to 2004. Messner said he thinks the predominant finding is the lack of change in coverage. He said that the proportion of TV coverage is pretty much the same as it was in 1989 (Sutliff, 2005). The researchers analyzed six weeks of TV sports news on three Los Angeles networks. They examined 236 sports news broadcasts, totaling nearly 17 hours of airtime. The researchers also analyzed three weeks, 21 broadcasts, of ESPN’s Sports Center program, totaling nearly 16 hours and Fox’s Southern California Sports Report, totaling seven hours.
The researchers found that on the three L.A. networks that men received 91 percent of the airtime, women’s sports received only six percent and gender neutral topics received two percent of airtime (Sutliff, 2005). The sports specific networks had an even lower representation of women’s sports. With ESPN and Fox programs showing women’s sports only two percent and three percent of the airtime, respectively (Sutliff, 2005). The researcher were surprised that women’s sports coverage had not changed over the past 15 years but were pleased to find that the reporting of women’s sports has become more respectful. Although the reporting became more respectful toward the female athlete, the sexualization of female athletes was still an element of the coverage. One example the research points out was the coverage of tennis star Maria Sharapova. Sports commentators often commented or joked about her appearance and featured her as a sex symbol. The researchers believed this tapped into a larger issue. Messner felt that when sports media focuses on a female athlete who is a good looking like Sharapova, they are more likely to focus on someone like that because she still fits that ideal model of heterosexual attractiveness (Sutliff, 2005).