Media frames women’s sports as undeserving of coverage

T.J. Gerlach - Senior Editor

T.J. Gerlach – Senior Editor

T.J. Gerlach

Last spring I wrote a sports column involving how women’s athletics are treated in the media. I wrote that column only a week or two after deciding the focus for my honors senior thesis, which involved the same topic.

Over the course of the past year, I have spent time doing background research, as well as some original research on the subject.

The background research I found showed, to no one’s surprise, women’s athletics are severely underrepresented. The studies, the majority of which focused on television, also found the coverage women did receive involved mostly individual sports, such as tennis.

One researcher, Dr. C.A. Tuggle, an associate professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was involved in a number of the studies. Two of these stood out to me. The first, done in 1997, examined ESPN’s “SportCenter” and CNN’s “Sports Tonight” and the latter, done in 2004, used only “SportsCenter” since CNN no longer produced its program. What Tuggle did was break down the shows for a month and derive a system for ranking the coverage for men’s and women’s sports. He found women’s athletics only received about two to five percent of the total airtime, and mainly on individual sports and not team sports.

For my thesis, I did a similar study, but I used newspapers since they are what I know. Using five newspapers, from around the nation, including USA Today and The Joplin Globe, I looked at their sports sections to uncover how men’s and women’s professional and college sports were treated. High school sports, racing sports, outdoor sports and opinions were omitted from study. Looking at how stories were written, placed in the paper, designed and who was quoted in the stories, I came up with a system to rank the coverage. The results were not surprising. Seven to 10 times as many men’s sports stories as women’s appeared in each newspaper. Also, much of the women’s coverage was in individual sports as previous research indicated.

What does this all mean? Well, as Tuggle suggested in his latter study done with Terry Adams, then a doctoral student at the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication, the lack of coverage suggests the media frames female athletes and their sports as less deserving of the coverage. One reason suggested this is because the public is not interested in women’s sports. However, interest in women’s sports coverage is on the rise, according to Tuggle’s 1997 study.

I proposed a few solutions to the problem. First, readers, women’s sports programs and possibly even advertisers should demand women’s athletics receive more coverage. This is a more direct approach than my second suggestion, in which I recommend high schools and colleges with journalism programs to instill in their students the importance for equality of coverage. In time, these students will enter the workforce with this idea, and they will begin to influence all media to change their ways.

Groups like the WNBA and the U.S. women’s soccer team have started to bring female athletes to the forefront, but we have a long way to go. Women’s sports will never be seen as equal and deserving until the media coverage problem is corrected.