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Q and A: Media Coverage of Women's Sports

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We answer over 100,000 inquiries a year, a good number of which are questions about the electronic and print media coverage of women’s sports. Following are the answers to the most commonly asked questions about this topic.

Q1. Aren’t women athletes covered less often by the media because women aren’t as interested in sports as men?
A1. There is no evidence to support this contention. Nationwide data indicate that women make up 38-42 percent of all sport and physical activity participants. Yet, research indicates that sportswomen receive approximately 6-8 percent of the total sports coverage.

Research by the Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles shows that the primary factor in determining what sports get covered in newspapers is the sports interests of the sports editor. Many sports editors grew up in a time and culture in which the abilities of women to play sports were devalued.

Q2. What is wrong with wanting to portray women athletes as feminine and physically attractive?
A2. There is nothing wrong with women wanting to look feminine/attractive from a traditional perspective. However, female athletes deserve the same respect for their athletic abilities as is afforded male athletes. When a female athlete appears in a sport publication or advertisement to promote a sport or fitness product, she should be portrayed respectfully as is her male counterpart — as a skilled athlete.

Q3. What is the harm in portraying female athletes as pretty and feminine?
A3. Images are powerful tools that shape and reflect attitudes and values. By portraying sportswomen either as sex objects or as “pretty ladies”, the message is that sportswomen are not strong, powerful and highly skilled individuals. Ultimately, images that ignore or trivialize females undermine the importance of women’s sports and respect for the abilities of female athletes.

Q4. Aren’t the producers of advertising and promotional images using pretty and feminine female athlete images to help promote women’s athletics?
A4. There are no scientific studies indicating that when sportswomen are portrayed as “pretty ladies” it increases interest in event attendance at or media coverage of women’s sports. People go to see women’s sports for the same reasons they go to see men’s sports — because the athletes are good. Portraying females in ways that emphasize their skills as athletes, not as “bathing beauties” is what sells tickets. Advertisers or promoters who use sexist imagery to sell women’s sports are actually selling women athletes as sex objects rather than athletes.

Q5. Doesn’t selling women athletes as feminine and pretty solve the “image problem” associated with women’s sports? Don’t most people think that female athletes are lesbians and isn’t it important to show that they aren’t?
A5. The so-called “image problem” is really a code term for “homophobia” — fear of homosexuality. The function of the media is not to sell “heterosexism” or “sexist images” for that matter. All heterosexuals are not attractive and all lesbians are not mannish. The function of the media is to cover sports and athletes rather than assume their sexual preference. There are lesbians and gays in men’s and women’s sports. There are heterosexuals in men’s and women’s sports. Those are private matters best left to individuals rather than advertisers and reporters. A reporter doesn’t go up to a male athlete and ask the gender of who he sleeps with. That question is equally inappropriate for female athletes. The assumption that the public assumes that all female athletes are lesbians and the reporter or advertiser has a responsibility to fix this is absurd.

Q6. In terms of advertising, sexy images of women appear to work. They sell products. So this must be what the consumer wants to see. They wouldn’t do it if it didn’t make money.
A6. This position reveals a remarkable insensitivity to the harmful effects of sexist stereotyping. The advertising or sports media should not perpetuate harmful, limiting images toward any group of individuals. Saying, “This is what the audience wants” and, “This is what sells” would not be tolerated if the images perpetuated racist or anti-semitic stereotypes. The position should not be tolerated if the images perpetuate the stereotype of women as sex objects.

Q7. So what would you have the media do? What kind of images would make women athletes happy?
A7. The media should simply reflect the reality of women’s diverse sports experiences — from grace and beauty to physical strength, endurance and power. A balanced and realistic view is what is absent in the media. Young girls and women from all ages, races, and social class backgrounds are breaking down historical barriers to their participation. The media is obligated to reflect and perpetuate that reality — not the homophobia or stereotypes of individual reporters or advertisers — so that sportswomen (our daughters and sisters and moms) receive the admiration, dignity and respect they deserve….the same admiration, dignity and respect afforded male athletes.