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Making Sense of Winter Olympics Coverage

Feb 24, 2014

Credit Yuri Kadobnov/NPR/AFP/Getty Images

Some reports say that the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics ratings are down compared to the 2010 games in Vancouver.  But NBC is disputing that.

Whatever the ratings, millions are still watching the games -- and reacting in a much different way because of social media.

Take the interview with skier Bode Miller that NBC's Christin Cooper did after he won a bronze medal.

Miller's brother died last year of a seizure and Cooper kept asking Miller about his brother until he broke down in tears.

Bode Miller, not always a fan favorite, had the crowd's support on the internet when social media erupted with criticism of Cooper for pushing too hard to get Miller to cry.

Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute's "Sense Making Project" says that Cooper could have done a better job in the interview, but that going for the emotional reaction is part of NBC's Olympics coverage.

"She (Cooper) could have done some things differently," explained McBride.  "She didn't listen very well to what Bode Miller was saying and she kept trying to push him to really get emotional and it wasn't clear that he wanted to go there. The second thing about that interview is that they went in with a really tight camera shot... it's a cheap move meant to manipulate the audience. The audience for the Olympics is over 50 percent female. That's completely different than any other sporting event. So NBC uses very different reporting techniques to tell the story."

And the social media audience pushed back on that manipulative style in the Bode Miller interview.

"They're saying 'let's stick to the sports' a little bit," said McBride.

Social media also had an effect on the perception of where the games were played -- Sochi, Russia. 

Television shots showed beautiful vistas and pristine venues.

Social media told a different story.

"You're talking about '#sochiproblems,'" said McBride. "What happened was the reporters and athletes got on the ground to find that hotels and venues that weren't quite ready for an international event. And they took to Twitter and other social media and told that story.  People started reacting to that and the narrative took off. And then there was a backlash to that because many of the critics said, 'You reporters are willing to complain about having to live in these conditions for two or three weeks, but people who live in Russia have to deal with this all the time. So maybe you're missing the point.'"

And the point to be taken away from the Sochi games when it comes to media coverage is that the network that has the rights to the games no longer has total control over the story of the games.

"The Olympics are one of the most highly controlled media events," McBride explained. "It's very hard to get images or sound out of them because NBC and the Olympic committee lock them up tight. But even in that environment you cannot control the narrative."