Every four years, we watch the world’s best athletes on the Olympic Stage. And the massive athletic competition is being covered by an equally grand number of journalists.
This year, the Olympic Games in Rio are garnering complaints about media coverage that appears to diminish what female athletes are doing.
The Chicago Tribune was blasted when a tweet identified bronze-medal winning trap shooter Corey Cogdell as the wife of a professional football player, Chicago Bear lineman Mitch Unrein.
A photo of a newspaper headline about a silver medal accomplishment of male swimmer Michael Phelps traveled around the internet because the secondary note mentioned female swimmer Katie Ledecky broke a world record.
And on TV, broadcaster Dan Hicks was criticized for this commentary after Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu set a world record. The camera shot was of her coach and husband, who was in the stands.
“And there’s the guy responsible for turning Katinka Hosszu, his wife, into a whole different swimmer,” Hicks said.
This treatment is nothing new, said Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. Research going back decades show how media portray female athletes differently, whether it’s of photos of high school athletes or in the way commentators react to the physical appearance of female athletes, she said.
“It seems like the media can’t get out of the frame of reference that men do sports, and when women do sports, it’s unusual or exceptional,” she said.
McBride said one possible reason for the disparity in treatment may have to do with the fact that the most popular sports covered by media are male-dominated professional sports such as football, basketball and baseball. And the sports journalism field continues to be dominated by men.
The audience watching sports, however, is split between genders, McBride said. Just about half of the viewers of the Super Bowl each year are women, and 60 percent of the Olympic audience is female.
Traditionally, professional media have assumed that women are more interested in the storytelling and the emotion around the sport,” she said. “The studies that I’ve seen show that’s not true. Women who are interested in sports are interested in the same things men are. But the media that covers sports has not caught up with this.”