A Long Road Ahead: Gender and the Rio 2016 Olympics News Coverage

 Saba Mirsalari on August 19, 2016

Fewer women are interviewed or featured in sports news stories today than in the mid-1990s, according to the Global Media Monitoring Project. This is the only topic in which the gender gap in the people heard, seen or spoken about in the print and broadcast news has increased over the past two decades. One only has to scan the Rio 2016 Olympics news coverage to understand how far from fair or balanced the quality of coverage from a gender perspective is.

NBC News reporter Dan Hicks stated “and there’s the guy responsible” when commenting on Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu’s win of the women’s 400-metre individual medley, at the same time breaking the world record. This comment is indicative of the sexism that has dominated news media coverage of the Rio 2016 Olympics. The Huffington Post U.S. edition has made an effort to call out some news outlets for gender-biased reporting, as illustrated in their articles: "The Media Are Saying and Doing a Bunch of Sexist Stuff During the Olympics" and  “Top 10 Most Sexist Things to Occur at the Rio 2016 Olympics So Far.” singling out NBC News and The Chicago Tribune in particular.

When American Trap Shooter, Corey Cogdell, won the bronze medal, the Chicago Tribune referred to her as the “wife of [Chicago] Bears lineman Mitch Unrein.” Youth news outlet, Mic News, called out The Bryan-College Station Eagle newspaper for giving USA swimmer Michael Phelps’ silver medal win in the men’s 100-metre butterfly a larger headline than that of USA swimmer Katie Ledecky’s gold-medal win and record-breaking performance. While some may argue that the prominent headline on Phelps may be due to his swimming record and a silver medal after numerous gold ones comes as a surprise, there is an implication that Ledecky’s gold-medal win and new world record deserved less focus.

The USA women’s gymnastics team received numerous sexist comments after their successes, particularly from NBC News. The Huffington Post U.S. edition called out an NBC commentator calling the team  “a group of girls in a mall”, and another NBC commentator for making a remark that Simone Biles “might even go higher than some of the men.” A video clip also featured an NBC commentator's remark on Aly Raisman’s make-up. These examples are a fraction of the multiple instances of sexist news coverage of the Rio Olympics.

Sexism and gender bias play out through narratives in which the women athletes’ achievements are downplayed while aspects such as their mode of dress and personal lives take precedence. Such reporting seldom occurs in the case of stories on male athletes. Youth news site The Tab featured an article describing Phelps’ win the way that female athletes’ achievements were covered during the first week of the Rio 2016 Olympics, demonstrating the absurdity of sexist reporting.

Several of these incidents took place during live broadcasting, as in the case of NBC News. News outlets and individual commentators issued apology statements and/or defended their actions by claiming that live television is difficult to control. According to USA Today, Hicks blamed live television that "often times you look back and wished you had said something differently", at the same time, Hicks appears to defend his original choice of words with another comment that the swimmer's partner "has turned her into a tiger in the pool"!  Clearly, the problem is not live broadcasting but a general attitude of sexism that permeates news journalism culture.

Professional news media have standards to uphold as stipulated in industry codes and should take measure to dismantle the structures that allow sexism, and all forms of discrimination to thrive. Excuses such as that by the Chicago Tribune released shortly after receiving criticism for their headline about American Trap Shooter Corey Cogdell are unacceptable. The Chicago Tribune’s statement on Twitter reads: “We identified three-time Olympian Corey Cogdell-Unrein only as the “wife of a Bears lineman.” She’s awesome on her own. We focused too hard on trying to emphasize the local connection Cogdell-Unrein has to Chicago.”  

The Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP) report reveals that sports is the topic least likely to be reported by women globally (Table 48, pg. 56) and among the top three topics in which women are least likely to appear (Table 16, pg. 39). Women are only 13% of the news subjects in topics related to sports, while men make up 87% of the news subjects under the sports topics worldwide (Table 17, pg. 35). The report calls news organisations to increase content that challenges gender stereotypes, to build journalists’ awareness of gender issues in reporting, and hone their skills in practice that meets the standards of professionalism from a gender perspective.

IMAGES SOURCES: Al Bello, Alex Livesey / Getty Images; Twitter feeds @ChicagoTribune, @robinshoots, @nancyleong;
                                  Screengrabs from Huffington Post U.S. Edition Back To Top

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