Does ‘New Media’ Bring New Attitudes Toward Women’s Sports?
Marie Hardin, Ph.D., is the associate director for research in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State University and will be a panelist for the Tucker Center Distinguished Lecture Series on social media and women’s sport.
Does ‘new media’ bring new attitudes toward women’s sports?
Unfortunately, no. But we have new tools and platforms for our advocacy.
Social media, such as blogs, Twitter, Facebook, have changed the way sports news and commentary is presented and consumed by fans. The “transmission model” for sports coverage, where media professionals were the gatekeepers for what did (and did not) get ink or airtime, has disintegrated. Coverage and commentary is now much more user-driven and community-oriented.
These changes have, for women’s sports advocates, sparked hope that female athletes and sports would finally receive the “fair shake” they deserve after a long history of marginalization. Institutional media in every form have always unfairly allocated the lion’s share of coverage to men’s sports. Many advocates believed that primary reasons for this were that men dominated the production ranks in print and broadcast media and in advertising (and favored men’s sports). The fact that gatekeepers for traditional media have been overwhelmingly male meant female athletes received little-to-no media attention.
Social media and the Internet, however, have eroded the institutional barriers traditionally blamed for putting women on the sidelines. Now, anyone (male or female) can become a journalist with a step as simple as starting a blog. Thanks to social networking, fans of women’s sports can find one another, join forces, and promote their favorite athletes and teams. With new media, then, it could be argued that many the barriers to fair, equitable and positive attention to women’s sports have come down.
So, why, then, is the sports blogosphere generally giving us more of the same – and worse? The overwhelming majority of sports commentary on the most popular blogs continues to be focused on male athletes at the college and professional levels. When attention is diverted to female athletes or sports-related personalities (such as female sports reporters), it is often belittling and sexist and is sometimes cruel.
Thus, it seems that although the technology has presented liberating possibilities for women’s sports, those possibilities aren’t being met. Instead, the new media platforms are replicating the discrimination and bias that has always been a part of old-media framing of women’s sports.
Based on surveys by the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State, the similarities in demographics and attitudes between traditional journalists and those who write the most popular sports blogs are striking. For instance, our demographic research indicates that about 11 percent of the personnel in U.S. sports departments are women (and that number has likely slipped in past months). A survey of independent sports bloggers shows roughly the same imbalance: Only one in 10 is a woman.
We’ve also asked bloggers and journalists what they think about coverage of women’s sports and about Title IX. Again, they are remarkably similar. For instance, when we asked sports journalists whether they believed women’s sports should receive more attention in the media, most said no. More bloggers (about half) told us they thought female athletes should get more coverage, but most also told us they thought women’s sports could never have the same appeal as men’s.
We then asked reporters and bloggers whether they believed “Title IX has hurt men’s sports,” a myth about the law that reinforces negative attitudes toward female athletes. Again, almost half of respondents in both groups agreed (indicating a fundamental misunderstanding of the law’s impact). About one-third of journalists and one-fourth of bloggers went so far as to say they thought the law should be changed.
All of these attitudes affect the ways bloggers and journalists present — or don’t — women’s sports. The evidence of these attitudes is as easy to find as the first or second click into sites such as SBNation.com, a host to hundreds of blogs.
Of course, this is not to say that fans of women’s sports haven’t been able to find coverage and community through new media. They have. But the fact remains that the vast majority of social networking around sports is dedicated to men and male athletes, and the blogosphere is – by bloggers’ own admission – “quite sexist.”
Thus, new media mimics old. Even with the bells and whistles that accompany the technology, it’s familiar terrain. Thus, our work remains. We must continue to connect to educate, to advocate, to promote, and to protect the rights of girls and women to pursue sports.