Gender Bias in Newspaper Coverage of the 1996 Olympic Games
A Content Analysis of Five Major Dailies
Katherine N. Kinnick, Ph.D., APR
Department of Communication
Kennesaw State University
1000 Chastain Road
Kennesaw, GA 30144
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Submitted to the
Commission on the Status of Women
March 21, 1997
Gender Bias in Newspaper Coverage of the 1996 Olympic Games
A Content Analysis of Five Major Dailies
This study compares newspaper coverage of male and female athletes during the
Summer Olympic Games. Feature stories in five leading U.S. newspapers were
incidence of gender bias in reporting and photography. Characterizations of
athletes supported previous studies which found female athletes were more likely
males to be described in terms of their relationships, emotionality and
study found no evidence of gender bias in terms of quantitative representation
athletes, or in the placement and prominence of stories, use of martial
hierarchical naming practices. For several other criteria noted as sources of
previous studies, women received more favorable treatment than men. The study
that story assignments followed gender lines, however, a majority of profiles
male and female athletes were written by male reporters.
The 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia were touted as the Games of
the female athlete. Women made up a larger proportion of athletes (34.4%) than
ever in history. According to the U.S. Olympic Committee, 3,770 women competed
in Atlanta, 39 percent more than competed in Barcelona. Two new women's events
debuted -- soccer and softball, along with men's and women's mountain biking and
beach volleyball. While men still outnumbered women nearly two to one (381 to
276 on the U.S. team), women's progress toward Olympic parity was visible.
Women also were recognized as an important television audience. NBC, the
official U.S. Olympic television network, sought to deliver on promised ratings
to advertisers by attracting the largest possible audience -- thus, attracting
women was critical. NBC's strategy was to air more prime-time hours of sports
which tested well with women, such as gymnastics and swimming, and to emphasize
human interest angles through more than 140 taped personality profiles of
athletes and historical "Centennial Moments" features. Statistics and "macho"
sports such as boxing and wrestling were downplayed, an approach panned by some
media critics as "the Oprah Olympics" (Farhi, 1996).
NBC estimated that 202 million Americans watched some part of its 14 days of
Olympic broadcasts, the most ever. Its average nightly ratings of 22.4 percent
of U.S. households showed a 26 percent increase over the ratings during the
Barcelona Games in 1992 (Farhi, August 3, 1996). Among women aged 25-54, NBC's
ratings increased 26% over the 1992 Olympic Games, the same as its overall
increase (Hiestand, 1996).
The focus on women in 1996 is especially significant, considering that the
historical relationship of the Olympic Games to women is far less rosy. The
current study examines the treatment of female athletes in the news media in
this environment of unprecedented emphasis on the female athlete and female
consumer of Olympic news. While few studies have examined gender bias in
Olympic news coverage (Daddario, 1994; Duncan, 1990; Farrell, 1989), a
significant body of literature documenting the phenomenon of gender bias in
sports media has emerged from media scholars, feminist scholars and sports
These scholars tend to concur that, as a part of sports culture, sports media
reflect the dominant gender order that is represented in sport itself. Thus,
just as women are excluded, segregated and trivialized in sport, sports media
also tend to ignore and marginalize female athletes.
Forms of gender bias in sports journalism
Scholars studying gender and race bias in media content typically focus on two
primary criteria identified by Clark (1972): representation, or the
quantitative presence of the group of interest (in this case female athletes in
comparison with their representation in the population); and respect, the
treatment and status accorded to this group. Both representation and respect
are considered necessary for bias-free coverage.
Representation. Studies of gender in sports coverage show two consistent
patterns relating to representation. First, female athletes receive
disproportionately less coverage than male athletes, and second, media coverage
overrepresents women in "feminine" sports and underrepresents those in sports
not seen as consistent with cultural images of femininity.
Women's sports have historically received less coverage than men's sports
(Bryant, 1980; Kane, 1988; Rintala & Birrell, 1984). Coakley (1986) estimated
that 95 percent of media sports coverage is devoted to men's sports. Studies of
television sports programming have found it to be "a virtually all male world
with rare excursions" into the world of women's sports (Sabo & Jansen, 1990).
Similarly, Lumpkin and Williams (1991) found that Sports Illustrated, the
nation's largest- circulation sports magazine, devotes an average 90.8 percent
of feature articles to male athletes, and 8 percent to female athletes.
Similar gender representation has been found in newspaper sports coverage.
Woolard (1983) found that 85 percent of newspaper sports coverage was devoted to
men's sports. In a more recent study, the Amateur Athletic Association of Los
Angeles found that in four 1990 newspapers, stories on men's sports outnumbered
women's sports by 23 to 1. Similarly, the study found that photos of male
athletes outnumbered those of female athletes 13 to one (Newspaper Sports Staff
Continues to Slight Women, 1991, p. 3.). A study of four Midwest newspapers'
coverage of men's and women's basketball at two universities found that coverage
of men's basketball dominated that of women's by every measure (number of
stories, total column inches, average lengths of stories, features on players,
photographs and headlines) despite the fact that the women's teams at both
universities had better seasons than the men's teams (Evarts, 1996).
The 1992 annual Women, Men and Media survey found extensive coverage of the '92
Winter Olympics in ten U.S. newspapers, including the Atlanta Constitution, Los
Angeles Times, USA Today, and Washington Post. However, newspaper coverage
focused predominately on male athletes, despite the fact that nine of the U.S.'s
eleven medals were won by women. According to Lont (1995), it was more common
to find a story about a male who lost than a female who won.
The absence of women from sports media is not inconsequential. The implicit
message, when women are absent or underrepresented, is that female athletes
either do not exist, or have no achievements that are newsworthy. The problem
of lack of representation is compounded by the tendency of media to emphasize
those sports which are seen as "sex appropriate" for women, while ignoring those
which are seen as "masculine." Thus, women's sports which do receive coverage
are likely to be sports which emphasize feminine ideals of grace, beauty and
glamour, such as figure skating and women's gymnastics, and which reveal the
body rather than hiding it under equipment (Boutilier and SanGiovanni, 1983;
Daddario, 1992; Duncan, 1990; Kane, 1988; Rintala & Birrell, 1984). The media
also tend to highlight female athletes in individual sports, such as tennis and
golf, over female athletes in team sports (Daddario, 1992; Rintala & Burrell,
Respect. Content analyses of portrayals of female athletes reveal common
sources of bias which contribute to recurring themes of trivialization and
Focus on appearance. A number of sports and media scholars have found that
female athletes tend to be described in media according to their physical
appearance and perceived desirability to men, rather than their athletic ability
(Bryson, 1987; Corrigan, 1972; Graydon, 1983; Hilliard, 1984; Lumpkin &
Williams, 1991; Messner, 1988; Vertinsky, 1994). While physical descriptors of
male athletes typically relate to their athletic build and strength, descriptors
of female athletes often relate to their sexual attractiveness and desirability
from the perspective of the male gaze (Daddario, 1994; Lumpkin & Williams,
Recent studies of the types of praise given to male and female athletes by
sports commentators continue to show that female athletes are more likely to be
praised for how they look than for how they perform (Duncan, 1990; Duncan &
Hasbrook, 1988; Nelson, 1991). By contrast, attributes applied to male players
related to mental deftness, such as "brilliant shots" or "smart fouls." No
similar references to mental ability were made for the womens' game.
Duncan's (1990) study of photographs of female athletes in the 1984 and 1988
Olympic Games suggests that physically attractive female athletes receive more
coverage than those equally talented in the same sport who are not so
attractive. Duncan found that female athletes who met the glamourous ideal of
"long hair, stylish clothes and lavishly applied make up" (p. 28) were more
likely to be the subject of sports photographs than those who were not. During
these Olympic Games, photos of track star Florence Griffith-Joyner and figure
skater Katarina Witt -- both of whom embody this feminine ideals -- appeared
more frequently than any other female athlete.
Emphasis on relationships/dependency on others. Another source of bias in
reporting about women is the tendency to define them by their relationships --
their roles as wife, mother, or daughter (Bosmaijian, 1995; Foreit et al, 1980).
Thus, the female subject of a news story is described as "a mother of two," "the
wife of a fellow athlete" or "daughter of a cardiologist," where these facts are
less likely to be mentioned about a male subject. Daddario (1992) noted that
the most prominent Sports Illustrated coverage of Chris Evert's career,
including a cover photograph and pictorial retrospective, focused prominently on
her role as a soon-to-be-wife. The front page headline: "I'm going to be a
full-time wife" (p. 58). This type of bias suggests that it is not enough to
be an athlete, one must also be nurturing to others.
Daddario (1994) found that television media disproportionately emphasized
female Olympic athletes' roles as daughters, reducing them to a childlike status
of girls who needed protection and emotional support from parents, rather than
as full-grown and emotionally independent athletes.
Emotional weakness. Hilliard (1984) has found that female athletes' mental
health -- in particular their emotional well-being -- is emphasized by reporters
as a critical part of their performance. He notes that the media's emphasis on
female athlete's emotional dependency on coaches and family are emphasized in
the press, leading to a portrayal of female athletes as tending toward
"excessive dependence" on others and "emotional difficulties that include
anxiety and depression" (p. 254). Daddario's (1994) study of 1992 Winter
Olympic television coverage found that commentators frequently characterized
female athlete's weaknesses as "mental," or emotional, such as a lack of focus
or self-confidence. Duncan's (1990) study of photographs of Olympic athletes
found that female athletes were much more likely than males to be shown crying.
Because sports culture values stoicism and discourages emotionalism, emphasis on
female athletes' emotional states challenges their status as "real" athletes.
Past successes vs. past failures. Duncan, et al. (1990) found that
television commentators mentioned past successes and strengths of male athletes
more frequently than those of female athletes. Messner et al. (1993) found that
when men lost, it was not due to individual shortcomings, but because of the
power, strength or intelligence of their opponents (p. 260). Women were more
likely to be blamed for their athletic failures because of mental flaws such as
lack of confidence or aggression. When women were successful, sports
commentators attributed their success to attributes which included "emotion,
luck, togetherness and family" (Messner at al, 1993, p. 227).
Hilliard (1984) found that male athletes' character flaws tended to be more
readily dismissed by the media than those of female athletes. In studies of the
1984 and 1992 Winter Olympics, Farrell (1989) and Daddario (1994) noted that
male athletes' "brash, wiseguy" behavior is often dismissed by the media with a
"boys will be boys" brand of apologia. Italian skier Alberto Tomba was credited
with creating "Tombamania" based on this "bad boy" image (Daddario, 1994, p.
Male agency and control vs. female passivity. In television sports, Duncan et
al (1990) found that commentators characterized male athletes as active
subjects, powerfully in charge of their games, whereas female athletes were
framed as reactive objects. Boutilier and SanGiovanni's (1983) analysis of
photography in Sports Illustrated found that male athletes were likely to be
photographed fully engaged in sport; female athletes were more likely than men
to be posed in passive and nonathletic positions.
Linguistic sexism. Reporters' language use may naturalize and reinforce
prevailing views of gender-based status. Renzetti & Curran (1995) define
linguistic sexism as the ways in which a language devalues members of one sex,
usually through defining women's "place" in society as a secondary status or by
ignoring women entirely (p. 150).
- Gender marking. Women's athletic performance is marginalized through the
practice of asymmetrical gender marking, whereby women's athletic events are
consistently labeled as "women's events," while men's events are simply athletic
events (Duncan, 1990; Halbert & Latimer, 1994; Hall, 1988; Messner et al., 1993;
Nelson, 1991). For instance, in television coverage, men's NCAA championship
basketball games were called "the national championship," while the equivalent
women's game was gender-marked as the "women's national championship" (Duncan,
Messner, & Williams, 1990). By making the men's event "the norm," women's
events, by implication, are framed as inferior.
- Condescending descriptors. Gender scholars have argued that the media
relegate female athletes' to subordinate stature by defining them as nonadults.
In a study of televised sports events, Duncan, Messner & Williams (1990) found
that on-air commentators referred to female athletes as "girls" or young
ladies," while male athletes were given adult status as "men" or "young men."
Daddario (1994) found that female Olympic athletes in the 1992 Winter Games in
their mid to late-twenties were described in ways that reduced them to
adolescent status. Speed skater Bonnie Blair was described as "America's little
sister," and "America's favorite girl next door" (p. 282). Cathleen Turner, a
29-year-old speed skater was described as a "pixie" and "a Tinkerbell." Such
endearments are terms that our culture usually reserves for subordinates; their
use frames female athletes in a subordinate role.
- Hierarchy of naming. Duncan, Messner & Williams (1990) found that female
athletes were more likely to be called by their first names by television
commentators. In their study of 1989 tennis tournaments, female athletes were
called by their fist names 52.7 percent of the time, while male athletes were
called by their first names just 7.8 percent of the time. Our cultural history
suggests that first names are used for children, servants and those with whom we
are very familiar; referring to someone by a last name suggests greater social
distance and respect.
- Martial metaphors. Martial metaphors are those that apply the imagery of war
to sport. For instance Trujillo (1995, p. 411) found that television football
commentators used terms which framed "the body as weapon" and "the game as war."
Terms used in play-by- play included "attack," "wound," "destroy," "cripple,"
"explode," and "weapons." Duncan, Messner & Williams (1990) found sports
commentators used martial metaphors much more frequently when describing male
basketball players that female players. For example, a male player was said to
"attack" the hoop, while a female "went to" the hoop. Jansen & Sabo (1994)
argue that sport/war metaphors valorize strength and aggression, characteristics
which are inconsistent with femininity. Because war is a "quintessentially
masculine activity" (p. 9), one would expect to see martial metaphors used more
frequently to describe men's sports. Conversely, their absence as descriptors
of women's sports contributes to portrayals of female athletes as passive and
Bias in graphic elements. The trivialization of womens sports extends to the
importance given to women's sport in layout and visual dominance. Silverstein
(1996) compared The New York Times' coverage of the 1995 women's and men's NCAA
basketball tournaments and found that the Times framed the women's event as
trivial through visual elements including fewer articles on the sports cover
page, shorter article lengths, fewer photos, fewer cover page "teasers," and
fewer and smaller graphic elements.
Causes of bias
Gender bias in sports coverage is attributed to several factors: societal
views of women in general; a patriarchal sports culture dominated by males at
every level; the financial imperatives of pleasing advertisers by attracting the
large male audience and keeping them by appealing to male interests; news values
which define women's sports as less important than men's sports, and newsroom
practices which make covering women's sports logistically more difficult than
covering men's sports.
The historic male domination of sport means that men's competitions often have
long lores of history and tradition, giving them a more colorful context to
write about than newer women's events which lack such a history. Silverstein
(1996) notes that this may be a factor in the unequal treatment of the men's and
women's NCAA basketball tournaments.
As Lumpkin & Williams (1991) point out in their study of Sports Illustrated,
the problem of lack of representation of female athlete is attributable to the
fact that the sports media's audience is predominately male, as are the most
popular sports of this audience. They suggest that the overrepresentation of
male athletes is more a result of a cultural bias than a deliberate
discriminatory policy by journalists.
The revenue-driven nature of mass media is also blamed for stereotypical
treatment of female athletes. As Hilliard (1984) notes, sponsors desire
feminine athletes to promote their products, encouraging female athletes to meet
traditional gender expectations for appearance and behavior. Similarly,
Theberge & Cronk (1986) conclude that newspapers' reliance on wire services,
well-established sources and a consistent layout structure favor coverage of
male athletes. They note that wire services and well-established sources tend
to provide predominately men's sports news, while the need for a consistent
layout structure makes it difficult for "other" news to find space in the sports
The current study expands on previous studies of gender bias in sports coverage
by focusing on feature articles about Olympic athletes in five leading U.S.
newspapers. Surprisingly little research has focused on gender in sports
coverage of the Olympic Games. Of four known studies, two were rhetorical
analyses of television commentary (Daddario, 1994; Farrell, 1989) one focused on
newspaper coverage (Women, Men & Media Annual, 1992) and one was a qualitative
analysis of magazine photography (Duncan, 1990).
The focus on leading U.S. newspapers is significant because of their prestige,
reach and influence. Top newspapers like the New York Times, Washington Post,
and LA Times are looked to as bastions of journalistic excellence (or in the
case of USA Today, journalistic innovation). They have the financial resources
to hire superior journalists, editors and designers. Their formulas are often
copied by smaller market newspapers, and both print and broadcast media often
take their cues as to which issues should receive coverage from them. Together
with the other newspaper being studied, The Atlanta Constitution, these
publications reach nearly five million subscribers (Editor & Publisher Yearbook,
1995), and thus are significant sources of information about the Olympic games
for these readers. Their stature as prestige publications would lead one to
expect that they would exhibit less gender bias in reporting than smaller
The purpose of this study is to determine the extent to which the nation's
leading newspapers reflect gender bias in feature stories about Olympic
athletes. Research questions relate to representation (quantitative presence),
respect (status accorded) and reporting of personality profiles published during
the Olympic Games in five leading U.S. newspapers.
Are male and female athletes equally represented?
- What percentage of feature articles are devoted to male and female athletes?
- Which sports receive the most coverage for male and female athletes?
- Do sports and athletes considered "gender appropriate" receive more coverage
than those which are not?
Do portrayals of female athletes reflect previously identified forms of gender
- Do articles comment on female athletes' appearance more than male athletes?
- Do articles comment on female athletes' relationships more than male
- Do articles comment on female athletes emotional responses more than male
- Do articles mention successes and failures of both male and female athletes?
- Are female athlete's personalities framed differently than males?
- Do articles and photos depict female athletes as active rather than passive?
- Are male and female athletes depicted engaging in the same kinds of
- Are female reporters assigned to cover women's events more than males?
- Does the gender of the reporter correlate to the incidence of gender bias in
- Does article placement and visual prominence trivialize female athletes?
This study is a quantitative comparison of the treatment of male and female
athletes in newspaper personality profiles. Five daily newspapers were chosen
as the population for the study. The first four were chosen because of their
status as the largest circulation, general interest newspapers in the U.S.
These are USA Today, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington
Post. Although it ranks 30th in overall circulation, The Atlanta Constitution
was selected because it represents the host city of the Games, and its coverage
reached not only regular subscribers, but thousands of visitors who attended the
All issues of these newspapers during the 16-day Olympic period from July 19,
1996 to Aug. 4, 1996 were examined, including special Saturday and Sunday issues
of USA Today which were published during the Games. The study focused on the
type of story known as the "personality profile." According to Stone (1992. p.
355), the personality profile is the most frequently written type of feature
story. It is defined as a feature story focusing on a single person, "designed
to capture the person's character for readers" (Stone, 1992, p. 464). It is
marked by depictions of major life experiences and achievements, direct
quotations, and descriptions which gives the reader a visual image of the
subject (Stone, 1992). Personality profiles which appeared as part of sports
columnists' regular columns were excluded from the study because columns, by
their nature, reflect the commentary of the author and are not held to the same
standards of objectivity as news features. Articles of less than six column
inches in length, such as USA Today's thumbnail profile of every U.S. Olympic
athlete, were not considered in the study because they did not meet the criteria
of fully-developed feature stories. This procedure yielded a census of 170 of
personality profiles. The Atlanta Constitution published more personality
profiles than any other newspaper (n=72), followed by USA Today (n=42), The Los
Angeles Times (n=25), The New York Times (n=24), and The Washington Post (n=7),
whose coverage of the Olympics was much less comprehensive and primarily news-
rather than feature-oriented.
Coding categories. A code sheet was constructed to evaluate each article.
As Berelson (1952) suggests, variables relating to both form and content were
observed. Items of analysis related to form included placement in the paper
(front page, section cover, or inside page), as well as positioning on the page
(above or below the fold) and visual dominance. Gender of the reporter, where
discernable from the byline, was also noted.
Article content was examined for forms of bias identified in previous studies
of sports coverage. These included gender of the featured athlete, mention of
appearance, marital and parental status, emotional dependence on others, past
successes or failures, descriptions of personality traits. Direct quotes from
the athlete were examined for expressions of emotionality, humility, confidence,
and explanations of competitive strategy or performance outcome. The reporter's
language use was examined for method of naming the athlete (last name, first
name, both) and presence of gender marking, martial language, and trivializing
language such as "girl," "boy" or "kid" to refer to adult athletes.
Accompanying photos of the athlete were examined for depictions of active vs.
passive poses, sports vs. non-sports contexts, glamorized appearance of athlete
(such as showing a male in a tuxedo or a female in a sequined gown or with
lavishly applied make-up and hairstyling), and type of activity depicted.
Coding procedure. Twenty-one undergraduate students enrolled in a special
topics course (COM 490 - Gender, Race and Media) and one paid student assistant
were trained as coders. The coders were given oral and written instructions and
examples of codesheet definitions, and participated in practice coding and
discussion. The coders were not informed about the specific research questions,
and worked independently. They were instructed to code as objectively as
possible and not to assume (because of the nature of the course in which they
were enrolled) that the articles would reflect bias.
A multi-step coding process was used to code the ads. First, each coder coded
a subsample of 10 percent of the total articles (15 articles) for purposes of
determining intercoder reliability. Intercoder reliability was computed using
percentage of agreement (Kassarjian, 1977; Stempel, 1981). Intercoder
reliability scores for the subsample ranging from 88.5 to 93.5 were achieved.
Several questions were clarified and instructions to coders altered to address
items where disagreements had occurred. Then each article was coded by two
coders. Disagreements between coders were resolved by a third independent
Data analysis. The SPSS statistical package was used to analyze the data.
Data was sorted by gender of the athlete, and a split run analysis performed to
yield separate data sets for males and females. The frequencies procedure was
used to determine the occurrence of variables of interest in each gender group.
The sorting and split run procedure was also used to isolate the five newspapers
and compare their performance. For variables where frequency counts revealed
differences in treatment based on gender of the athlete, statistical
correlations were performed to determine the relationship between gender of the
reporter and incidence of bias.
Representation. In terms of quantitative presence, female athletes compared
favorably with male athletes. Of 170 profiles, 93 were of male athletes, and 77
were of female athletes. Proportionately, female athletes were actually better
represented in relation to their numbers than males -- 2.5 percent of all female
athletes were profiled, compared to 1.4 percent of all male athletes. In
addition, 82 percent of female athletes profiled were represented in
photographs, compared to 73 percent of males. Comparing coverage among
newspapers, USA Today had the greatest disparity between coverage of male and
female athletes (62% of articles devoted to males, 38% percent to females). Of
profiles published in The Atlanta Constitution, 54% were devoted to males and
46% to females. The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times published just one
more profile of male athletes than females. Four of the seven profiles
published in The Washington Post were about female athletes.
Women's sports most represented were swimming (15.6% of all profiles), track
and field (14.3%), gymnastics (10.4%), and basketball (10.4%). Two of these
sports, swimming and gymnastics, have been consistently identified as "sex
appropriate" sports for women in public opinion surveys (Daddario, 1992; Snyder
& Kane, 1990). The other two sports, track and basketball, are not similarly
considered to be "feminine" sports. Absent were profiles of female athletes in
the sports of canoeing, field hockey, handball, and yachting. Fifty-three
different female athletes were profiled; Irish swimmer Michelle Smith and
gymnast Kerri Strug were profiled more frequently than any other female athletes
(three times each).
By contrast, the sports most represented in the profiles of male athletes were
boxing (17.2% of all articles), track and field (15.1%), weightlifting (8.6%)
and wrestling (8.6%). Three of these sports, boxing, weightlifting and
wrestling, are Olympic sports from which women are excluded. This finding
suggests newspaper coverage did not follow the same strategy as television
coverage of downplaying "macho" sports in favor of those with cross-gender
appeal. No profiles male athletes competing in the sports of handball, rowing,
shooting or soccer were found. Of the 72 different male athletes profiled,
boxer Antonio Tarver and sprinter Michael Johnson were profiled most frequently
(three times each).
Appearance. The focus on female athletes' appearance observed in previous
studies was not borne out by the data. While exactly half of the profiles about
female athletes commented on appearance, slightly more than half of the profiles
of male athletes mentioned their appearance (53.8%). Aspects of women's
appearance commented upon most frequently were height (29.9% of responses
describing appearance); weight (26%); hair (13%); and muscular build (13%).
Aspects of men's appearance commented upon most frequently were the same,
although in different order: weight (36.6% of comments about appearance);
height (23.7%); muscular build (14%) and hair (11.8%). Gender-based differences
were found in comments regarding general good looks/beauty and sex appeal.
Reporters were more than four times as likely to mention the "good looks,"
"beauty" or "cuteness" of female athletes (9.1%) than they were to mention the
general good looks of male athletes (2.2%). Three profiles of female athletes
mentioned their sexual attractiveness, including a Los Angeles Times story which
reproduced the Playboy magazine cover which featured Brazilian basketball player
Hortencia Oliva provocatively posed. References to sexual attractiveness were
absent from profiles of male athletes.
Male athletes received more uncomplimentary comments about their appearance
than female athletes. (10.8% of profiles of male athletes included
uncomplimentary comments about their appearance, compared to 7.8% of profiles of
female athletes.) Examples included a reference to powerlifter Mark Henry's
weight in phrases like "stronger, faster, wider" and the headline "the Great
Wide Hope," and Mikal Martikan's "pimply face."
Glaring exceptions to the positive trends for women:
Relay runner Dannette Young-Stone is described as "a pretty
manicurist with braided hair," in an article that focuses its first
and a half paragraphs on the nail salon she owns, rather than her role
an Olympic athlete (The Atlanta Constitution, July 31, 1996).
Gold medal swimmer Michelle Smith, described romantically from a
decidedly male gaze as "freckle-faced" with "light green Irish eyes. .
She's one feisty lady" by USA Today (July 26, 1996).
Juliana Furtado described by The Atlanta Constitution as a
"sports covergirl" (July 30, 1996).
These descriptions frame the athlete as something to be gazed upon for others'
pleasure, and diminish their identity as athletes.
Female athletes were described in terms normally reserved for children, and
were referred to as "girls" or "kids" slightly more frequently (7.8%) than males
were referred to as "boys" or "kids" (5.4%).
- Michelle Smith described as a "lass" (Los Angeles Times, July
- Ryoko Tamura as "a national darling" and a "pixie" (The
Atlanta Constitution, July 26, 1996).
This infantalization is epitomized in the description of 14-year-old swimmer
"With her big blue eyes and toothy smile, Beard is as cute as
the teddy bear she carries to the pool" (Atlanta Constitution, July
Comments about the youth of male athletes were less descriptive, for instance,
"at 28, as boyish as ever," (about Vade Slavic, Los Angeles Times, July 21,
1996) and "the Minnesota kid makes good" (about gymnast John Roethlisberger, The
Atlanta Constitution, July 20, 1997).
Swimmer Amy Van Dyken (was also mentioned as being carrying a good luck toy --
while no superstitious rituals of male athletes were mentioned.
Relationships. Previous scholars have noted the tendency for female athletes
to be defined by their relationships. This study finds some support for that
- Marital status. While reporters revealed the marital status of 20% of the
males profiled, marital status was revealed for 35% of female athletes. In the
case of U.S. swimmer Angel Martino, it was clearly framed as a key to her
"Little Angel ain't so little anymore. She is Angel Martino. Now a wife."
(The Atlanta Constitution, July 22, 1996).
However, the correlation procedure found an insignificant relationship between
gender of the reporter and mention of marital status, suggesting that female
reporters were as likely to mention marital status as males.
- Parental status. Parental status, however, was mentioned more frequently for
male athletes (17.2%) than it was for female athletes (14.2%). However, female
athletes were much more likely to be characterized as struggling to balance
career and family (7.8% of female athletes profiled, compared to 1.1 percent of
males). For instance:
- an article profiling cyclist Linda Brenneman begins with a
focus on her infant as a spectator at her event, and ends with her
comment, "I really want to get back to motherhood -- that's my life
The Los Angeles Times, July 22, 1986).
- U.S. soccer player Joy Fawcett is pointed out as "the only
mother on the team" by The Los Angeles Times (August 4, 1996). Surely
there were male athletes who were the only fathers on their teams, but
this fact tends to be seen as irrelevant.
- The headline for the profile of Brazilian basketball standout
Hortencia Oliva reads simply, "Mommy With a Jumper" (Los Angeles
July 25, 1996). She is defined first as a mommy, not as an athlete,
despite an outstanding athletic career spanning nearly two decades.
phrasing of the headline defines her not an athlete with a baby, but
mommy who also can play basketball. No similar headline for males
"Daddy with a Jumper") was found.
- Dependence on family. Articles about female athletes were slightly more
likely to mention the athlete's siblings and parents than those about male
athletes (58.4% vs. 51.6%). However, more than 40 percent of female athletes
(n=33) were depicted as being dependent on others emotionally or financially,
compared to 34.4% of male athletes. For instance, the first eight paragraphs of
a profile on runner Jackie Joyner Kersey framed her as a mother's daughter, not
an athlete (USA Today, July 27, 1996).
Men and women were characterized as caring for others in equal numbers (26%).
However, women were quoted more often referring to their relationships. More
than half of the profiles of female athletes included direct quotes in which the
athlete referred to relationships with others (53.2%), compared to 40.9% of
profiles of male athletes.
Emotionality. Reporters were more likely to comment on female athletes'
emotions (57.1% of profiles) than males' (52.7%). Males were more than twice
as likely than females to be described as emotionally stoic (14% vs. 6.5%).
More than 10% of female athletes were characterized as emotionally weak,
compared to 7.5% of profiles about males. For instance, tennis player Lindsey
Davenport was described as "a notorious self-doubter" (Los Angeles Times, August
Female athletes were far more likely to be quoted expressing an emotion (71.4%
vs. 55.9%). However, they were much less likely to express confidence or
bravado in their quotes than men (36.4% vs. 52.7%).
Rationality is the natural foil to emotionality. Male athletes were more
likely to be described as intelligent than female athletes (10.8% of male
athletes vs. 6.5% of female athletes), including mentions of college degrees and
grade point averages. For instance, Les Gutches was described as having an
"analytical, problem-solving nature" (USA Today, July 29, 1996); David Reid was
described as "the thinking man's boxer." USA Today's profile of swimming
champion Michelle Smith attributed her multiple gold medals to her trainer
husband's smarts, not her own hard work or athletic ability (July 26, 1996).
However, female athletes were equally as likely as male athletes to be quoted
explaining their competitive strategy or the reasons behind a performance
Character portrayals. Male and female athletes were equally likely to be
characterized as aggressive (19.5%) However, descriptions of male aggression
were the most vivid:
- Gymnast Blaine Wilson "attacks the apparatus, sometimes
snarling in aggression." He "bulldozed" his way, and is characterized
"a pitbull" and "a freight train." (The Atlanta Constitution, July 24,
- A teammate is quoted describing Chris Humbert as "Godzilla"
and "an alien monster." (The Atlanta Constitution, August 2, 1996).
The masculine trait of enduring pain was evident in a reporters' description of
U.S. cyclist Marty Nothstein: "Nothstein relishes agony." The cyclist is
quoted as saying "I enjoy the pain" (USA Today, July 24, 1996).
Male athletes were more likely to be depicted as arrogant (7.5% vs. 1.3% of
females), and as rebellious (5.4% vs. 3.9%), although the euphemisms used to
describe such male athletes, are "free spirit" (swimmer Gary Hall, Jr. and Chris
Humbert) and "bad boy" (wrestler Tom Brands).
Females were much more likely to be characterized as shy (7.8%) than males
(1.1%). Females were slightly more likely to be characterized as humble (16.9%
vs. 15.1%) and to be quoted expressing humility over their accomplishments (13%
A larger percentage of female athletes than males was characterized by the
reporter as being naturally talented (16.9% vs. 10.8%). Female athletes were
also depicted as being hard-working slightly more frequently than males (40.3%
vs. (38.7%). More male athletes were depicted as overcoming obstacles than
female athletes (53.8% vs. 45.5%). Physical strength was more often cited as an
attribute of male athletes than of females (29% vs. 23%). More than 10% of
female athletes were characterized as being physically weak (i.e., recovering
from an injury, being out of shape); while less than half that number (4.3%) of
male athletes were depicted as being weak. More female athletes were
characterized as dominating their sports than male athletes (11.7% vs. 7.5%).
Women were slightly more likely to be characterized as patriotic than males
(22.1% vs. 18.3%). Female athletes were proportionately more likely to be
depicted as financially savvy (6.5%) than male athletes (4.3%).
Successes and failures. Previous scholars have observed that female athlete's
weaknesses are often pointed out by journalists, while successes are ignored.
In this case, past successes (previous wins or records held) were mentioned only
slightly more frequently for males than for females (91.4% vs. 89.6%). Past
athletic or personal failures (such as arrest or drug use) were also mentioned
more frequently in profiles of male athletes (57%) than in profiles of female
Photographic images. Females were proportionately more likely to be
photographed engaging in sport than males (58.4% of images, vs. 52.7% of
images), and slightly less likely to be photographed in passive positions --
doing nothing, posing for the camera, or pictured in headshots (15.6% vs.
17.2%). Very few images were found in which the athletes' appearances had been
intentionally glamorized (three images of women and two of men). Males and
females were equally likely to be pictured alone (63% of photos of women and 62%
of photos of men), and pictured with children (2.2%).
Photographs showed little difference in the kinds of activities in which
athletes were engaged. They were equally unlikely to be shown prostrate in
collapse from exertion (1.3% of females and 1.1% of males). Females were twice
as likely to be shown hugging another person than males (6.5% vs. 3.2%) Only one
female was photographed crying; two males were photographed crying. Men were
slightly more likely than women to be photographed raising their arms in victory
(9.7% of images vs. 7.8% of images).
Reporting and Design. More than two-thirds of all profiles were written by
male reporters. Seventy-two percent of articles about male athletes were
written by male reporters, and just 16% by female reporters (the remaining 12%
included bylines where gender was undeterminable from names or where no byline
was featured). Male reporters also wrote more than half of the stories about
female athletes (51.9%). Female reporters wrote 31.2% of the profiles of female
athletes. Females athletes were slightly more likely to be quoted than male
athletes (94.8% of stories vs. 93.5%).
Hierarchical naming. The policies of all five of the newspapers studied are to
refer to a subject, after first reference, by last name. More than 95% of all
articles reflected this policy. Three articles about female athletes and three
articles about male athletes departed from the last name policy, using first
name or alternating between first name and last name.
Stereotypical language. Martial language was used proportionately more often
to describe female athletes than to describe male athletes (11.7% vs. 9.7%) with
equal frequency. "Explosive" was the most common martial language descriptor
for both men and women. Examples of martial language include the following:
- In a story about U.S. soccer player Briana Scurry, the phrases
"taking a pounding," "skirmishes" and "conceding little ground" (USA
, July 31, 1997)
- The terms "world record assault," "Ma's Army," "gang" "led a
revolt" and "shoot down" in the profile of Chinese (male) athlete Wang
Junxia (The Atlanta Constitution, July 26, 1996)
- U.S. gymnast John Macready "still did not surrender men's
gymnastics" despite a "misfire on the vault." A military-style name
"Operation Flip-Flop" was coined by the men's gymnastics federation to
describe their plan to make men's gymnastics as successful as women's
Angeles Times, July 23, 1996).
- Shannon Miller is the "stealth gymnast" of Atlanta (Los
Angeles Times, July 25, 1996) and Tom Dolan is the "young gun" of U.S.
swimming (The Atlanta Constitution, July 21, 1996).
Gender-marking. Unnecessary spotlighting of gender was found on two occasions
for female athletes and two occasions for male athletes. For instance, Teresa
Edwards was described by The Atlanta Constitution as "the four-time Olympic
women's basketball player," rather than just a four- time Olympic basketball
player (emphasis mine). The correlation procedure revealed no significant
associations between gender of the reporter and use of stereotypical language,
again suggesting that male reporters are not the only ones responsible for its
No evidence of bias was found in the placement of stories about male and female
athletes. Proportionately, slightly more photos of women appeared on section
cover pages than photos of men (9.1% vs. 7.5%). Approximately 90% of both male
and female profiles appeared on inside pages. Slightly more profiles of women
appeared "above the fold" than did profiles of men (39% vs. 31.2%). Articles
about women were also more likely to be featured as the visually dominant
article on the page (49.4% of articles about women, compared to 39.8% of
articles about men).
Selection of quotes. Several of the quotes used by reporters reflected gender
stereotypes that athletes used to describe themselves. For instance, swimmer
Janet Evans is quoted as wishing for a more feminine body: "I want my shoulders
to shrink and my muscles to get small so I can wear a sundress." After she
retires, she plans to "go shopping with my mom -- lots of shopping" (The Atlanta
Constitution, July 26, 1996). Gymnast Blaine Wilson is quoted as saying he
enjoys "using brute force" (The Atlanta Constitution, July 24, 1996). Gender
bias may enter into the reporting process by purposely selecting quotes which
reinforce gender stereotypes.
Gender bias in major newspaper coverage of the 1996 Olympic Games appears to be
less prevalent than that found in coverage of previous sporting events reported
by other scholars. For many of the variables studied, differences in
representation and respect given to male and female athletes were minimal. In
some cases, such as page layout and article prominence, female athletes received
favorable treatment, suggesting that editors sought to capitalize on reader
interest in female athletes.
Areas where gender bias against women was evident related to the more frequent
mention of marital status; good looks from a male gaze; emotionality of female
athletes; and the assignment of stories along gender lines. In other areas,
such as mention of physical weakness and past successes, gender bias was
minimal, reflected less than ten percent more frequently for women. Positive
findings for female athletes included equal likelihood of being characterized as
aggressive, proportionately greater incidence of martial language, and greater
likelihood of being photographed in active stances and engaging in sport.
Equally notable is the lack of bias found in areas noted by previous scholars:
females were not overrepresented in "feminine" sports, glamorized in
photography, or the subject of gender-marking. Parental status was slightly
more likely to be mentioned for males.
These favorable findings are particularly significant because more than half of
all of the articles studied were written by male reporters. Several remarkable
examples of bias notwithstanding, this study provides a more positive milestone
in the gender bias literature than previous inquiries. Perhaps one reason for
this is that the quantitative analysis forces the researcher to "count" both the
presence and absence of bias; previously employed methodologies, such as
rhetorical analysis, lend themselves to critical analysis of the most biased
passages and images.
However, these findings should not be interpreted as a cause for celebration.
It should be remembered that at no other time does public interest in female
athletes peak as high as during the Olympic Games. Beyond these two weeks every
four years, the treatment of female athletes, particularly in terms of
quantitative representation and representation in "non-feminine" sports may
decline. An interesting follow up study might compare the levels of
representation and respect accorded to female athletes during the Games with
those in the weeks and months after the Games. One might expect that as public
interest wanes, so would the nonstereotypical treatment of female athletes.
It must be noted that stereotypical treatment may be brought about by
athletes themselves and their agents, who find that emphasizing their
"otherness" through appearance may be an effective publicity ploy (i.e.,
distinctively long, elaborately decorated fingernails.) Female athletes may
unwittingly encourage stereotypical reporting by making comments which reflect
traditional stereotypes of women, for instance, swimmer Janet Evans' previously
noted comments to a reporter longing for smaller muscles, sundresses and
shopping with her mother.
However, the role of the reporter is critically important in framing issues
related to gender in sport. The lack of correlation between gender of reporter
and instances of bias suggests that female reporters bear the responsibility for
some of the stereotypical writing found. This is evidence of the profession's
continuing need to educate reporters as to common sources of gender bias in
journalistic writing. The fact that gender bias against female athletes is not
intentional does not make it any more acceptable.
Additional studies of newspaper coverage of female athletes are needed to
determine whether the positive findings of this study are part of a larger trend
of growing interest and acceptance of female athletes, or just a blip on the
screen that coincides with the Olympic Games.
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 Women were barred from competition in the ancient Olympic Games, and again
in the first modern games in 1896. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the
modern Olympic movement, resisted the idea of female participation, envisioning
the Games as "an exaltation of male sport" (Rosen, 1996c). In 1900, however, 11
women were permitted to compete in golf and tennis. In 1928, after the reported
collapse of several female runners, women were nearly banned from Olympic sport
as a health risk. Although the attempt to oust women failed, women were not
permitted to run an Olympic race longer than 200 meters for 32 years (Rosen,
1996d). Inequities persisted in 1996. According to the U.S. Olympic
Committee, there were 63 more medal events for men than women. Because of this,
within the same sport, women's teams may be limited to a smaller roster than
men's teams. For example, the international cycling federation allowed each
country to send only two female track cyclists to Atlanta, while men's teams
were permitted to send nine (Rosen, 1996b). Women remain barred from Olympic
wrestling, boxing, modern pentathlon and weightlifting. According to the U.S.
Olympic Committee, 27 countries, including Saudi Arabia, send no female athletes
to the Olympics because their participation necessitates violating Islamic dress
Gender imbalances are also visible within the Olympics organizing body itself.
As of 1996, the International Olympic Committee included only seven women among
its 106 members, and had ignored requests to take action against countries that
discriminate against women -- unlike its policy banning South Africa from
competition because of apartheid (Olympics show progress but not yet equality,
 Male domination of sport has come under increasing scrutiny since the
1970s. Feminist scholars see sport as a powerful institution which contributes
to the social construction of a male-dominated gender order. For instance,
feminist critiques of sport have pointed to the link between sport and cultural
definitions of masculinity:
Sport has traditionally been a male preserve, encouraging
segregation by gender and the socialization of boys to learn
socially-valued "masculine" traits such as aggression, competition,
control of emotions and physical pain, and male solidarity (Sabo, 199
Equally importantly, the gender order is communicated by the exclusion,
segregation, and trivialization of female athletes. According to Sabo (1993),
women have historically been excluded from sport by myths of female frailty and
psychological weakness, and denied access through lack of financial and moral
support for participation. "Sport has been coopted by males as their territory,
and women are effectively excluded. . . from sport which encroaches on the male
domain" (Dorris, 1996, p. 8).
 The Wall Street Journal had the largest circulation of U.S. dailies in
1995, at 1,780,422, but was not included in this study because of its primary
focus on business matters rather than general news.