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A sporting chance

Thursday 19th December 2013

In sociology ‘sex’ is a biological identity a person is assigned at birth: are you male or female sex-assigned? One of the reasons it’s important is because it’s what segregates us in sport – and sex discrimination in sport, especially when it comes to media coverage, is still alive and kicking.

It has been a highly successful year for the likes of Lydia Ko, Lauren Boyle, Polly Powrie and Jo Aleh, the Fast Ferns, Valerie Adams, the NZ sevens team, to name a few, but do you think that if youre a woman, and successful, you’ll get fair representation? Nope. 

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to explore, on Radio New Zealand’s Sunday Morning show, the three Ms facing women and sport: media, money and management.

Just over 50 per cent of our population are women, yet they barely feature in the sports news sections; they make significantly less money through professional sport or endorsements than their male counterparts; and only 27 per cent of board members of sporting organisations in this country are women. 

While the segment focused on these three key elements, I can’t do justice to all three in one post, so let’s talk media coverage.

The week it was aired, I analysed the media coverage of female athletes. That week the Fast Ferns won the Netball Fast 5 World Cup; Lauren Boyle won medals and broke New Zealand records in the pool; and sailors Jo Aleh and Polly Powrie were named as international female sailors of the year. You’d think they made it to the front page of the sports section of a leading newspaper, or led a radio sports news bulletin*, but no.

That weekend, the sports media was dominated by rugby, Sonny Bill Williams and a bit of English football.

The only photo regarding women in sport in the Herald two days before the segment aired (November 15) was of a model wearing the new All Whites home uniform, with her bra strategically exposed and wearing high heels. She was accompanied by the headline: “Two-legs playoff”.

What kind of message is this sending, and does anybody in the media care? And as sports fans, should we be protesting this inherently sexist coverage in sport?

Just last week there was another glaring example of this. Lydia Ko won her first title as a pro, and some media outlets (including RNZ) led their sports bulletins with it (ahead of the All Blacks – what’s the world coming to!), but Radio Sport, a radio station that prides itself on being an authority on sport, only had Lydia fourth in the 8am bulletin behind English football, which didn’t feature any New Zealanders.

A favourite example of unbalanced media coverage is this one: a few months ago Kona – the Ironman World Champs – were on and one radio station stated that Bevan Docherty was coming 11th in the men’s race (which is great!) but they failed to mention the fact that at the time a Kiwi, Gina Crawford**, was in the leading pack of the women’s race.

I emailed them, and pointed this out; after all isn’t a Kiwi leading the race better than another Kiwi coming 11th? The answer I got was that there isnt enough time to cover everything. In the end, Docherty didn’t finish; Crawford came 9th and didn’t get a mention.

Here’s an interesting stat: A 2009 study found ESPN's Sportcentre – one of the world's leading sports news programmes – only dedicated 1.4 per cent of its airtime to women’s athletics. (This was found in ESPN’s documentary series Nine for XI – they are amazing.)

Research in the Australian Journalism Review in 2007 found that sports newsrooms are still monopolised by men and in turn these journalists mainly cover men’s sport. The research also found only seven per cent of bylines in the sports sections of New Zealand’s newspapers were attributed to women. 

So how do we encourage fair and equal coverage for female athletes in our media?

Try these two on for size, for a start:

1. Prioritise. We need to look at what is important when it comes to our sports news. If a Kiwi, no matter what sex they are, is achieving great things on the world stage, should we not cover it? And should it not lead the news? It shouldn’t be about commercialisation of a sport, it should be about success.

2. Hire more sports journalists that cover all sport (as well as more women sports journalists). Women are totally underrepresented in this area, but there are women who want to work in sports media. And, it almost goes without saying, base those hiring decisions on knowledge and skills, rather than looks. And all sports journalists should cover all sports, not just ones that are traditionally associated with their sex.

What do you think about this issue? How can we make a positive change? Tweet me. Let’s have a conversation.


*I followed TV3 News, Radio New Zealand, Radio Sport, the New Zealand Herald and the Dominion Post.

** I’ll admit to being slightly biased as we are related. Go Gina!