Michael Messner is a professor of sociology and gender studies at the University of Southern California (USC) and is the author of numerous books including Power at Play: Sports and the Problem of Masculinity. He is the co-author, along with Prof. Cheryl Cooky, of a new report called, Gender in Televised Sports: News and Highlight Shows, 1989-2009. Here we discuss this fascinating study.
DZ: Let’s talk about your study on gender and televised sports. What did you and Professor Cooky uncover in your research?
MM: We looked at the three local networks affiliates here in Los Angeles and also the ESPN Sportscenter at 11 o’clock in the evening. The first time we did this study was 1989 and we have done it every five years since then. The first couple times we did it, 1989 and 1993 coverage of women sports on the evening news shows was about 5%. I know a lot of people back then said that the number would continue to go up as time went by and the media caught up with this explosion of girls and women sports throughout the country. Indeed in 1999 it nudged up to 8.7% of all sports coverage. Then in 2004 it went back down to 6.3% and the most recent data we collected was in 2009 and the coverage on the evening news shows has almost evaporated to 1.6%, the lowest amount ever, and ESPN is right down there with 1.4% of their Sportscenter coverage. We were pretty stunned by the drop off.
DZ: To go from 5% in 1989 to at 1.6%, in 2009. How do we understand that coverage has actually gone down as women’s leagues and play have become more prevalent?
MM: Well, that’s what the puzzle really is. There has been this continued explosion of participation and interest in women’s sports and it just hasn’t been reflected in TV news and highlight shows. One of the more interesting findings we had was in 1989 and 1999 the big chunk of women’s sports coverage we did see on these shows was what we called insulting or trivialization or humorous sexualization of women athletes, like a nude bungee jumper or leering court reports on tennis players like Anna Kournikova or later Maria Sharapova. In 2004 and 2009 those kinds of stories declined to the point where we saw almost none of that insulting stuff about women athletes. But I guess what we are wondering now is when they stop doing insulting or humorous sexualization stories on women athletes, it seems that they just don’t know how to talk about women and women sports at all.
DZ: When you talk about the sexualization and trivialization of women athletes, were you calculating that amidst the 5% in 1989?
MM: That’s right. That was part of the 5% in 1989 and part of the 8.7% in 1999 and it was a pretty big chunk of it. When you see that kind of coverage disappear, what also disappears is coverage of women’s sports at all. I think part of this has to do with the fact that a lot of these sports reporters on the evening news especially, are the same guys basically who we saw in 1989 and 1993: Fred Rogan at KNBC, Jim Hill at KCBS, it’s the same reporters and they are doing the same stuff. I think one of the keys to this when thinking about Sportscenter and the evening news is it’s kind of a men’s club, though Sportscenter does include a couple of women reporters but the news shows really don’t. It’s been really interesting this week since our report came out: only women reporters have seen fit to cover this as a story. I think there is some reason to think if we could desegregate the sports desk on newspapers and in TV news and so forth you might get a little bit more respectful coverage of women’s sports.