Gender Bias in Newspaper Profiles of 1996 Olympic Athletes: A Content Analysis of Five Major Dailies

Article excerpt

This study compares newspaper coverage of male and female athletes during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. Profiles of athletes in five leading U.S. newspapers were examined for incidence of gender bias in reporting and photography. The study round evidence of gender bias for a number of criteria; however, for other items, female athletes received similar or more favorable treatment than male athletes. The study found no evidence of gender bias in terms of quantitative representation of female athletes, or in the placement and prominence of stories. Overall, these findings suggest improvement--revealing less egregious bias than has been noted by previous studies of media coverage of female athletes.

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, 1996a).

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, 1996b). 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. 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 codes.

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," 1996). …