Academic journal article Journal of Sport Behavior

Depictions of Female Athletes on Sports Illustrated Covers, 1957-1989

Academic journal article Journal of Sport Behavior

Depictions of Female Athletes on Sports Illustrated Covers, 1957-1989

Article excerpt

Research indicates that female sports is under-represented in the news media. In addition, when females appear in sports news, they are usually in stereotyped roles. This study examined the portrayals of females on the covers of Sports Illustrated for over three decades. The findings confirmed previous research that females receive less news coverage than males. Females were also more likely than male athletes to be portrayed in non-active sports poses. The longitudinal analysis indicated that the portrayal of female athletes may have actually worsened. The most thorough coverage of female athletes was during the 1950s.

Content analyses of news media coverage of sports repeatedly indicate that female sports is under-represented (Bryant, 1980; Duncan & Sayaovong, 1990; Hilliard, 1984; Rintila & Birrell, 1984; Sabo & Runfola, 1980). Critics claim that the news media's lack of attention of female sports hinders the advancement of females in sports, from grade school to professional sports (Rintila & Birrell, 1984). This study examined the depictions of females on the covers of Sports Illustrated for over three decades.

News editors believe sports news is of interest to male readers. As a result, sports sections of newspapers may be more likely to neglect the concerns of women than other sections (McChesney, 1989). For example, Miller (1975) reported the findings of a comprehensive study of the photographs of women and men in six selected sections of the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post. She found that the sports sections of both newspapers devoted a smaller percentage of photographs to women than the other sections. As Miller noted:

Hundreds of women's sports events occur each year in the greater Los Angeles and Washington areas. Both the Post and the Times have made efforts to expand their coverage of women's athletics and have added women sports reporters. Nevertheless, because they focus primarily on "big money" professional sporting events [rather than amateur, collegiate or recreational athletics], the sports sections of the Post and Times continue to be dominated by photos of men. (Miller, 1975, pp. 74-75)

The 1960s and 1970s were marked by a increased awareness of the treatment of women in the news. A 1965 report on the President's Commission of the Status on Women criticized the news media for portraying wornen in a manner that "contains only myths, misconceptions and even distortions" (Mead & Kaplan, 1965, p. 1). Longitudinal research yields mixed evidence regarding whether the coverage of female sports is overcoming this stereotype. Fasting and Tangen (1983) reported that articles on female sports in Norwegian media increased from 5 to 10 percent over an eight-year period from 1973 to 1980. In contrast, Reid and Soley (1979) examined Sports Illustrated during four six-year periods between 1956 to 1976 and found no pattern of changes. Feature articles about female sports fluctuated from 3.2 percent in 1964 to 6.8 percent in 1960 and 1976.

Studies dealing with the "quantity" of news of women's sports dominate the literature of media coverage of female sports. "Quantity" studies may be of secondary importance to the "quality" studies, which examine how the media portray women's sports. These studies indicate that females -- when they appear in sports news -- are likely to be depicted in "traditional" noncontact sports, such as golf, tennis, figure skating and gymnastics (Bryant, 1980; Duncan, 1986; Fasting & Tangen, 1983; Hilliard, 1984; Rintila & Birrell, 1984).

Wanta and Leggett (1989) designed a "gatekeeping" study to examine distortions of both the quantity of coverage and media depictions of women's sports. The gatekeeping model directs attention to how news changes as it passes through various "gates," from news gathering to distribution and, finally, to publication. Wanta and Leggett compared the Associated Press' laserwire photographs of the Wimbledon tennis tournament with the photographs selected by the sports editors of eight newspapers. …

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