Stopped at the Gate: Women's Sports, "Reader Interest," and Decision Making by Editors

Article excerpt

Newspaper sports pages have been criticized for failure to incorporate women's sports equitably, although few studies have examined why editors consistently sideline women's sports. This survey of 285 sports editors in the southeastern United States explores gatekeeping factors that may affect coverage received by women's sports. Results show that many editors fail to systematically ascertain reader interests, many believe that female athletic potential is inferior to that of males, and some say they feel no commitment to hiring women or covering women's sports.

Sports critic and author Mariah Burton Nelson once asked a reporter why he did not cover women's sports. He told her, "No one goes to women's games, so why should we?" She replied that without his reporting, readers would not know about the games. If he reported them, awareness and attendance might follow.

Nelson recalls his response in her book, The Stronger Women Get, the More Men Love Football:

"Oh, we wouldn't want to do that!" he said immediately. "We're not social change agents. We're just here to report the news."

He was wrong. Reporters do not simply follow the public's interest. They create interest by discovering and reporting ... But his attitude was typical of many reporters and editors. They see themselves as reflecting and maintaining the status quo.1

Perhaps nowhere else in American newspapers is the potential to "create interest" in events stronger than in sports sections. They are a popular draw for readers, and sports coverage is seen as important to newspaper circulation.2 What is printed in sports sections does more than simply reflect the status quo, it helps shape it; "sports journalists do things that matter very much when it comes to the cultural ideology and public consciousness."3

Critics have indicted sports journalism for reinforcing a cultural ideology that entrenches males atop the socioeconomic hierarchy. Despite explosive growth in female sports since the 1970s, newspaper coverage consistently marginalizes female athletes and presents sports as a male domain.4 The reason for this depends on who is talking: Scholars say journalists are acting on a false, hegemonic ideology that men are, and should remain, superior to women in sport and (by extension) the culture. Journalists say they are simply reacting to reader demands; news values and audience interest are behind male-dominated sports pages.5

The question of whether sports pages reflect reader interests or male-centric ideology is complicated by the notion of media influence. Surveys may indicate that readers prefer coverage of male sports, but readers' views could be shaped by what they don't know (women's sports) and what they have come to expect. Thus, an answer to the question about the origin of sports-section content is better answered by exploring the attitudes and values of sports editors who are the gatekeepers.

Although critics speculate about sport editors' gatekeeping function, little research has explored such influences. Further, none has gone beyond the quasi-ethnography of a single sports department. This article uses survey research to explore how practices, beliefs, and values of sports editors may affect decision making about coverage of women's sports.

Literature Review

Male Hegemony in Sports Media. Even thirty years after females were given the right to fully participate in sport in the United States, male hegemony is still more complete in the "sports/media complex" than in any other area of the culture.6 Hegemony is so embedded into media imperatives and routines that it has become banal.7

The sports/media complex is a hegemonic institution because it perpetuates ideology about the biology of women; what is socialized in U.S. culture is framed as natural. Notions that women are naturally less competitive, less athletic, and less interested in sports than are men have become "commonsense. …

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