Journalists ignore women’s sports

Former Stanford star Nneka Ogwumike led her team in the 2016 WNBA finals and was league MVP. (Courtesy Wikimedia/SusanLesch/Creative Commons)

Former Stanford star Nneka Ogwumike led her team in the 2016 WNBA finals and was league MVP. (Courtesy Wikimedia/SusanLesch/ Creative Commons)

I saw ghosts in October. I could sense that female athletes were out there being sportsy and all, but in my local newspaper mostly they were invisible. I decided, on an irritated whim, to monitor the San Francisco Chronicle’s coverage of women’s sports for one month and write a Letter to the Editor each day, a horrifying exercise that left me cursing the Chronicle. Jump to the Oct. 31 letter below for a recap and the curse. Or follow along in these excerpts:

  • Oct. 1: 10 pages, 22 stories, 13 photos. Women = 2 sentences. Nothing on the two exciting WNBA playoff games yesterday… Oh, but we learned all about which movie KD’s friends watched for his birthday (really?), and that the coach of a last-place baseball team in Ohio is keeping his job for a year (who cares?), and how a football player is resting (shocking!) after foot surgery…
  • Oct. 2: 14 pages, 27 stories, 18 photos. Women = 0. No. Women. Anywhere… Is this a club where we need to know the password or a secret handshake? C’mon, tell us!
  • Oct. 3: 14 pages, 39 stories, 35 photos. Women = 10 paragraphs. How about printing even one photo of a female athlete… Are we that invisible? …You devoted more paragraphs to one football player’s first sack than you did to all of women’s sports…

Forty-four years after the passage of Title IX, more than 3 million girls participate in varsity sports, compared with fewer than 300,000 in 1972. Schools, colleges, and universities provide similar sports opportunities to girls as to boys (if they comply with Title IX). But newspapers seem to think only a handful of girls are in high school or college.

  • Oct. 4: 8 pages, 22 stories, 15 photos. Women = 7 paragraphs. Though I did still have to hunt for it, since it was appended to a headline, photo, story, and graphic all about high school boys’ football…
  • Oct. 5: 8 pages, 23 stories, 21 photos. Women = 3 stories + 2 photos. Things are looking up for women’s sports coverage in the Chronicle! (Be still, my heart.) But let’s not get too excited. The 7 paragraphs that you granted women’s sports were outweighed by 14 paragraphs on fantasy (yes, fantasy!) football, 13 paragraphs on the training techniques of Stanford’s losing men’s basketball team (with no mention of the school’s perpetually winning women’s team), and 23 paragraphs about a male basketball player shopping for clothes.
  • Oct. 6: 8 pages, 19 stories, 17 photos. Women = 1 sentence. The (Men’s) Sporting Green just missed scoring its second shut-out in a week… The photographs did include a photo of an elk’s harem, so I suppose we can’t say females were excluded…

I spoke to Chronicle Sports Editor Al Saracevic at the end of my month-long project. For some mysterious reason, the Chronicle staff hadn’t seen any of my Letters to the Editor, even though their website told me that each letter went through. Saracevic said the main game plan for deciding on sports coverage is to cover local sports as deeply as possible within the Chronicle’s resources, including sports at Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley — schools that regularly produce female Olympians and pro athletes. Yet, my tally showed that college and high school women’s sports routinely get excluded while out-of-town men’s sports get plenty of play.

  • Oct. 7: 14 pages, 29 stories, 39 photos. Women = 3 paragraphs + 1 photo. …Think about that for a minute: 14 pages vs. 3 paragraphs. Then try to explain to your daughters how that’s just the way things are, and that you’re not part of the problem.
  • Oct. 8: 10 pages, 21 stories, 20 photos. Women = 1 story + 2 paragraphs. …You gave us nearly twice as many paragraphs (and a photo) about a neighborhood in Chicago as you printed about women’s sports. Buildings and neighborhoods are nice, but women are nicer.
  • Oct. 9: 14 pages, 30 stories, 20 photos. Women = 1 story + 1 photo. …I can’t help feeling you could do even better when I see stories in both the Oct. 8 and Oct. 9 editions about a TV announcer who lied about hair transplants. Silly enough once, but reporting on it twice?!

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of men’s sports. I watched every single game the Warriors played last year. But I care about women’s sports too, and it’s next to impossible to follow women’s sports through the Chronicle. Would the Chronicle ever ignore a championship series game in men’s basketball, baseball, football, etc. just because no local team is involved, especially when a former Stanford star is the league MVP and is leading a team in the playoffs? I doubt it. Yet, that’s what the Chronicle did with most WNBA championship games. Even when they did print something, the editors’ choices were, shall we say, “puzzling.”

  • Oct. 10, 2016: 10 pages, 27 stories, 24 photos. Women = 1 story + 1 photo. The best photo you could print of the dramatic game-winning three-point shot in the WNBA playoffs was the butt of the shooter being hugged? Really?
  • Oct. 11: 12 pages, 26 stories, 19 photos. Women = 0. No. Females. Anywhere…  Yet, you made room for a story about a business award… and you reported for the second day in a row about a male basketball player having a sore throat, even though the basketball season hasn’t started.
  • Oct. 12: 11 pages, 31 stories, 18 photos. Women = 4 paragraphs. You felt it was more important to print 16 paragraphs about a baseball player waving a towel, 11 paragraphs about a male basketball player getting the flu in the off-season, and 4 paragraphs about a male college coach’s wife delivering a baby. Maybe if a female athlete got the flu, waved a towel, AND had a baby all while being an MVP in a championship game, you might consider really covering it. Unless someone with XY chromosomes gets the sniffles in an off-season game of tiddlywinks, of course.

Even men’s fantasies garnered more coverage than real-life women’s sports. By this point, my soul-crushing project was beginning to take its toll.

  • Oct. 13: 10 pages, 27 stories, 21 photos. Women = 1 paragraph + 1 photo. …Though you did find space for 17 paragraphs about an online game that’s a shill for gambling and includes only fantasies of athletes. Are these daily statistics getting tiresome? Irritating? Have they numbed you yet? Are you at the point of wanting to ignore what I write? If so, the feelings are mutual…
  • Oct. 14: 8 pages, 23 stories, 15 photos. Women = 2 stories, 2 photos. Well done! It’s nice to see women’s sports coverage in the Chronicle improve from Ghost status to Token status…
  • Oct. 15: 8 pages, 22 stories, 16 photos. Women = 5 paragraphs. Looks like we’re back to business as usual in the (Men’s) Sporting Green… Hmmmm. Where could we possibly find more room for women’s sports? Oh, I don’t know, maybe trim some of the 88 paragraphs and four photos about football that took up half of the entire section?
  • Oct. 16 (with a glossy special section): 112 pages, 41 stories, 113 photos. Women = 10 paragraphs. A female golfer took a three-stroke lead in her tournament, but she got no photo. On the page above that, a rookie male golfer got a photo even though he was four strokes behind the leader. And above that was another photo of another male golfer in nearly the exact same swing position. God forbid you should show a female golfer when you’ve got two shots of men doing the exact same thing.

Because the mainstream media often ignore women’s sports, women create other outlets to represent the field. If you need a break from the news wasteland chronicled here, check out this New York Times review of the new book Game Changers: The Unsung Heroines of Sports History. But come back, because we’re not done yet…

  • Oct. 17: 12 pages, 31 stories, 31 photos. Women = 2 stories + 1 photo. That boosts your women’s coverage to 3% of photos and 6% of articles in the section today. I’m sure you’re already thinking about how you can improve on that. I’ll bet you’re planning on following the lovely preview of men’s World Cup soccer in today’s issue with a similar preview tomorrow of the Women’s World Cup soccer  matches that will be played around the same time. Right?
  • 18: 6 pages, 18 stories, 13 photos. Women = 0. Why didn’t you include women’s sports in any of the commentary, previews, etc.? I know! I know! It’s because you’ve invented invisible ink, right? …If you want a true test of it, though, try switching it next time — publish all the men’s sports in invisible ink. More fun!
  • Oct. 19: 8 pages, 23 stories, 16 photos. Women = 1 paragraph. Your Sports department seems to be afflicted with an epidemic of male navel-gazing. But there’s a cure! Try trimming any of those non-stories and share some space with women’s sports. I can’t guarantee that you’ll all feel better, but women’s sports fans will!

Female athletes have many more pro careers than before Title IX. But you wouldn’t know it from the sports coverage:

  • Oct. 20: 8 pages, 23 stories, 18 photos. Women = 1 sentence. I guess the female 50% of the human race was being all couch-potato-ish yesterday, eh? Hardly. Two African-American Olympians were named Sportswomen of the Year yesterday by the Women’s Sports Foundation (and no, they aren’t gymnasts or swimmers). Plus, the U.S. Women’s Soccer team played Switzerland in Utah. And the WNBA championship final is tonight!
  • Oct. 21: 8 pages, 25 stories, 16 photos. Women = 3 stories + 2 pages. You included three different women’s sports — nice! All told, you devoted nearly a full page (13% of pages) to women’s sports. Delightful! Can you sustain it? Definitely! Will you sustain it?

U.S. women brought home more medals than the men in the past two Olympics. They are athletes before and after the Olympics, too, but most newspapers make them invisible except in that one month every 4 years.

  • Oct. 22: 8 pages, 22 stories, 19 photos. Women = 2 paragraphs + 1 photo. Oh, but we did get to read about a guy in another city who’s retiring from doing the stadium scoreboard (plus a photo!), and you gave double the paragraphs that you gave women to tell us what an obnoxious TV actor won’t be doing (plus a photo!).
  • Oct. 23: 14 pages, 24 stories, 29 photos.Women = 11 paragraphs + 1 photo. Did we really need not one but two front-page articles speculating about the local men’s basketball team? Did we really need not one but two articles about an awful Stanford football game? …When you exclude women, double reporting on a men’s sports topic is not doubling our pleasure, or doubling our fun. It’s doubling, doubling, doubling dumb.
  • Oct. 24: 12 pages, 34 stories, 31 photos. Women: 6 paragraphs. Seven articles (21% of articles) were on a single 49ers game, and six articles (18%) were on a single Raiders game. Repetitive much? In all, 39% of articles and 38% of photos focused on just two men’s games.

When the women’s coverage is so minimal, the choices made about what words or photos to print carry more weight.

  • Former Stanford soccer player Rachel Quon, playing pro soccer in 2014 (Courtesy Wikimedia/Headlocker/Creative Commons 2.0)

    Former Stanford soccer player Rachel Quon, playing pro soccer in 2014 (Courtesy Wikimedia/Headlocker/Creative Commons 2.0

    Oct. 25: 10 pages, 23 stories, 29 photos. Women = 3 paragraphs. The only three paragraphs on women’s sports… start off talking about tennis star Svetlana Kuznetsova having a “bad hair day.” …It could be a fun little story. But since that’s the only thing you focused on concerning women’s sports, and since you routinely exclude legitimate women’s sports news from the (Men’s) Sporting Green, printing that one item screams “sexist.”

  • Oct. 26: 8 pages, 22 stories, 20 photos. Women = 4.5 paragraphs + 1 photo. …It does feel icky, though, that three of those 4.5 paragraphs focused as much on Donald Trump as they did on women’s athletics…
  • Oct. 27: 8 pages, 25 stories, 17 photos. Women = 1 story + 1 photo. It’s refreshing to read a full article about women’s sports. Of course, that’s still just 6% of your text and 6% of photos…
  • Fri., Oct. 28: 8 pages, 21 stories, 15 photos. Women = 6 paragraphs. The only six paragraphs… reported on alleged sexual abuse of female athletes. That’s a worthy topic to report.  But when it’s the only attention you give women’s sports, it too seems to suggest that all you care about is men, and that you’re more likely to report on something related to women’s sports when there are men involved.

In an email exchange with the Chronicle staffer who covers the Stanford sports beat, he told me that the “vast majority of people” don’t want to read about women’s sports, without providing any evidence to back that up. Thanks to Title IX, there are lots of female athletes on the college level. They’re “people” too, and so are their families and friends and other fans of women’s sports, and they’d like to see those sports in the newspaper. Title IX mandates equitable sports for women and men in schools, but the Chronicle’s coverage was so male-centric that it only mentioned female athletes in 3% of articles on college sports and less than 4% of articles on high school sports.

  • Oct. 29: 8 pages, 19 stories, 16 photos. Women = 5 paragraphs. You managed to give more than 10 times as much copy to high school and college sports (54 paragraphs), all while focusing exclusively on male athletes and ignoring female student athletes completely! I’m sure that took some effort, considering that Stanford women’s volleyball swept its third home opponent in a row, Berkeley’s field hockey team played at Davis, San Jose State’s cross country team ran, and Santa Clara women’s soccer beat Gonzaga on the same day…
  • Oct. 30: 14 pages, 23 stories, 20 photos. Women = 3 sentences. You gave 2 pages to men’s college sports but not a single sentence to college women. Why? You devoted nearly half a page to horses vs. three sentences to women. Were you betting we wouldn’t notice?

The project ended on Halloween, which felt oddly appropriate. I channeled my inner witch to send a summary in the final Letter to the Editor:

Oct. 31: 10 pages, 25 stories, 25 photos. Women = 1 paragraph. “Here’s a ghost story for you: Female athletes were nowhere to be seen in the 25 photos of the (Men’s) Sporting Green, and only one paragraph mentioned women’s sports.

“My brain feels zombified from tracking the dead spaces where there should be women’s sports in your coverage. In the 412 pages the Chronicle published on sports in October 2016, 2% of the 788 articles and 2% of the 739 photos concerned women’s sports.

“Look closer, and it’s even more horrifying. Only 8 days featured a story on women’s sports longer than one paragraph. Female athletes were ghosts in 10% of the 31 editions in October, leaving women’s sports out entirely. Only 3 of 96 stories on college sports covered women. Less than 1 of 25 stories on high school sports mentioned girls.

“It’s scary that you think this is acceptable or fair to the female half of the population. A hex on your mummified sexism!”

Since then, the Chronicle has shut out women’s sports completely for two more days in a row. I guess I need to practice my hexing skills…


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