Media bias: a challenge to women in sport
*By Lombe A. Mwambwa
The media in Zambia is a key actor in overcoming the barriers to women’s participation in sport
and progressively achieving gender equality. However, due to the bias that is still weighing heavily against women, media are having a negative effect on the efforts of the women in sport movement to promote participation of women and girls in sport.
Women in sport at present need to overcome two primary barriers before getting coverage in and by media: firstly, the media in general is partial towards men, covering women mainly as subjects of sensational stories for instance as victims of disasters or violence. Secondly, women are excluded from coverage in ‘male spaces’ such as war and sport. They are covered under home stories as
recipients of food aid or complainants about a lack of social service or other. Media bias is evidenced in several ways some of which are highlighted below, these interlock to reinforce stereotypes, sustain the marginalisation, invisibility and limited participation of women in sport.
Media bias can be seen by an assessment of the media publications to check for instances of women in sport as sources and subjects of news or stories. In many instances they remain subjects, ‘spoken’
or ‘written’ about; their story presented through the view of the media persons.
Media bias reveals itself in the lack of diversity in coverage of women in sport. An overview of both print and electronic media publications at any moment will show this. Coverage is limited to women in sport who have attained a very high level of achievement such as Boxing champion Esther Phiri, Olympic medallist swimmer Ellen Height and athlete Nachula.
There is almost no coverage of women in sport at low levels of local competition, and in team sport such as football, netball, handball, hockey, rugby among others despite a relatively high participation of women in these sports.
Further, the media is silent on women sports administrators, officials and managers of sports facilities and sports service providers such as physiotherapists.
Stereotypes are a source of media bias. Even though the media will want to appear objective, media institutions are staffed by people whose stereotypical attitudes and values are reflected in their work and the final product of the media publications. It is evident in the content, the angle, the space allocated and the source of the information.
The resistance to women’s engagement in the ‘men’s world of sport’ is manifested through the refusal to acknowledge women’s presence and achievements. The media thus places women in sport on its blind spot. When they are covered it is in relation to men or to an event.
* The Author is the General Secretary of the National Organisation of Women in Sport, Physical Activity and Recreation (NOWSPAR) a Zambian organisation that advocates for and promotes participation of women in sport.
Media bias is also sustained by assumptions that have gone unchallenged. Women are not involved in serious sport; women are not interested in sport; stories about women in sport will not attract high sales or ratings; and consumers are not interested in women in sport. These are some of the assumptions that seem to underlie the focus on male sports persons as sources and subjects of stories and news and the little attention and space allocated to women and their activities. The other evidence of bias in media relates to context. In instances were women have received coverage in media, the stories have been presented in isolation from the lived realities of women in sport. For example when the media presents stories about the Women’s National Football Team not
performing well at international competitions, it neglects to mention the social, cultural, financial and technical challenges they encounter way before they get to the competition and the limited access to resources that they face compared to the Men’s National Football Team.
The above biases have a retrogressive effect on the achievement that has been made by the women in sport movement over the years in getting more girls and women involved in sport.
One of the effects is the reinforcement of the stereotype that sport is for men only and if women engage in sport it should be for fun only and not as a profession. Further, by not covering women in sport, it appears as though women are not engaging in sport. They become inaccessible to be seen as role models and sources of inspiration for other women and girls.
The limited coverage of women in sport does not reflect the true situation of women’s participation in sport, not just as athletes but as administrators and service providers. This is important as it demonstrates the opportunities and the levels that are available in sport for women. The lack of context has led to the reality in which women practice sport remaining unseen. This prevents mobilisation for action against barriers such as limited resources or gender based abuse. The media has not played its role of society watch dog in this light.
Women in sport have lost out on resources from the corporate sector as they are not in the media often enough to attract corporate sponsorship, this lack of resources in turn reinforces the challenges of participation opportunities and the cycle goes on.
However, there is opportunity for media to shift from playing a negative role to a positive one. Some actions include research that will look into who is providing information for publication, who consumes and what are they interested in; partnership with women in sport to develop a platform to facilitate access to media and to facilitate media’s access to women in sport at all levels and
deliberate steps to ensure space is allocated without bias.
It is recognised that gender equality in the media will take a while as the sports media does not operate in isolation; it is in fact a reflection of the patriarchal state of sport and wider society. Overcoming media bias is vital to women in sport as we need the media to reflect our achievements and struggles to improve the position of women in and through sport.