COLLEGE PARK, Maryland — Decades of pioneering sports coverage by female journalists has put them in the locker rooms and on the field, but research shows it’s still daunting to be a women’s sports reporter.
That research helped shape discussions about how female sports reporters can move forward at the first-ever “Women, Sports and Media: Careers, Coverage, and Consequences” conference at the University of Maryland. The conference was organized by a partnership of espnW and the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
“Progress in America is undefeated,” Beth Mowins, a sports analyst for ESPN, told the conference when asked how far women have come in the field.
Lucy Dalglish, dean of Merrill College, said one reason the event came together was through conversations with John Skipper, former ESPN president, who wanted to know more about women athletes, sports journalists and audiences based on research.
That research showed how far women’s sports coverage has to go, despite the progress that’s been made.
Cheryl Cooky, an associate professor at Purdue University, explained that when it comes to broadcasting women’s sports, “the media coverage tends to center on men’s sports,” with women’s sports coverage hovering around 3 percent of total air time on local news channels and SportsCenter.
Cooky added that “it’s never too early, too soon or too late to cover men’s sports,” because they are covered whether or not they are in season.
By contrast, she said, women’s sports are primarily covered when they are in season, and the absence of coverage creates a feedback loop where a lack of airtime and ratings leads to even less airtime and lower ratings.
Rob King, ESPN senior vice president for original content newsgathering and digital media, said that when he reviewed that data from 2014, it was “dissatisfying to us” and emphasized that ESPN had “a long way to go” in terms of covering women’s sports. But he welcomed the feedback and said it “has to continue.”
Additional research from Molly Yanity at Quinnipiac University showed that female sports reporters felt discriminated against – not by their editors or in the newsroom, but rather in social media.
“Social media has become so pervasive on a negative front that it made them feel like they were less valued,” Yanity said, elaborating that it was one of the major reasons women left sports journalism.
One aspect where progress is being made is that role models and sponsors, “someone that makes things happen for you,” are telling their stories and helping younger women, said Molly Solomon, executive producer for Golf Channel.
Christine Brennan, a sports columnist at USA TODAY, said her father was “my own personal Title IX,” and that helped because “I didn’t have role models” who were female sports reporters.
The conference was not just a reflection on how hard it’s been for women journalists in the past.
It was also used to usher in a new generation of female sportswriters, said Elle Duncan, an anchor with ESPN’s SportsCenter.
Attendees said they would like to see another conference where practitioners and researchers can come together and collaborate.
“Above and beyond anything, these platforms invite me and challenge me to think,” said Claire Smith, a news editor at ESPN. At such events on university campuses, “it’s the students who take me to school,” Smith said. “I don’t worry about the future of this business. It’s in good hands.”