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Sports bylines - where are all the women?

16 October 2015

Deirdre O’Neill

We all know that most sports journalists are men. However, in recent years, female sports broadcasters have increased their visibility. By comparison, while newspaper sports coverage has increased rapidly in recent years, how much progress has been made by women sports writers?

Sports journalism – online, in broadcasting and in print - is flourishing. Much of top-level sport is big business and top athletes have a celebrity status, with all the attendant coverage. For newspapers in particular, sports coverage has expanded exponentially, and in a competitive market, is arguably the driving force behind the battle for circulation and building a loyal readership.

According to the Chief Football Correspondent of the Times, Oliver Kay, "The number of pages of sport has gone up overall. Football dominates, at about 50 per cent of the Times and probably around 70 per cent for the red-tops. You could ask why newspapers are force-feeding us football, but all the research shows it’s popular and adds to the circulation figures." 

Old assumptions about women’s interest in sport are being challenged, with recognition that many women form a substantial part of the audience for sports. Alongside this, women’s sporting achievements in the 2012 Olympics were celebrated by the public and in media coverage, while women athletes are succeeding in major world sporting events such as cricket and football.

Disappointingly, beyond prominent events such as the Olympics, routine women’s sports coverage remains very low. Research into newspaper coverage, which I carried out with Matt Mulready for Journalism Practice (2015) showed that it was under 5 per cent six months after the 2012 Olympics, a figure in line with the earlier findings of the Women’s Sports and Fitness Foundation. This has implications for sponsorship, with women’s sports only attracting a paltry 1 per cent of total sponsorship. If the situation is to change, it is fair to say that both sporting bodies and the media need to attract more women. As Tammi Grey-Thompson commented, "I think the reality is that most editors are men...We need more female involvement in all sectors of sport."

Broadcasters have started to tackle the issue, particularly the BBC, where we have seen female sports broadcasters such as Gabby Logan, Claire Balding, Alison Mitchell and Jacqui Oatley becoming more prominent. This has led some to argue that gender disparity is now far less of an issue in sports journalism. But what is less well known is the position of women in newspaper sports journalism. What we do know is that in many countries studies have shown that male sports journalists heavily outnumber women.

Nevertheless, there has been little research focussing on the UK. In order to establish the situation here, Suzanne Franks and I carried out surveys of bylines in the national press, comparing six newspapers across two separate weeks in autumn 2012, followed up with a survey of bylines six months before and six months after the 2012 Olympics, this time in seven national papers. Finally, a third comparison was made with 2002 to see if there had been any improvement. A mixture of quality papers, mid-market papers and red-tops were used in the surveys, and we noted the gender of the byline in nearly a total of 10,000 sports articles. Details of our research findings are published in Journalism: Theory, Practice and Criticism.

It won’t come as a surprise to anyone that male bylines dominated - this is what we expected - but the paucity of female bylines took us aback. On average, in the periods studied, the average proportion of articles with a female byline was below 2 per cent (1.8 per cent to be exact). Some papers rarely had a female byline and at no point did the proportion rise higher than 3 per cent.

In the first period studied, there were 14 issues, and not one newspaper had fewer than five issues without a single female byline. The Daily Mirror and the Daily Telegraph both had nine out of the 14 issues without a female byline. But it is worth noting that were were some differences between newspapers. The newspapers where women sports writers were most visible were the Guardian and Observer, followed by the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday.

So how did this compare to the past? When we looked at the bylines a decade previously we found that the figures had not changed significantly since 2002, and the Olympics had made minimal impact. In 2002, the average number of female bylines was just over 1 per cent. This figure was the same six months before the 2012 Olympics and came in at 1.5 per cent six months after the Olympics.

Nor does this overall average figure of 1.8 per cent in the UK compare favourably with other countries. A 2007 study in Australia put the figure at 11 per cent, while a 2006 study in the USA found 11 per cent of articles to be written by women. That figure rose to 13 per cent in some Swiss newspapers in 2013. In 2011 a wide-ranging German survey of sports writing across 22 countries examined 80 newspapers and a total of 22,000 articles. It found that the proportion of sports articles by female journalists was just 8 per cent. Low, yes, but higher than our disappointing findings in the UK press.

Even allowing for the fact that bylines are a crude measure (though most other studies around the world use this method so our findings are comparable) and there may be women working on sports who do not receive a byline (such as sub-editors) this is nevertheless an extraordinarily low figure.

I am now carrying out further research with Suzanne Franks that involves interviewing sports journalists, mostly women on national papers, to try to shed some light on why there are so few women writing about sports. It is tempting to jump to the conclusion that this is sexism, pure and simple. While there is likely to be an element of this, conscious or unconscious, the final analysis is likely to demonstrate a more complex picture: one which points to a lack of opportunities for both women and men on national papers, where workforces are being cut back and vacant posts are rare. And despite the higher visibility of women in sports broadcasting, this does not seem to be translated into women seeking sports writing jobs on local and regional papers. Most of the women I’ve spoken to on national papers say they rarely get enquiries from young women wanting to go into sports journalism. A common response is, "They are simply not coming through from the local and regional press." Are women making a conscious choice not to go into the field – it does after all, require a lot of weekend and evening work, not always compatible with family life, though this could also be an issue for men with families - or does this career choice simply not occur to them?

I would be interested in hearing from journalists of either sex who have relevant experience in sports journalism (particularly if they are working in sports on local or regional papers) and who could shed light on why the figure in the UK is so low, and if there’s anything that can be done to redress the gender balance.

Despite some progress in sections of the media, sports coverage still appears to be mostly for men, about men and produced by men.

Deirdre O’Neill is Senior Lecturer in Journalism and Media, University of Huddersfield

Contact Deirdre via email: d.oneill@hud.ac.uk

Women Reporting Sport: Still a Man’s Game? in Journalism: Theory, Practice and Criticism 

The invisible woman? A comparative study of women’s sports coverage in the UK national press before and after the 2012 Olympic Games’ in Journalism Practice

Tags: , sports, byline, gender, women, equality, newspapers, broadcasting, research