A publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne


Media coverage of women’s sport in danger of decline, say journalists

Journalists have expressed concern that media coverage of women’s sport could again be declining, undoing hard-fought gains to redress the sports gender imbalance on TV and in print.

Words by Keryn Reynolds

Cuts to the ABC’s coverage of women’s sport and a decision by the national broadcaster to dump its dedicated women’s sport internship, risked undermining recent improvements in coverage, they warned.

Speaking at a seminar on media and women’s sport, the six journalists – five of whom were women — told an audience at RMIT University recently that while the lot of female journalists covering male sports had improved over the years, the same could not be said about the coverage of women’s sport in Australia.

Their comments came as government reports continue to show male sports coverage as over-representative of success and participation rates in Australia, and that women’s sport remains undervalued.

Melbourne journalist Jill Scanlon acknowledged that the media needed to be viable and profitable, but said that gender was still a major determining factor in what the media published and broadcast.

Despite the regular success of Australian women in domestic and international competition, media coverage of female athletes compared to that for male athletes remained wildly unequal in Australia, she added.

Ms Scanlon said that arguments put forward by those making editorial judgments, including claims that there was less women’s sport to cover, were “rubbish, just total rubbish”. There was no shortage of news stories or content on women’s sports from community arenas through to elite international and professional level.


“It’s hard to find a valid reason why these women’s sports are not being covered to anywhere near the extent of the men’s equivalent, when the results and the performances are on the ball,” she told the forum.

“If you build it they will come,” Ms Scanlon added, suggesting that if mainstream media covered more women’s sport then advertising dollars would follow.

Ms Scanlon warned that traditional media risked becoming redundant as niche online streaming of women’s sports on dedicated digital media sites drew audiences — and revenues — away.

The sentiment is supported by a recent Australian Sports Commission report that analysed the broadcasting of women’s sport in Australia. It noted that by 2016-2017 “media distribution will be highly tailored to the customers’ wants and needs”, adding that “for a larger proportion of women’s sports to be commercially attractive (i.e. increasing audience), it needs to create a mass of dedicated, passionate fans” through “a ground up” strategy that went beyond “simply securing mainstream coverage”.

A key recommendation of the report was for women’s sporting bodies to use funding grants from the Australian Sports Commission to “create low-cost content (but high enough quality) to deliver through digital and new media platforms”.

“It’s hard to find a valid reason why these women’s sports are not being covered to anywhere near the extent of the men’s equivalent, when the results and the performances are on the ball.” — journalist Jill Scanlon

The commission’s findings coincided with widespread budget cuts at the ABC, which included the axing of coverage of women’s W-League soccer and the Women’s National Basketball League, a decision condemned by the Australian Womensport & Recreation Association.

An association spokesperson commented: “It is very likely with almost zero free-to-air women’s sport on Australian TV in 2015, our next generation of female athletes and communities will be without exposure to healthy, strong women playing competitive sport.”

Heather Jarvis, a journalism lecturer at the University of Melbourne and former ABC journalist, agreed with Ms Scanlon’s view of the looming implications for the broadcasting landscape and that the “tidal wave of change might just be coming”.

She said she was disappointed in the declining coverage of women’s sport by Australia’s mainstream media.

“What sort of message is that sending? We keep telling our girls that sport is a game for men and boys, but not women and girls. That it’s not a valid career option for women? Or that what women achieve in sport doesn’t matter as much as men?”

While the coverage of women’s sport had improved over the years, it still had a long way to go given the media’s tendency to portray elite women athletes as “sex objects and second class citizens”, demonstrated by the world’s seventh-ranked tennis player, Canadian Eugenie Bouchard, being invited at this year’s Australian Open to “twirl” on court after a match.

“So, what do we do about it? Keep fighting till [we] win the game,” Ms Jarvis said.

Dr Nasya Bahfen, a senior lecturer at Monash University and community ambassador with the AFL’s multicultural program, cited as an indicator of sport’s standing in Australian life, the 760 accredited media representatives covering the 2011 AFL season versus the one-quarter of that number covering federal politics.

Cultural and religious identity also formed an important part of the sporting narrative in Australia, as did the different meaning and sense of belonging that sport incorporated, Dr Bahfen said.

“Sport is often used as a measure of integration in respect to minority groups,” she added.

Julie Tullberg, a former sports editor who teaches digital journalism at Monash University, suggested the solution to improved coverage of women’s sport could be found at the community level.

“The Internet is solving a lot of problems with women’s sports coverage. However, there is a cultural issue within women’s sports organisations at a very amateur level where they don’t seek coverage.” — journalist and academic Julie Tullberg

“The Internet is solving a lot of problems with women’s sports coverage. However, there is a cultural issue within women’s sports organisations at a very amateur level where they don’t seek coverage.”

The solution, Ms Tullberg claimed, was for communities to look to local newspapers and other local media for coverage of women athletes and to build momentum from there.

David Lowden, a journalist and senior lecturer at Latrobe University, said that for significant change to occur, Australia needed to reinvent sport itself.

He stressed it was important to distinguish between news coverage and live sports coverage, because they had very different impacts in terms of the commercial viability of sports.

“We would all like to see more women’s sport covered,” he continued. “I think we can get there, but it’s about social change.”

The money was in ‘live’ coverage and female sports were just not getting that sort of attention, Mr Lowden said, referring to netball, the most popular female sport in Australia.

“It’s pretty disheartening that netball has to pay Channel 10 to televise games. I think what we will see with the national broadband network and the convergence of television and Internet on our TVs is . . . going to be the breakthrough for women’s sports coverage.”

He added that equality meant reinventing sport, in which women and men were allowed to compete against each other in the same sport, in order to achieve equal broadcast time.

Mr Lowden conceded that his suggestion was “ridiculously radical” but he hoped to make the point that the media coverage of female athletes would improve if there were no “women’s sports” or “men’s sports” but “just sport”.

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