The amount of column inches devoted to women’s sport in British national papers has actually decreased from the level it was at prior to the 2012 Olympic Games, University of Birmingham researchers have established.
The researchers say that the trend could have worrying implications for women’s sport participation levels, as a lack of low level messages repeated daily over many years will have an impact on the aspirations and behaviour of girls and women. And the knock-on effect of this trend for public health is huge, as a lack of physical activity is estimated to be the fourth leading risk factor for death worldwide.
Nationally, only 29% of women meet the weekly recommended physical activity level of 30 minutes of moderate or vigorous activity five times a week or more, compared to 39% of men, and the researchers argue that while organised sport may only be one contributor to activity levels, it is a visible and therefore important one. But barriers to girls’ and women’s participation remain – including society’s views of masculinity and femininity being at odds with a muscular and athletic physique, and the assertiveness and confidence required for success.
The researchers, from the University’s School of Health and Population Sciences, wanted to use the UK’s hosting of the Olympic Games as an opportunity to deduce whether print media coverage of women’s sports increased in the build up to the Games – and, importantly, was sustained afterwards.
They measured the numbers of articles and article area in six key national titles on weekend days in a three-week period in February 2012 and again in February 2013. The amount of coverage devoted to women’s sport declined from the 2012 survey in all types of newspaper – populars, mid-market and qualities.
Across all newspapers measured, the number of articles devoted to women’s sport in specialist sports sections and supplements dropped from 4.5% in 2012 to 2.9% in 2013. The area allocated to women’s sports in these sections dropped from 3% to 1.9%.
For every article reporting women’s sports, there were 20 reporting men’s, and the area per women’s focussed article was usually smaller as well.
Dr Claire Packer, senior clinical lecturer in public health, who led the study said: “It is disappointing, but not surprising to find that the mass print media has still not changed the way it reports on women’s sport. Despite the success of our female athletes both at the 2012 Games and since, women’s sport, at least in the eyes of the print media we studied, remains a minority sport. Until we change this perception, the levels of participation of girls and women in sport will continue to suffer – as will public health as a result.”
The authors debate that despite the Games organisers placing great importance on a lasting legacy from London 2012, it was perhaps unrealistic to expect the Games to solve the deep-rooted gender bias in sports reporting.
But they also argue that although societal issues such as trivialisation of sportswomen’s accomplishments, sexualisation of women’s sports coverage and the ‘invisibility’ of female athletes exist, they cannot excuse the real evidence of bias against women in sport in the print media – which they believe is not fully understood by sports editors and their colleagues.
The researchers are calling for open discussion into the issues in order to make effective progress in the area, having better representation of women’s sport in the media, hopefully leading to an increase in physical activity and delivering benefits to the health of the general population.
The paper No lasting legacy: no change in reporting of women’s sports in the British print media with the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics is published in the Journal of Public Health, published by Oxford Journals today (Thursday 13 March).
Dr Claire Packer is available for interview. Please contact Kara Bradley in the University press office on +44 (0)121 414 5134 to arrange.