9 Jul 2017

Putting women's sport in the frame

From Mediawatch, 9:10 am on 9 July 2017

The recent feats of Kiwi sportswomen around the world have been hard to spot in sports sections bulging with blokes. Mediawatch asks two front-rank female sports journalists: is that down to bias in the media, or is it what people actually want? And why are the media getting behind women’s sport across the ditch more than they seem to be here?​

Left to right: Southern Steels captain Wendy Frew, Black Ferns captain Fiao'o Faamausili and White Ferns star Amy Satterthwaite

Left to right: Southern Steels captain Wendy Frew, Black Ferns captain Fiao'o Faamausili and White Ferns star Amy Satterthwaite Photo: Photosport

Last week, the White Ferns were winning in the Women's Cricket World Cup in the UK, the Southern Steel took out the national netball championship in convincing style, and the Black Ferns became the world champions of sevens rugby in France.


Perhaps it's not surprising all that was buried by Lions-mania and America's Cup fever in the media, but it’s far from the first time such a disparity has been so stark.


For example, in February the New Zealand Herald reported that the White Ferns had "humiliated Australia" in a T20 game in Adelaide. But the story was just four lines long and took up only a tiny corner of one sports page.


The same day, the Herald filled its entire back page with the Black Caps winning a one-day international against South Africa.


On Twitter, Sky TV host Scotty 'Sumo' Stevenson put images of the two articles side by side with this weary comment:



Four days later, the White Ferns completed their highest-ever run chase against Australia at Eden Park. Amy Satterthwaite became only the second ever cricketer - man or woman - to score four consecutive ODI centuries.

There were no big profiles of her in the mainstream media at that time, though the freshly-launched online start-up Newsroom wrote about her at length. 

Satterthwaite told Newsroom sports editor Suzanne McFadden women’s cricket was a "scary place right now”.

A report by former cricketer Sarah Beaman had found just 10 percent of cricketers in New Zealand were female and 90 percent of those were under 12 years old. One of the game's pressing problems, she said, was a lack of exposure and, consequently, vital sponsorship 

Showing the way across the ditch

Tellingly, Amy Satterthwaite is far better known to sports fans in Australia, where she’s a key player in the professional 20/20 competition - the Women's Big Bash League. That runs in parallel to the men's league, features the same clubs, and the matches are screened on free-to-air TV.

Stories and videos of the men's and women's competitions are interspersed on its website, not split off into separate sections.   

In March, a brand new professional women's league was introduced with much media fanfare - Australian Football League Women's (AFLW). 


So far it seems to be a case of "build it, and they will come", partly because the media have come to the party.

"Footy's new female ­formula has a very big future," was the verdict of Melbourne’s sport-heavy tabloid The Herald Sun.

Angela Pippos at a Dogs vs Crows WAFL game.

Angela Pippos Photo: supplied


Melbourne-based Angela Pippos has covered sport for the past 20 years in print and on radio and TV. She produced a documentary about women in Australian rules football and is the author of Breaking the Mould: Taking the Hammer to Sexism in Sport.

"We are at a tipping point now," she told Mediawatch.

"The landscape is not equal but we are seeing a change in attitude to women's sport."

She was "banging hard on the keyboard" when writing about the media in her book, she said.

"They get nervous about women's sport and it's not given the time to grow the following it needs.

"I got tired of hearing that the market never lies and there's no appetite for coverage of women's sport. It's a chicken and egg situation when these excuses stop the media tackling the problem."


She said broadcasters backing these competitions have secured unexpectedly lucrative sponsorship from brands keen to associate with something progressive. Some sponsors had become wary of the bad PR created by the heavily-publicised misbehaviour of some sportsmen, which also helped.


Pippos said she was often the only woman reporter covering sports news conferences in the past, but more opportunities were now opening up in the Australian media. 


"It hasn't been a good career move to speak out about these things. For a large part of my career, I ran with the pack and just stayed quiet. But I wasn't being true to myself," she told Mediawatch. 


She said men at the top of sporting organisations were calling for change too, and as a result increasing the pace.


Taking up the case in New Zealand


On this side of the Tasman, former Black Fern Melodie Robinson said there was much ground to make up.


She is now a familiar face as a front-rank Sky Sports presenter. Sky TV has screened and backed several women's sports and made a point of including them in coverage of men's games too. 


Black Fern Sarah Goss on the Sky Sports  post-match panel after the third Lions test.

Black Fern Sarah Goss on the Sky Sports post-match panel after the third Lions test Photo: screenshot

She told Mediawatch there were only a handful of women fully employed as sports journalists in New Zealand. Many were on freelance contracts and hardly any have the opportunity to publish or broadcast their opinions.  


By contrast, she said, NZME has 53 men covering sport - and it was not hard to find or hear the opinions of a number of those. 


When stuff.co.nz introduced readers to its team covering the Lions tour, all nine writers were men. The New Zealand Herald's coverage from the America's Cup in Bermuda, however, was led by chief sports writer Dana Johannsen. Abby Wilson covered it for TVNZ. 


Does it make much difference whether men or women cover any given game? 


"It does. A female journalist is more likely to cover a female athlete's athletic prowess. They are often covered in terms of what they look like, or their family and other peripheral things. This isn't feminism - it's just equality of coverage," she said. 


Robinson is a founding member of two new groups pushing for change in New Zealand: the newly-launched Women in Sport Aotearoa and a group of women in sports journalism called The Wonderful Group.


Last week, Sky TV did broadcast the White Ferns' games live from the UK, as well as the netball final and the New Zealand women's rugby team winning the sevens in France, which was also available on Māori Television.


Hundreds of thousands of New Zealand households had the option of tuning in. 


While a lack of coverage of women’s sport in our news seems unfair, does it reflect a lack of public interest rather than a deeply-rooted bias in the media? Robinson urges media decision-makers to check out the success of global sportscaster ESPN with its female-friendly channel ESPN-W (slogan: "the voice of the woman who loves sport").


Global channel ESPN-W's slogan is "the voice of the woman who loves sport". Photo: screenshot


Some suggest the next Lions tour should include a Lionesses team to take on the New Zealand's women team as well.


If Robinson gets her way and sports journalism is far more balanced 10 years from now, could that also mean a less war-like tone to coverage of the next Lions tour? Even RNZ spoke of "neutering the Lions" and their fans "baying for blood." 


"I thought it was the best time and the best event. No baying for blood. If we had more female journalists, it would be covered differently."