Facing the Challenges of 2021: Women’s Sports Journalists Worldwide Speak Out
Why this matters
Worldwide, journalists who specialize in women’s sports are a distinct minority. With interest in women’s sports at an all-time high, these journalists must find ways to tell their stories in 2021 while confronting gender stereotypes, limited mainstream opportunities for coverage, and the COVID-19 pandemic, among other challenges.
For women’s sports journalists, the numbers can be daunting. As Paola Boivin, a professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, noted in a recent Global Sport Matters feature, just 10 percent of sports editors and 11.5 percent of sports reporters in the United States and Canada are women.
Yet keep in mind that those figures include women who report on all sports – not just those who focus on women’s sports specifically. The best available data shows that women’s sports receive about 4 percent of total sports media coverage.
No matter where you live, women’s sports journalism has never been an easy business to make a living in, and the challenges are multiplying. Hot-button issues related to sex, gender and sexuality in sports are front and center. Social media has given female journalists an opportunity to share their work and opinions more widely, but social media also has opened the door to increased harassment. Gains in women’s sports coverage that look like major tipping points sometimes prove temporary, such as those tied to bouts of patriotic fervor during international competitions. Getting editors to commit to regular, in-depth coverage of women’s sports can be tough when there isn’t an immediate payoff in terms of money or viewership.
In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic that health officials declared in early 2020 has disproportionately impacted women’s sports, despite the resilience and creative approaches of athletes, media, and other stakeholders.
To get a better picture of the global situation, Global Sport Matters interviewed four women’s sports journalists. They live on different continents, work in different mediums, specialize in different sports, and are at different stages in their careers.
Regina Hellen Lunyolo (Uganda) is the founder and host of SportsWomenConnect, an online talk show that spotlights women in sports leadership. She is also an executive committee member of the Uganda Olympic Committee’s Gender Equality and Diversity Commission and a board member of the Uganda Rugby Union in charge of women’s rugby. Lunyolo is a World Rugby Executive Leadership scholarship recipient who serves on the Rugby Africa Women’s Advisory Committee. She graduated from the University of Leipzig with an advanced diploma in sports management and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in management science from the Uganda Management Institute.
Suzanne McFadden (New Zealand) is the editor of LockerRoom, a unique news site devoted to women in sports in New Zealand. A journalist for 35 years, she has covered Olympics and Commonwealth Games, five America’s Cups, and numerous world championships. She also has written a book, “Striking Gold,” about the New Zealand men’s field hockey team that won gold against the odds at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. McFadden is married and has two adult sons and a new grandson.
Liz Montroy (Canada) is a Vancouver-based freelance writer who contributes to sites such as IIHF.com and Women’s Hockey Life. She is also a communications and events coordinator with Rowing Canada Aviron. Montroy has worked with the International Paralympic Committee at World Championship and Paralympic events and has covered a variety of sports at the local, national, and international levels.
Annina Vainio (Finland) is a Tampere-based freelancer who works mostly for Helsingin Sanomat, the biggest daily newspaper in the Nordic countries. She has been a journalist for 16 years, specializing in investigative and narrative journalism with a focus on women’s team sports. She has also written four non-fiction books and edited six non-fiction books. Vainio’s next title will deal with women’s team sports and gender equality in Finland. She has won two Finnish championships in floorball and has played high-level ice hockey as well.
How would you describe the quantity and quality of women’s sports coverage in your country?
Lunyolo: Women’s sports stories rarely make headline news in Uganda except when they excel in international events. For instance, in the recent past, the Ugandan women’s national rugby, netball, and cricket teams made it all the way to their respective World Cups. Yet before qualifying, they received minimal media coverage.
McFadden: I’d like to think that both the quantity and quality of women’s sports coverage in New Zealand has lifted since we started LockerRoom back in 2018 to fill a gap in the media landscape here. Last year, we published 284 feature stories on New Zealand women in sport, which probably wouldn’t have been told elsewhere. Since our launch, other news organizations have picked up their game in terms of covering women’s sport as well. It’s reassuring that we’re heading in the right direction.
Within a year, awe-inspiring Kiwi Ruth Croft has twice been the first runner home in an ultramarathon. She tells me how she did it and why beating the boys shouldn't matter. @ruthcrofty @taraweraultra @ultratrailwtour @wser @UTMBMontBlanc #UltraWomen https://t.co/rerGiVTEvX
— Suzanne McFadden (@suzemcfadden) February 18, 2021
Vainio: In Finland, it varies a lot. Yle, the Finnish national public broadcaster, made a policy in 2017 to take elite women’s sports seriously, increase the visibility of women’s team sports on its channels, and become the top media source for female Finnish sports fans. In my opinion, Yle has generally succeeded in its goal. In addition, the Swedish-language newspaper Hufvudstadsbladet covers women’s sports comprehensively. On the other hand, Helsingin Sanomat (HS) decided in 2018 to increase the number of women in its stories, including the sports section. Yet three years later, HS is almost at the same level. So the promise has fallen short.
Montroy: It’s steadily improving in Canada but has a ways to go. Many Canadian sports outlets are putting more resources into covering women’s sports. More and more, it feels like female athletes are respected and valued. However, coverage comes in waves, peaking around each edition of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. I’m looking forward to the day when it’s not a surprise or rarity to see Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) games and highlights on TV, for instance.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your women’s sports coverage?
Vainio: Last spring, many major sporting events were canceled and domestic sports series were suspended due to COVID-19, which meant I lost some work. But, overall, COVID-19 had no particular effect on how or how much I’ve written about women’s sports. Recently, I’ve focused on personal interviews and investigative stories that I can write during the pandemic.
McFadden: Interestingly, we’ve increased our coverage at LockerRoom since the first lockdown in New Zealand in March 2020. In fact, we never missed a day publishing a story during the nationwide lockdown. Women in sport had time to think about what they were doing, where they were heading, and what they wanted to see happen next. We got to tell some really heartfelt and revealing stories. LockerRoom’s “From Here to Maternity” series on female athletes and motherhood was sparked during that period. We’ve been fortunate in New Zealand that we’ve continued to play sport – mostly with crowds – during this pandemic. I’ve heard people overseas say seeing New Zealanders playing has given them real hope.
Lunyolo: COVID-19 has had devastating effects in terms of the lack of activity for women in sport in Uganda. Most sports were suspended. And a return to play has not happened due to lack of funding for COVID-19 testing, which is now required. Currently, funds are prioritized for men’s leagues because of their sponsorship deals. Media coverage has taken a back seat for women’s sports since there is barely anything going on.
How has the overall landscape changed since you first began covering women’s sports?
Montroy: As an aspiring journalist in high school, covering women’s sports wasn’t ever presented to me as an option. I kick-started my writing career covering the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks and didn’t really home in on women’s sports until accidentally stumbling upon Women’s Hockey Life. Nowadays, we’re slowly seeing more opportunities for beat reporting on women’s sports, which is exciting and indicative of the changing landscape. A lot of the issues around gender and sexuality in sports that existed when I first started – disparities in terms of pay, resources, and coverage, for example – are still there. What’s changed is that conversations about these issues are more heightened than before.
McFadden: I started covering sport back in 1990 for the New Zealand Herald, which was the country’s largest daily newspaper. I think we gave women’s sport a better run back then than it tends to get now – especially in terms of newspaper coverage – because we had a larger sports newsroom and a hell of a lot more column inches to fill. Now there are fewer staff and still not enough female sportswriters. I hear sports editors lamenting there aren’t any women journalists applying for sports jobs – but they’re not being encouraged to. I’ve seen more male sportswriters writing about women’s sport over that time, though, which is great. And I think there’s been a shift, too, in respecting women’s sport for the entertaining, skilled, and fascinating competition that it is.
Vainio: Gender equality and media coverage of women’s sports are being discussed significantly more publicly than 15 years ago. Some media companies are also collecting statistics or otherwise aiming for more balanced coverage. The public provides sharp feedback on social media if the media fails in fair news coverage. Some Finnish sports fans are very passionate about highlighting the feminist perspective in news coverage, which means that writing about women’s sports can also reap negative audience feedback. Finnish journalists have also started to deal with the role of sexual minorities and their position in both sports and society with more depth and higher quality than before.
How much do commercial considerations – from team and league promos to advertising campaigns and endorsements – affect the coverage of women’s sports?
Lunyolo: They play a big role. Whenever a team or league has sponsors, they get more coverage because people want to be associated with a successful brand. And sponsors use their promotional machinery on top of the federation’s efforts to drive media coverage. For instance, both the top men’s league in the Federation of Uganda Football Associations and the Uganda Rugby premiership have sponsors, and they get a lot of media coverage compared to the women’s teams, which don’t have any sponsors.
Vainio: In terms of Finnish media bosses, I think many look at whether there are enough women in sports articles and whether those subjects produce enough clicks. Marketing hardly affects their journalistic decisions. But when it comes to sports clubs, sponsors, and sports federations, there has been a change, a desire to elevate women’s perspectives and roles in advertising campaigns. Perhaps it’s because there’s much more discussion now about equality in Finnish society.
What are some of the main stereotypes or tired narratives that you try to avoid in your coverage?
Montroy: I’m tired of the “[famous male athlete]’s sister/daughter/granddaughter” trope. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard about Amanda Kessel being Phil Kessel’s sister or Gillian Apps being Syl Apps’ granddaughter – I mean, sometimes these details are pertinent and interesting. But if we’re only being told about a female athlete’s connection to a male athlete and nothing about their actual athletic performance and achievements, then I have an issue. I try to focus first on who they are as athletes – their results, contributions to their country or club, physical and mental strengths, knowledge of their sport, and so on.
She's the face of women's hockey in the Netherlands🇳🇱 Get to know @SavineWielenga, who plays in the top Swedish league for @SDEhockeydam:
➡️ https://t.co/AuDmwQ0th0 pic.twitter.com/chdcWwuI3J
— IIHF (@IIHFHockey) January 23, 2021
Vainio: I hate it when some men downplay women’s team sports, saying it’s the same level as junior boys’ sports and that this explains why women don’t have the same opportunities to support themselves as athletes as men do. So I try to avoid the narrative that the situation is bad and no one can do anything about it. In addition, I avoid stereotypical categorizations, like pigeonholing gymnastics and figure skating as “women’s sports” and ice hockey and soccer as “men’s sports.” I avoid focusing on appearances or making assumptions based on sex, gender, or sexuality, such as that almost all women playing ice hockey are gay.
McFadden: There’s interesting research around the language stories use to describe male and female athletes. Men are called “strong,” “fast,” “athletic,” “masterminds,” and “victors.” Women are often “married” or “pregnant,” and they “strive” or “participate.” At LockerRoom, we definitely avoid making women sound like they’re just making up the numbers! We don’t, however, shy away from using language like “mother of three,” because we think it’s incredible that mothers are athletic, victorious masterminds, too. I mean, seriously, how do they do it?
To what degree do you combine your coverage of women’s sports – either willingly or out of necessity – with coverage of men’s sports?
Vainio: I’d say I always try to combine women’s sports with covering men’s sports when it is possible and justified, even if it means more work. I truly believe our aim has to be for the media to gradually achieve equality in news content.
Muutama poiminta vuoden 2020 jutuista:
Urheiluselostajista ideoitu erikoistaitto julkaistiin @hsfi tapaninpäivänä. Äänessä Matti Härkönen, Mauri Myllymäki, @esko_hatunen
ja Sari Sirkkiä-Jarva, joka kehuu J-P Jaloa (#u20fi). https://t.co/MKbIpPMtgN 💎 #journalismi #urheilu
— Annina Vainio (@anninavainio) January 2, 2021
McFadden: At LockerRoom, we concentrate solely on writing about female athletes, coaches, and leaders, and issues affecting them. Often, we might mention within a story how their male counterparts fared in the same competition. But we feel we don’t always have to – because we know the men are probably getting their fair share of coverage elsewhere.
Montroy: If my assignment is to cover a sport or event in general – such as the Para Nordic skiing World Championships or Team Canada rowing at the World U23 Championships – then I combine and cover women’s and men’s sports as equally as possible, not favoring one over the other. Otherwise, I focus on women’s sports, particularly when writing for a platform like Women’s Hockey Life. We’re not at the point yet where coverage is equitable. So I place importance on highlighting female voices and stories wherever and whenever I can.
Lunyolo: I specifically focus on women in sport leadership. Women are underrepresented as coaches, match officials, and administrators in the sports sector in Uganda and Africa. Young girls and women need to see and hear their stories – their journeys, achievements, and strategies – in order to overcome these challenges. They must be inspired and empowered to take up leadership positions, advocating for resources for more girls to participate in sport.
To you, what sums up the importance of increasing the number of women who are decision-makers in sports journalism?
McFadden: That’s a massive change that must happen in the fight for more coverage. New Zealand prides itself on making strides in gender equality. We have a female Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition, Governor General, and head of Sport NZ. Yet we have one female sports editor – and that’s me. Some of the male editors I’ve worked for have been very good at seeing past the barriers, understanding that women’s sport is just as engaging as men’s sport and that their audiences aren’t just made up of men. But we need more women editors and chief reporters who see sport through a different lens and inherently understand why there needs to be gender equity in the stories being told. Who will not hesitate to employ a female reporter because she’s equally talented – if not better than the other contenders – and not just to tick a box. Treated right, those reporters go on to be editors.
Who are some other women’s sports journalists whose work impresses or motivates you?
Lunyolo: Evelyn Watta, a Kenyan sports journalist, is doing tremendous work mentoring young journalists to join the profession and advocating for more female sports journalists. Carol Tshabalala, Sarah Spain, and Sage Steele are fierce and fearless.
McFadden: Here in New Zealand, we can count on two hands how many women’s sports journalists we have. It’s a sad indictment of our news organizations – first, that there are fewer journalists these days and, second, that some only have one (dare I say, token) female sports journalist on their staff. But those who are there are legendary. Take someone like broadcaster Rikki Swannell, the first woman in New Zealand to call a men’s rugby match live on air. Or Dana Johannsen, who after years on the sports beat is now a national correspondent for the Stuff news site, writing in-depth, investigative stories focused on athlete welfare, integrity, and sports governance. Our LockerRoom writer Ashley Stanley’s compassion, enthusiasm, curiosity, and understanding of people amazes and motivates me – a “sports hack” of 30-something years – every day.
Montroy: I love reading the work of writers such as Shireen Ahmed, Lindsay Gibbs, and Kristina Rutherford. The team at The Ice Garden does great work covering women’s hockey. I’m also a massive fan of The Gist.
Is there anything you’d like to add about the current state of women’s sports journalism?
Vainio: In the Finnish media, women’s individual sports are covered more thoroughly than women’s team sports. It is a disservice. It makes it harder for women to earn a living in sports. The media should think more deeply about its role and influence. But with that said, I’m grateful for the developments in Finnish sports media in recent years. When I played ice hockey and floorball 10 years ago, I couldn’t imagine getting to read game reports about the semifinals in our national women’s hockey league or seeing women’s floorball games on Yle’s main sports newscast. That’s great, and I hope the progress continues!
McFadden: Personally, I haven’t received abuse, been belittled, or felt threatened as a female journalist in a male-dominated domain over the past three decades, and I’ve covered some pretty macho sports. Still, enticing women to become sports journalists isn’t an easy sell when they fear that’s how they could be treated. Or that they won’t be given the same career opportunities as their male counterparts. A lot of young, talented Kiwi women – some of them former athletes – are getting on-screen opportunities in sports broadcasting in New Zealand, which is fantastic to see. I just hope they will be given the same opportunities to grow and become powerful women in this industry.
Now & Then: How Sport Has Transformed
For many, it’s been approximately a year in the life of a pandemic. We’ve seen tragedy, resilience, growing gaps of opportunity and opportunities for growth, juxtaposed in communities across the globe. The world of sport was not immune.
From a pause in play, to a push for more progressive racial justice, to unanswered questions about the long-lasting impacts of COVID-19 that still linger in the air - what do we wish we knew then, that we know now?