Media Matters’ Parker Molloy at the Columbia Journalism Review: Caster Semenya coverage illustrates how public perception can shape policy

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

When the Court of Arbitration for Sport upheld the International Association of Athletics Federations’ recent rule about limits on testosterone for female athletes on May 1, it may have put an end to the career of one of this generation’s greatest mid-distance runners. For nearly a decade, world champion South African track and field star Caster Semenya has been dogged by rumors that she was not really a woman at all -- or at least not enough of a woman.

Writing for the Columbia Journalism Review, I looked back at how mainstream news outlets covered Semenya’s early wins. It was, at best, inartful. “South Africa to test gender of 800-meter runner,” read the headline of an Associated Press article published just before Semenya was set to compete in the world championships. “Champion's gender under investigation,” read another headline at The Toronto Star. “Semenya isn’t guilty of doping, but rumors are swirling that she may be guilty of being a man,” NBC reporter Stephanie Gosk inartfully said during the August 22, 2009, edition of NBC Nightly News.

While other athletes were celebrated for whatever natural advantages genetics had gifted them, Semenya was being pilloried for hers. Ten years later, it’s worth asking how much of the controversy surrounding Semenya can be attributed to how early coverage of her wins was framed in the media. For more on this, please read my article at CJR.