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Jessica Luther: Imagine The “Conversations That Are Getting Lost Or Ignored Because Women Aren’t There”
Reporters who cover sports media say major outlets like ESPN have a long way to go before they can claim to be reporting responsibly and accurately on sexual assault and harassment in the sports world.
A recent Media Matters analysis found that during the first quarter of 2017, ESPN networks relied disproportionately on male guests (74 percent) to discuss domestic violence and sexual assault.
ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, and ESPN News together aired about 30 hours and 40 minutes of coverage on sexual assault and domestic violence -- out of more than 8,600 hours of airtime. And about one-third of the minimal coverage across ESPN networks on the topic was the re-airing of an ESPN documentary highlighting false rape accusations made against the Duke lacrosse team.
This snapshot of coverage at the leading sports network hints at a much larger problem: an extremely narrow pipeline for talent and expertise in sports journalism.
In fact, an annual report by the Women’s Media Center on gender diversity in media indicates that these ESPN numbers are (sadly) pretty good when you consider the rest of the sports media landscape. The report cites data showing that women made up just 13.3 percent of total sports staff and less than 10 percent of sports editors at major newspapers and websites in 2014. ESPN employed by far the largest proportion of that small percentage of women, who were also overwhelmingly white. Another study, examining gender and sports reporting, found that ESPN’s on-air talent was also overwhelmingly male and white -- though slightly more diverse than the Los Angeles affiliate networks the study also analyzed.
Deadspin writer Diana Moskovitz considered Media Matters' study and said, “Given the systemic exclusion of women from sports journalism (as well as other forms of journalism, including politics, criminal justice, and investigative work), these numbers show just how far the industry still has to go in creating newsrooms that actually reflect the country we live in.”
When women -- and particularly women of color -- aren’t part of the conversation, audiences are denied important perspectives. And this trend can cause specific and irreparable harm when it comes to sports reporting on sexual violence.
Jessica Luther, an expert on sports and culture, said the demographic imbalance in terms of who is reporting on sports has an impact when it comes to discussing sexual violence: “There is a sort of bias to who we see as experts in this society, and who we think can speak to these things. … Imagine the conversations that are getting lost or ignored because women aren’t there.”
ThinkProgress sports reporter Lindsay Gibbs expanded on that often-missing perspective. She said that while there “are certainly men who are well-versed on the subject of sexual violence, and there are absolutely men who have been victims as well,” women typically have a different daily experience.
“I think there are things [women] have to deal with on a daily basis that men don’t -- whether it’s being afraid to go out on a run after dark because we don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said. “Or locking your doors the second you get home, or having to think twice before you talk to that person at the bar, or having to send your friend the location of your Tinder date just in case they don’t hear from you.
“These are things that women of all kinds deal with on a daily basis, that inform our discussions of topics like this, that men don’t have to deal with,” she continued. “That’s going to impact the sensitivity and the awareness of the issue.”
Olympic athlete Anita DeFrantz, who is a board member at the Women’s Media Center, added, “Women reporters will have a different view based on the context of their life experiences. … If one truly wishes to contribute to knowledge about a subject, why continue to use the same sources of thought?”
The Media Matters snapshot of ESPN coverage also hints at immediate opportunities sports reporters -- and all reporters -- can take advantage of to better serve an audience that undoubtedly includes survivors of sexual violence.
Gibbs said that when media ignore a sexual violence report about a sports figure or try “to paint it as a distraction,” they are “minimizing the subject as a whole, and that does a lot more harm than good.”
Sports reporters also have an obligation to report on sexual violence without bias, taking care not to focus on the perpetrator without including the survivor’s perspective, or to ascribe blame to anyone who has come forward to report.
Luther explained that, because of widespread reports of sexual violence involving athletes, a 24-hour sports news cycle, and the nature of sports fan investment, “whether they like it or not, sports reporters are going to be leading the discussion on [sexual violence], on a ubiquitous issue that is harmful when it’s reported poorly. It keeps people quiet. It emboldens people who do violence. When it’s reported in a way that is mean to people who’ve come forward, it’s sympathetic to people who’ve been reported in a way that isn’t balanced with sympathy for victims.”
“I always think of the victims in this case,” Gibbs said. “They’re watching.”
Sexual violence is a topic that’s far too important to get wrong -- and women leaders in the sports media industry are demonstrating what quality reporting looks like.
Luther, Moskovitz, and Gibbs have all contributed to a promising category of in-depth, nuanced reporting on sexual assault and domestic violence in the sports world. They’re joined by stand-out journalists at ESPN too: Kavitha Davidson, Paula Lavigne, and, until recently, Jane McManus.
A Media Matters analysis found that nearly one-third of the total time that ESPN and its three sister channels devoted to coverage of sexual assault and domestic violence in the beginning of 2017 consisted of repeatedly airing a documentary on sexual assault allegations made against the Duke lacrosse team in 2006. By devoting so much time to one case in which the charges were dropped, ESPN gave fuel to the conservative myth that men are often targeted by women who baselessly accuse them of sexual misconduct.
Media Matters found that across ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, and ESPN News, the documentary Fantastic Lies aired 11 times in the first three months of 2017. The 2016 ESPN-produced documentary revisits statements made by Crystal Mangum, a black woman who was hired as an exotic dancer, that three members of the Duke lacrosse team raped and sexually abused her. The lawsuit against the three players, who were all white, was later dropped after prosecutors couldn’t substantiate what Mangum had said.
The same Media Matters analysis found that reports of sexual assault and domestic violence by athletes were prevalent in the first three months of 2017, and that ESPN and its sister channels devoted minimal time to the subject. By frequently airing Fantastic Lies and not covering current cases fully, the ESPN networks are feeding into the conservative myth that women often falsely accuse men of sexual assault. For years, right-wing media figures have been pushing this myth to minimize the ongoing sexual assault epidemic on college campuses. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, only between 2 and 10 percent of rape accusations are falsified. This statistic, however, may include reports that were true but unverified, which the International Association of Chiefs of Police says should not be counted as false allegations.
And sexual assault is an epidemic. As much as right-wing media continue to downplay it, sexual assault is rampant on college campuses. The Centers for Disease Control found that one in five women will experience sexual assault while they are in college. Just this year, the University of Texas at Austin reported that 15 percent of its female undergraduate students have been raped.
The Duke lacrosse case specifically has become a focal point for the far right and is emblematic of the stereotypes that men’s rights activists and “alt-right” figures highlight in defense of their movements’ misogyny. The Duke case has now become “a dog-whistle to many on the far right,” according to New York magazine. “Alt-right” leader Richard Spencer told New York magazine, “The Duke lacrosse case changed the course of my career," after he was commissioned to write about the piece for The American Conservative. Spencer later dropped out of college to write for the magazine full time. And Stephen Miller, who is now an adviser to President Donald Trump and has white nationalist ties, became one of the most vocal advocates for the lacrosse players 10 years ago.
By airing Fantastic Lies so frequently, ESPN is skewing the way people view sexual assault. ESPN’s viewers, who are overwhelmingly male, are presented with a documentary, repeatedly, that reinforces conservative myths about sexual assault. Denying and downplaying this epidemic is irresponsible and no way to reduce the trauma that thousands of women experience.
Dayanita Ramesh created the graphic for this piece.
A Media Matters analysis found that during the first quarter of 2017, ESPN networks relied disproportionately on male guests to discuss domestic violence and sexual assault. Additionally, about one-third of the minimal coverage across ESPN networks was the re-airing of an ESPN documentary highlighting false rape accusations made against the Duke lacrosse team.
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Party Was Responding To NCAA’s Decision To Move Games Out Of North Carolina
A spokesperson for the North Carolina Republican Party responded to the NCAA’s decision to move this year’s championship tournament games out of the state because of HB 2 with a statement that media figures and outlets are calling “insane” and “absolutely off-the-rails.” Multiple reporters even fact-checked the statement to ensure its authenticity and confirm that it didn’t come from “a parody account.”