What happens to audiences when commentators use sexist language to describe female athletes?

American Katie Ledecky swims at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics
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The following is a commentary on a recent publication written by me and my collegues, Lauren Smith and Walter Gantz.

Welcome to 2020—it’s an Olympic year! During the next year, athletes from across the country will compete to earn a spot on Team USA for the 2020 Summer Olympics, one of sport’s biggest stages. If trends continue like they did during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, women will comprise the majority of that team. Women’s participation in sports at all levels continues to grow in the United States, and the popularity of women’s sports is rising.

However, the growing role of women in sports is not well-reflected by the on-air personalities who narrate the epic achievements of these athletes. After paying $7.7 billion in 2014, NBCUniversal owns the sole broadcasting rights in the United States for televising the Olympic Games on all media platforms (TV, internet, mobile) through 2032. Analyses from a variety of theoretical and methodological approaches all conclude that sport is by men, for men, and about men. NBC reflects this notion with the cadre of sports commentators who are overwhelmingly male.

Who tells the stories and narrates the feats of female athletes matters for how these athletes are portrayed to the world. During the 2016 games in Rio, this became very clear through a number of incidents that garnered international attention. For instance, Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hozzu broke the world record in the finals of the women’s 400 meter individual medley. After Hozzu touched the wall in first place, NBC cut to Hozzu’s husband, Shane Tusup, and commentator Dan Hicks proclaimed, “There’s the man responsible for turning his wife in to an entirely new swimmer.” In another example that garnered the attention of fans and media critics occurred during coverage of American gymnast Simone Biles competing on the vault during the women’s team preliminary event. Commentators Nastia Liukin and Tim Daggett consistently compared her vaults and ability to that of the male gymnasts. Other examples were less explicitly sexist. During the preliminary rounds of women’s beach volleyball, featuring the American team of Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross, announcers Chris Marlowe and Jason Knapp and reporter Kathryn Tappen repeatedly compared Kerri Walsh Jennings’ style of play to her husband’s as well as made several remarks about her meeting her husband (beach volleyball player Casey Jennings), as well as her role as a wife and mother. This type of commentary focuses on stereotypical female roles and means there is less time spent talking about the players’ athletic feats or the strategies employed during the match itself.

This type of commentary during the Olympics was nothing new, though, as decades of research in sports communication had shown gendered language has been applied to female athletes across sports and nations (check out this study for examples from the 2008 Beijing Olympics and this study for examples from the 2012 London Olympics).

Notably, there is a difference between hostile and benevolent sexism. While hostile sexism—explicitly noting that women are inferior or explicitly stereotyping all women—has become generally unacceptable in mainstream sports broadcasting, stereotypes of females and female athletes in particular still seep into sports commentary, as demonstrated by the examples from NBC’s coverage of the 2016 Games. Benevolent sexism is a subtler form of sexism which can be disarming; language surrounding benevolent sexism is subjectively favorable, yet entrenched in masculine dominance and traditional stereotypes of women.

We know this type of sexism exists in sports media commentary, but what does that mean for viewers and for broadcasters? As athletes-turned-media-researchers, we wanted to investigate the consequences of sexist commentary. That is, how might sexist commentary help shape audience responses to women’s sports, and what implications might it have for broadcasters like NBC who continue to employ commentators who make such remarks?

In order to answer these questions, we conducted a study recently published in Communication Research Reports examining how college students responded to clips of women’s sports from NBC’s coverage of the 2016 Summer Olympics that media critics had previously flagged as examples of sexist commentary. We invited 78 students to come to a computer lab and watch three different clips of NBC’s coverage of women’s sports from the 2016 Rio Olympics. After watching each clip, participants rated their emotional states and enjoyment of the content. Once they finished viewing all three clips, we asked them about their attitudes towards NBC and their intentions to watch future Olympic Games broadcast by NBC.

After analyzing the data we found the men in our study enjoyed watching videos of women’s sports less than the women in our study. We also found that, regardless of the gender of the audience member, listening to sexist commentary did evoke some anger in audiences. Our study demonstrates that emotional responses to sports media are complex and that people can both enjoy watching women’s sports but also experience anger in response to the nature of the commentary or coverage. Finally, we found that when audiences do report feeling angry after viewing women’s sports coverage, then they report enjoying the coverage less, which then results in more negative attitudes towards NBC and lower intentions to watch future coverage of the Olympics.

While this is only one study that needs replicating across more participants and with more examples of sexist commentary, the results do provide a number of important insights for thinking about the implications of sexist commentary. First, the finding that men enjoy watching women’s sports less than women do may not be surprising. But, it suggests that broadcasters have some work to do in promoting and marketing women’s sports to the same degree they do for men’s sports in order to help broaden the fanbase for women’s sports. NBC does have a history of crafting achievement-focused promotions for women’s Olympics sports, such as its “Slay, Girl, Slay” promotions run during the Sochi Winter Olympics. Additional content along those lines, as well as infusing a similar spirit into the commentary itself and not just during promotions, could assist in fostering enjoyment. If women can enjoy watching men’s sports, then men can likely come to enjoy watching women’s sports, too.

Secondly, we know that audiences watch sports for many reasons, but a primary reason is because they derive enjoyment out of the viewing experience. Our research shows that anger can significantly dampen that enjoyment, and subsequently harm brand attitudes and dampen the likelihood of tuning into future Olympic broadcasts. This finding has implications for broadcasters’ bottom lines but also for society. Girls and women also derive many benefits from participant in sports, ranging from physical fitness and mental health/self-esteem benefits to greater academic success and increases in career advancement. Televised sports are a great place to inspire current and future female athletes to pursue sports to their fullest.

For both economic and societal gains, we hope this research motivates broadcasters to employ a more diverse array of commentators, ensure all the commentators on their rosters are aware of benevolent sexism, and implement training on how to avoid promulgating it upon the masses. The idea that ‘if she can’t see it, she can’t be it’ rings true in sport; when girls and young women see women competing in sport, they understand that those opportunities exist for them as well.

As one father tweeted after the NHL All-Star skills competition in 2019, “After watching the NHL All Star skills comp with my almost five-year-old daughter she says “Dad I want to do that.” Our research suggests that, in addition to ‘seeing it,’ it would be helpful to also ‘hear it,’ with commentary that emphasizes athletic accomplishments while avoiding expressions of benevolent sexism. NBC has the opportunity to inspire millions of young girls around the world who will soon be glued to the television watching their favorite Olympians compete to be the best in the world.

One Year in Happy Valley

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The end of June 2018 marks one year since we packed up and moved to State College, PA to work at Penn State. It has been a great, and very busy, year meeting new colleagues, staff, and students. I’ve have really enjoyed becoming a part of the Bellisario College of Communications, the Science Communication Program, the Media Effects Research Lab, and the Media Psychology Research Group. These programs are doing so much great work researching, teaching, and informing the public about the role of communications and media in our society.

I am also particularly grateful for the wonderful interdisciplinary opportunities I have experienced in the past year. From faculty networking meetings with colleagues in the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences to meeting the folks at the Institutes of Energy and the Environment and conversations with people from multiple departments who study public health, I have learned a lot from others and can’t wait to continue connecting with more Nittany Lions.

Now that I’m settled in Happy Valley, my goal is to post more frequently about all the exciting research and outreach going on here at Penn State. Stay tuned! In the meantime, below are a few pictures from events during the 2017-2018 academic year at PSU.

Dr. Robin Nabi visits PSU

Dr. Robin Nabi had lunch with our Media Psychology Lab members before her Pockrass Lecture about media use and stress relief.

Brian Southwell presents research about misinformation

Dr. Brian Southwell talked about his research regarding health and science misinformation for our Spring 2018 Science Communication Speaker Series.

Health and Media Effects seminar students

I had a great group of graduate students for my first ever graduate seminar course. The class tackled topics related to health communication and health-related media effects.

Pancake and Gilly the pugs

Pancake and Gilly made their first trip to University Park at the end of the 2018 spring semester to bring stress relief to students and faculty during finals week.

All cat videos, all the time

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Recently, an article of mine published in Computers in Human Behavior struck a chord with the popular media. The manuscript is about the psychology of watching cat videos–who watches them, why, and to what effects. I also tested a moderated-mediation model of the interplay between procrastination, feelings of both guilt and happiness, and their consequences for media enjoyment.

Hanging out with (ok, creeping behind...) Lil Bub in Bloomington, Ind.

Hanging out with (ok, creeping behind…) Lil Bub in Bloomington, Ind.

The finding that really caught the media’s attention, though, was that respondents reported feeling more positive emotions and more energy after watching cat videos. Cat video watchers also reported feeling less anxious, annoyed, guilty, sad, and depleted after watching cat videos. Basically, I gave a lot of people an excuse to stop working and pull up YouTube.

I really enjoy investigating the impact of big-news, timely media events, like celebrity health issues or Shark Week, on media consumers’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. However, I think it’s also crucial to study the daily, seemingly mundane ways in which the media shape our lives. Cat videos are an undeniable part of any Internet user’s media experience, ones that can impact our moods and how we approach subsequent tasks.

It was a great experience to talk with reporters from across the world about media effects research. But this survey was really exploratory and not meant to be the final word on cat-video-watching effects. I can’t wait to run some experiments to find out a bit more about the causal mechanisms of these potential effects on cat video viewers.

Of all the questions reporters asked me, the most common was probably “What’s your favorite cat video?” I honestly didn’t have one before this study hit the wires, although I can without a doubt say that Lil Bub is my fav celebrity cat. I probably didn’t have a favorite cat video before this because my Internet (and real life) pet of choice is definitely the humble pug dog. I’m still not 100% certain as to which cat video is the best ever, but here are a few contenders. Enjoy!

The Academic Minute: A summary of how celebrities impact our health

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Recently, the good folks at WAMC Northeast Public Radio asked me if I’d contribute to their podcast series “The Academic Minute.” The link below will take you to a brief overview I put together about why and how news about celebrity health issues can motivate people to change their own health behaviors:

http://academicminute.org/2015/02/jessica-gall-myrick/

This very brief summary comes out of work you can find listed on the publications page. Look for more research on this topic coming soon to a media/communications conference near you! 🙂

Fear-mongering in news coverage of Ebola

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On Monday, the Bloomington Herald-Times posted a guest column I wrote about the potential pitfalls of overemphasizing fear in coverage of Ebola. If you have a subscription to the H-T, you can read it here:

http://www.heraldtimesonline.com/news/opinion/guest-column-fear-focused-coverage-doesn-t-help-health-threat/article_cdf459e4-264e-55f0-b4a2-91131f44478e.html

Below is a slightly longer version of the column:

Ebola has been at the forefront of news coverage around world for nearly six months now. Why exactly are Americans so afraid of a virus that is not airborne and that is almost entirely contained to three small countries an ocean away? As someone who studies health-related media for a living, my research interests automatically point me to media portrayals of the disease. Few of us have ever been to any country in sub-Saharan Africa, but millions of us have seen the movies Outbreak and/or Contagion, and by now we have all seen news reports of great suffering and death due to Ebola. That alone is enough to make the virus particularly frightening. The reality, though, is that we are much more likely to die from seasonal influenza, which kills anywhere from 3,000 to 49,000 Americans every single year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Health communications scholars have long studied the effects of portraying diseases as frightening on audiences. Fear, while useful for motivating humans to flea when a giant bear is approaching or fight when a weaker individual is attempting to steal one’s mate, is not necessarily the most productive feeling for helping us deal with modern health threats.

For a brief example of the reliance on fear in reporting stories about Ebola, let’s look at a recent segment on CBS This Morning. Hosted by Charlie Rose, Norah O’Donnel, and Gayle King, the show often includes health segments with CBS News Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook. On Monday, October 6, the show featured a story by LaPook with the latest updates on the spread of the Ebola virus. The doctor wanted to help alleviate public fear of the virus given the extremely low risk it presents to Americans by discussing other health threats besides Ebola. “And I would just say this: We all have worry buckets and it’s always right up to the top…” At that point, co-host O’Donnell cuts him off. “This is Rabbi LaPook, everyone!” she riffs, receiving laughs from the other co-hosts. The one medical professional in the room tries to continue his plea for a balanced approach. “This is not the time to have magical thinking. You have to believe in science. And if you are in Boston…” But again, O’Donnell interrupts. “Let me challenge you on that,” she injects, and returns the focus to how frightening the disease is.

Don’t get me wrong, I am very interested in the Ebola news and hope that the U.S. continues to be a leader in assisting the African nations that need both public health and humanitarian aid. That does not mean that news coverage should emphasize the fear aspect without also providing information on both short- and long-term solutions. The fear frame currently surrounding Ebola is also not likely the most effective way to educate audiences about the disease. Research on media effects tells us that once news audiences become afraid, they remember fewer facts reported prior to the frightening coverage. Other research indicates that many people who become scared by threatening health information deal with the fear by tuning out, even moving into denial. Those individuals then miss out any helpful information that might come later. Fear-focused coverage of disease is not just an ethical quandary for news organizations; it is also likely to have a negative impact on individual and public health.

Just as you can take steps to reduce your risk of for numerous health threats (e.g., wash your hands frequently, stay home if sick, voice support for legislation that funds health and medical initiatives), news outlets can also take control and consider adding more context to their reports on the disease. They could do so by including historical perspectives and interviews with experts. But as Dr. LaPook learned the hard way, one expert on a news program may not be enough to combat the frame of fear. In the end, it is up to consumers to become risk literate, be their own health advocates, and lobby for any changes they want to see in how our society handles health threats.