Whenever I write about the influence of the media on how we think about things in our lives, I invariably allude to Mary Jo Kane's quote: "the mass media have become one of the most powerful institutional forces for shaping values in modern culture" (pp. 88-89). While she penned that sentence nearly 30 years ago, her words still ring true today. Another sentiment toward the media of which I am fond comes from James Carville, who, in arguing that people only consume media that reifies their existing ideas, noted that people use the media like a drunk uses a lamppost: for support, not illumination.
Carville's sentiments are for another post, as today, I focus on the power of the media in shaping ideas and values. Janet Fink and others have written about the various ways in which the media privilege men and disadvantage women , particularly within sport (and for a review of her current work, see here).
More recently, Edward Kian, Eric Anderson, John Vincent, and Ray Murray conducted a study examining sports journalists' attitudes toward gay men in sport.* They interviewed 10 sports journalists, all of whom had worked in the field for at least ten years. The researches were interested in learning about the journalists' (1) experiences with gay athletes, coaches, or administrators; (2) experiences with gay reporters; (3) attitudes toward gay men in sport; and (4) beliefs about whether one's sexual orientation is newsworthy.
The researchers conducted in-depth interviews, lasting between 45 and 90 minutes each. They observed the following:
- Only two of the journalists had ever written about same-sex relationships in general, but all had written about heterosexual athletes' spouses or significant others at some point.
- The journalists largely indicated they would not ask an athlete, coach or administrator if he was gay, unless the individual personally disclosed the information or it was impacting the individual's performance.
- None of the journalists believed they had ever worked with a sports journalist who was gay. What makes this even more significant is that the journalists who were interviewed had over 220 years collective experience at 20 different newspapers. (These media sources either defy what chance would predict, or the participants' are wrong).
- Nine of the 10 study participants indicated that a gay journalist would be welcome, though they thought it would be difficult for them previously.
Kian and colleagues' research highlight several key points. First, while all of the journalists had written about athletes' spouses or significant others, only two had written about same-sex partners, and these were for athletes who were out. They had also failed to write about the topic at all. As the authors of the research note, "by not writing about sexual minorities or gay issues, journalists symbolically annihilate homosexuality from the sports pages, while reinforcing heteronormativity as normal by frequently describing heterosexual relationships in their content" (pp. 906-907). In other words, if we as consumers only read about heterosexual relationships, we come to think those are the only ones that exist; it makes same-sex relationships out of the ordinary or the exception.
Second, this research reinforces Kane's point I highlighted earlier. The journalists, by selectively deciding what to report and not, frame sport as a heterosexual endeavor. Some of the journalists indicated that their readers are old White men, so they would not want to read about that in the paper. But, in adopting this mindset, they simply reinforce the status quo. Or, as the researchers note, "these sport reporters still serve as gatekeepers toward more conservative forms of masculinity" (p. 907).
As the journalists do have the potential to shape attitudes and beliefs, they should also consider reporting on more diverse and inclusive stories. Doing so will show the true breadth of sport.
* Kian, E. M., Anderson, E., Vincent, J., & Murray, R. (2013). Sport journalists’ views on gay men in sport, society and within sport media. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 50, 895-911.