Credit: University of Missouri

In two recent studies, Dr. Cynthia Frisby, associate professor of strategic communications at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, studied news stories about prominent female athletes and exposed significant instances of microaggressions as well as racist behavior. Microaggressions are subtle statements or actions of discrimination.

In the study “A Content Analysis of Microaggressions in News Stories about Female Athletes Participating in the 2012 and 2016 Summer Olympics,” Frisby and Missouri undergraduate student Kara Allen analyzed 723 newspaper and magazine articles covering the two Olympic Games. They found increased microaggressions in the 2016 coverage. These incidents included sexist and racist language and disparaging comments about athletes’ body types. The incidents were higher when the female athletes participated in perceived masculine sports, such as basketball and wrestling.

“Where do we get these preconceptions of women athletes?” asked Frisby, who is currently working on research about athlete protests, such as those in support of Black Lives Matter. “My students used to make the response that women athletes aren’t going to be entertaining.”

She added, “You have all these different things that feed into your schema of women and our role in society. If we think about our media consumption and really dig deep in trying to find out … that’s when we start making progress and getting people to understand how the media portrays female athletes.”

In a separate study, Frisby examined 643 news stories about tennis players Serena Williams and Angelique Kerber, finding an enormously disproportionate amount of microaggressions against Williams. Frisby wanted to document and quantify biased coverage of Williams. She found 758 instances of microaggressions against Williams versus 18 against Kerber, who is Caucasian.

“Lots of things were said by journalists that had a racial undertone,” Frisby noted.

Frisby said it’s time to stop trivializing female athletes and stop stigmatizing bodies that are perceived as masculine. Media training should be developed that clearly identifies sexist and racist language. She calls for editors and journalists to seek out best practices and commit to using these. The positive content will transfer over to social media, where female athletes often face harsh criticism.

“We at Missouri have a class that we require all aspiring journalists have to take, cross cultural journalism,” said Frisby, who also does diversity training for the state of Missouri. “If you can provide an environment with frank conversation … change can happen.”