Study finds gender differences during Olympics coverage

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Similar women's and men's Olympic sports might look alike on television but how those competitions -- and their competitors -- are portrayed during broadcasts often differs significantly, according to a study by researchers at Penn State and Elizabethtown College.

Researchers found women were often discussed positively as role models during the Olympics. At the same time, though, TV commentary often suggested that male competitions and participants paved the way for the women's success.

"Culturally, men are seen as the standard-bearers in sports," said Marie Hardin, professor and associate director of Penn State's John Curley Center for Sports Journalism. "So, when women excel, they are often seen as aspirant to male athletes -- even though they are achieving in their own games, in their own right."

Results of the study by Hardin and Kelley Poniatowski, an assistant professor of communication at Elizabethtown College, were published this month in a special Olympic issue of Mass Communication and Society.

The researchers analyzed the 2010 Winter Olympics and televised coverage of women’s and men’s hockey. Although the storyline of female participants as heroes was one of many that emerged, it often came with improper context -- because outstanding competitors were compared to their male counterparts as though masculine performance in the standard to which women should aspire.

Because of those findings, the researchers expect coverage of men's and women's boxing during the 2012 Olympic Games in London to be among several sports that face similar challenges as the media focuses on male sports that have grown to include women.

Poniatowski, who earned her doctorate at Penn State, was a co-author on the study, one of eight included in the special edition of the journal. Other articles addressed topics such as: differences in Olympic viewing by traditional TV audiences and those who watch on the Internet; the relationship between athletes' cultural norms and the reasons they give for their Olympic success; and symbolism in the opening ceremonies.

"The Olympic Games are the pinnacle of mediated sports coverage. This concentrated collection of research reveals the breadth and facets of how the Games impact us, the viewers," said Stephen Perry, editor of Mass Communication and Society and co-editor of the special issue. "More than 40 scholars submitted research ideas for this issue, and the eight that were selected were the best of the best."

Two of the eight selected came from Penn State. Along with the article about differences in sports coverage based on gender, associate professor Bu Zhong, a senior research fellow in the Curley Center, studied how poor weather might impact the tone of Olympics coverage.

Mass Communication and Society is a scholarly journal focused on publishing articles from a wide variety of perspectives and approaches that advance mass communication theory, especially at the societal or macro-social level. It draws heavily from many other disciplines, including anthropology, history, law, philosophy, psychology and sociology. 

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Last Updated July 20, 2012