Stereotypes and biases abound in sports reporting says media scholar

Cynthia Frisby
Cynthia Frisby

University of Missouri Associate Professor Cynthia Frisby proposed that if you ask the average Joe, they would more often than not state that Black athletes are involved in more domestic violence incidents than White athletes.  Her recent media study shows that six out of every 10 stories on Black athletes tend to be negative.

This week’s Another View discusses Frisby’s study of 10 years of analyzing newspaper, magazine and web stories on pro athletes.

“I do a lot of research on stereotypes and portrayals,” says Frisby, a strategic communications professor and noted media scholar in a recent MSR interview. Her first book she coauthored in 2003, Journalism Across Cultures (Iowa State University Press) and her second, How You See Me, How You Don’t (Tate Publishing) published in March, are collections of essays on stereotypes and representation of media and its effects on Blacks, people of color, women and adolescents.

“I’ve always been very, very fascinated about how media portrays athletes of color and female athletes,” notes the professor who often asks why there aren’t more stories about Black athletes doing good things.  During the phone interview she recalled a recent conversation with a White media member.  “It’s not media bias if it’s true that Black athletes commit more crime,” claimed the person.  “What I had to send him was the research that shows that Black athletes do not commit more crimes…but we see more stories and images that add to the idea that we think Black athletes are more likely to be in trouble.”

Frisby, for example, points out that domestic violence stories involving Black NFL players “is less than half” of what actually occurs in such incidents.

“We only know what we read,” says Minnesota Twins outfielder Torii Hunter on the influence the media seems to have in planting negative seeds regarding the behavior of Black athletes in sports reporting.

Retired NFL player Thomas Darden added that the better the Black athlete the more they are scrutinized by the media. “If you make a mistake, they are going to crucify you. The public [will] make their decision on an athlete, specifically a Black athlete, based on what they see. They don’t know us…they make an assumption.

“I’d go so far [as] to say — sometimes you think there are two sets of rules because there’s some things White guys have done and gotten away with [but] if I had done [the same thing], I probably wouldn’t have been on the team,” said Darden, who played with Cleveland in the mid-1970s.

Frisby, who presented her recent findings at the International Communication Association conference in May, has done several nationally recognized research projects on advertising messages and the effects of idealized images and perceptions in society.

She earned both her master’s degree and doctorate degree in journalism and mass communications from the University of Florida, and at Missouri, Frisby has taught courses in sports and entertainment promotion, strategic campaigns, women in the media, media planning and practice, and media representations of underrepresented people and groups.

“We have real candid discussions” in classes, adds the strategic communication professor.  “More often than not, we have conversations that I learn from the students. I’m more curious on what in their upbringing…made them come to this conclusion. A lot of time you find out it is media representation.”

She once asked her students their thoughts on what’s most commonly seen in media, and mostly they said it is Black males and White women. “That is so not true,” she argues.  “The most common relationship is White man and Asian woman.”

As a result, media consumption, whether it’s sports, news, television shows and the like, have “different kinds of messages play a role in how we see things,” says Frisby. “I, being a Black woman, myself, am very sensitive of our portrayal. I am very sensitive about Black men and how they are portrayed.”

Frisby says that her research allows her to better speak as an academic rather than through emotion. Nonetheless she points out, “Just because I am a Black woman [doesn’t mean] I am immune to stories that deal with Blacks. It doesn’t mean that I am immune to the views that I might have on how Blacks are represented” in the media.

When asked if or how difficult that might be for her, “It is very, very hard,” she admits. “I am at a school in the Midwest — I am sometimes the first African American woman of any kind of leadership or power that some of these uppity suburbanites Whites have ever been in contact with.” She often wonders why some White male students treat her differently as a female professor of color as opposed to other female professors.

“I have to work harder to prove to them that I am worthy to teach. I have to work harder to earn their respect,” concludes Frisby.


Read more about media bias in sports reporting in this week’s upcoming Another View column.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to

One Comment on “Stereotypes and biases abound in sports reporting says media scholar”

  1. I understand that you are faced with challenges working as a female professor of color in a Midwestern school. I don’t believe it’s an easy thing to try and reach people while working to overcome stereotypes and racism. I found it interesting that you probably could have chosen any school in the country to teach at and you chose the one you did, working hard to earn the respect that would’ve came naturally to most. However, when you refer to the students at your school as, “uppity suburbanites Whites” you’ve lost my respect. You actually sound like a racist yourself. It’s too bad because I was actually interested in the things you were saying.

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