Media accentuate the negative when reporting on Black athletes





“It seems like the media is attracted to when Black athletes get in trouble.”

Black athletes do wrong? White athletes do right? This type of imbalanced imagery regularly exists in sports media stories on Black and White athletes, says a new study by University of Missouri Associate Professor Cynthia Frisby.

Cynthia Frisby
Cynthia Frisby

Frisby presented her findings at the International Communication Association conference in May. She examined 10 years of news articles on male athletes from online and print news sources and classified them under several themes, including crime, domestic violence and personal lifestyle.

The professor found that 53 percent of stories on Black athletes had a negative tone and over 66 percent of stories involved Black athletes in criminal incidents as opposed to 22 percent on White athletes. More than 70 percent of domestic violence stories involved Black athletes, but only 17 percent involved White athletes, she added.

In the introduction of her second book, How You See Me, How You Don’t (Tate Publishing) published in March, Frisby presented “The Five Fault Lines” — race/ethnicity, gender, generation, class and geography — that all journalists should be fully aware of when writing stories.

“These are considered to be the most enduring forces that shape lives, experiences and social tensions,” wrote the professor.

Such “lines” often are crossed by Twin Cities sports journalists. A recent Star Tribune sports section headline, “Is it conscionable to cheer for Adrian Peterson again?” is one unfairly influential headline. The column that followed was representative of the negative tone of stories about the Minnesota Vikings running back since he was charged last fall with a misdemeanor for how he disciplined his son.

Frisby, in an MSR phone interview last month, compared this to NFL quarterback Michael Vick, who pleaded guilty and served 21 months in federal prison for his involvement in dog fighting in 2007 and has not been in trouble since. “I remember seeing a ton of stories on Michael Vick,” she said, “but rarely any on Pittsburgh QB Ben Rothlisburger, who’s White and was twice accused of sexual assault in 2008 and 2010 but never charged.

“It seems like the media is attracted to when Black athletes get in trouble,” she observed.

“I’m really not surprised,” added Twins outfielder Torii Hunter when the MSR told him of Frisby’s study after a recent game. “Sometimes I get something negative written about me.”

He remembers seeing past reports like “Torii’s a bigot” or “Torii’s a racist” after he made comments on a particular hot topic. “I have my opinion. That don’t mean I’m a bad guy,” said Hunter.

“I’ve always been very, very fascinated about how media portrays athletes of color and female athletes,” continued Frisby. She asks why more stories about Black athletes doing good things aren’t seen or read more.

“Who’s writing the stories and what is their motivation” is a valid question, especially when “these stories are covered by White sports journalists — White men,” she said. “Even some women and some Blacks are guilty of doing the same kind of stories, because they don’t understand the influence that the media has played on them.”

Her future work may include how college athletes of color are treated in the media and if there is any difference between local versus national news coverage. “What I like to do is hopefully examine…if it isn’t racism, then what it is.”


Read more on Dr. Cynthia Frisby’s study on the MSR website.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to