Study exposes more sports media bias

Lorie Shaull/MGN

Black WNBA players “received significantly less [media] coverage” than their White counterparts “seemingly because they’re Black,” a new study has pointed out.

University of Massachusetts-Amherst Associate Sport Management Professor Nicole Melton and Risa Isard, a research fellow at the school’s Laboratory of Inclusion and Diversity in Sport examined over 550 online articles by ESPN, CBS Sports, and Sports Illustrated during the 2020 WNBA season and found on average 52 media mentions for Black players compared to 118 for White players.

For example, 2020 WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson received half as much media coverage last season than 2020 top pick Sabrina Ionescu, who got hurt in her third game and missed the remainder of the season. Wilson is Black; Ionescu is White.

Isard also pointed out that the three most-mentioned WNBA players last season were White while 80% of the league players are Black.

Black W players won 80% of the 2020 postseason awards, including most valuable player, rookie of the year, defensive player of the year, most improved player and sixth woman of the year. Black players also led the league’s season-long dedication to racial and social justice advocacy. But the media, based on Melton and Isard’s findings, gave Black players less than half the coverage of White players.

Black players often were “outside of media storylines,” said Melton and Isard in a Sports Business Journal article they co-wrote last month. They added that historically female athletes “have been held to strict standards of femininity,” noting that this is even more so with Black athletes: Black WNBA players who looked more masculine received an average of only 41 media mentions, but White players received more than five times that number, an average of 212. 

Submitted photo Nicole Melton

“These numbers make clear that White players have more leeway to express themselves.  They are forgiven and even embraced for being different and breaking the norm. Their Black teammates are penalized with less media coverage when they do the same,” stated Melton and Isard.

This also has an economic impact, the two women noted: Media mentions boost the athlete’s “earned media value” or marketing value. More media coverage means more earned media credits leading to sponsorship opportunities, and White players are benefiting more than the Black players in this regard.

“White players getting more than their fair share of the storylines means they are the winners of this media game,” surmised the two authors.

Melton told the MSR, “For whatever reason, [it] still seem that most of the data show that most of the media attention is on a small group of athletes.” She stressed that discriminatory sports coverage must end.

“In our small way, we saw something that might be happening that we could bring [attention to],” she said. “Particularly over the past year, everybody had…a deeper reflection on what is our part in making the world more equitable in terms of racial justice.

“I think the main key part [of the study] is raising awareness” of the continued existence of implicit bias and White privilege in sports media, especially in WNBA coverage” said Melton. “Now we have data to support it.”