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Managing Media Bias

This is an excerpt from Introduction to Sports Journalism by Matthew Zimmerman,Lauren M. Burch & Brian Moritz.

By Kelsey Slater

Bias is showing prejudice or favor to one person or group over another. Bias in the media can take many forms, and it is something that journalists need to be able to manage well to preserve good media ethics. While media bias is often connected to political journalism, it has ramifications for sports journalists as well. Before discussing some of the specific types of bias that sports journalists must manage, we will look at how readers perceive bias.

Reader and viewer perceptions of media bias can often be based largely on whether the story confirms those news consumers’ preexisting viewpoints (Gentzkow & Shapiro, 2006). When applied to sports journalism, a column or game report’s perceived quality or worthiness often has little to do with the information presented, but rather hinges on whether the reader or viewer likes what is being reported. For example, scholars found that fans of particular football teams view sports reporting as biased when their team is accused of wrongdoing, even if they find the news source credible (Mirer et al., 2018). Research has also shown that the source of a game report can influence perceptions, with the local reporter or outlet being more accepted by local fans than a report from an outlet based in the home of the opponent (Kim & Billings, 2017).

For sports reporters and outlets even in traditional media, trust can be built over a period of time, and the reader or viewer forms a relationship with the media outlet similar to one formed with a team. While fan perceptions of your reporting may be out of your control, there are types of biases that you must be aware of and manage well.

Racial Bias

The first type of bias that sports journalists must manage is racial bias. Sport leagues across the United States and the world have a diverse population of athletes (Lapchick, 2020). Therefore, in order to accurately portray different athletes, coaches, and executives, sports journalists must be aware of the language they use to report on them. Merullo et. al. (2019) examined more than 1,400 football sports broadcasts seeking evidence of individual broadcaster bias and found that White athletes were more commonly mentioned by their last names than non-White athletes. Also, White players in their examined sample were more often described in terms of intelligence and personality, while the broadcasters’ terms for non-White athletes often included nods to their physical ability.

Similar results were found when examining intercollegiate basketball. Scholars found that Black athletes were more often described as successful due to their natural athletic abilities, compared to White players who were more often characterized as successful because of hard work (Eastman & Billings, 2001). These patterns are not uncommon in the research; Rada and Wulfemeyer (2005) also found that commentary about African American athletes concentrated on physical and natural ability, while commentary about White athletes mainly focused on their intelligence or hard work.

This presents an issue of media ethics, and of sports media ethics specifically, about how players from differing backgrounds are described. The three studies just mentioned are only a few of many that have identified this tendency for members of the sports media to describe athletes with a certain amount of racial bias. While this is not to say that sports media members are inherently prejudiced, it has also been proven that certain tropes have survived through the years, even in a field that prides itself on avoiding the appearance of impropriety. Although most research on how sports media frame athletes of different races examine basketball and football due to their high populations of diverse athletes, racial bias can be found in the coverage of countless sports. However, one of the most well-known and common occurrences of racial bias in sports is related to quarterbacks in the National Football League (NFL).

In the NFL, questions remain about whether Black quarterbacks are still perceived by coaches and scouts as not being at the same level as their White counterparts (Trotter, 2021). There have, in fact, been many cases at all levels of the sport where an African American quarterback has been encouraged by team personnel or scouts to switch positions to running back or defensive back. From 2015 to 2019, three of the five NFL Most Valuable Player award winners were quarterbacks who were African American. Yet, to illustrate how ingrained the bias has become, 2019 MVP Lamar Jackson, who had won the Heisman Trophy playing quarterback at the University of Louisville in 2016, was encouraged to switch positions for his professional career by the NFL TV analyst and Hall of Fame general manager Bill Polian.

Inevitably, the sources and power brokers who have such ideas often influence media members who cover the various franchises and leagues, not just in football, but in all sports at all levels. These race-based narratives thus find their way into the media ecosystem, and this creates an ethical dilemma in terms of providing fair coverage regardless of subjects’ racial background.

Gender Bias

Another way in which identity-based biases can manifest is in how gender affects sports coverage. While there have been advances in terms of an increase in the amount of women’s sports airing on television, those advances have occurred in the wake of decades of media content that favored coverage of men’s sports (Eastman & Billings, 2000).

Gender bias in sports reporting is often subject to bias by omission or bias by story selection, where female sports are either not covered at all or there are a relatively small number of female-focused stories written by a publication. Another common bias that is often associated with gender is bias by placement. An example for a traditional paper would be burying stories about women’s sporting events below the fold or not giving them a major headline. In television or online media it might mean relegating headlines about women’s sports to the bottom ticker or placing headlines off the outlet’s main page.

Additional gender bias in sports journalism occurs with how female athletes are framed. Often they are sexualized or discussed based on their physical appearance rather than their athletic ability (Harris & Clayton, 2002; Ponterotto, 2014). This reinforces stereotypical gender roles and can also negatively affect how the public views female athletes and sports.

Another common frame that we see applied to female athletes is discussing them not for their individual merits but for their connection to prominent male athletes or celebrities. For example, professional soccer player Kealia Ohai, who previously played for the Houston Dash in the National Women’s Soccer League, was traded in 2020 to the Chicago Red Stars. Houston’s ABC affiliate tweeted the news but instead of referring to Ohai by name or discussing her athletic achievements, they highlighted her connection to NFL star J.J. Watt; the post read, “Houston Dash trade J.J. Watt’s fiancée to Chicago” (ABC13 Houston, 2020).

This is a problem because it gives the impression that the female athlete is only newsworthy because of the relationship to a male athlete. In this case, it wasn’t a matter of having to fit the headline within Twitter’s 280-character limit; it would have taken fewer characters to have the headline read, “Houston Dash trade Kealia Ohai to Chicago.”

This was obviously a conscious choice made by the sports journalist to highlight Ohai’s connection to then-fiancée and now husband Watt. The outlet may have written the headline this way because they believed that a story about Watt, who was playing for the Houston Texans at the time, was more likely to drive clicks and views to their website than a reference to Ohai by name. While this was not a fabricated statement—Ohai was Watt’s fiancée—it definitely skirts the lines of ethics where journalists are manipulating frames in order to increase their social media presence.

Watt himself took to social media to call out Houston’s ABC affiliate for their bias, calling the headline “trash” while encouraging journalists to “be better than this” (Watt, 2020). While this is just one example, there are countless female athletes who have been reduced to their connections to male athletes, coaches, and celebrities rather than written about for their own achievements.

The sports media have a large impact on the public’s perception of athletes, sports, and leagues. Therefore, how sports journalists talk about female athletes and women’s sports can greatly affect women’s ability to make further strides in athletics. Combined with the growth of sport participation by women and girls around the world, the growth in television, streaming services, and social media has enhanced opportunities for the media to showcase female athletes. It may seem that female sports and athletes have been able to make big strides, but research shows that they have not come as far as many would suggest (Fink, 2013).


In addition to racial and gender bias in sports reporting, sports journalists may also face discrimination in the workplace. Discrimination is the unfair treatment of an individual or group based on personal characteristics such as gender identity, race, age, sexual identity, or ethnicity. It was only in 1978 that Sports Illustrated, on behalf of sports journalist Melissa Ludtke, sued the New York Yankees to allow female sportswriters access to locker rooms. The court ruled that the Yankees had violated Ludtke’s guaranteed rights of equal protection under the 14th Amendment, particularly because Yankee Stadium was owned by the city of New York and was thus a state actor (Brennan, 1979). Although female sports journalists are now given the same locker room privileges as their male counterparts, there is still a wider discussion about equity within sports journalism.

There are concerns in the sports industry about discrimination, particularly related to gender and sexual identities as well as race, and the field of sports journalism is no different. In The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport‘s “2021 Sports Media Racial and Gender Report Card: APSE,” scholars found that there had been an improvement in the racial diversity of sports journalists, but both racial and gender disparities continued to exist (Lapchick, 2021).

In a study on Black sports journalists, researchers found that Black television sports journalists feel there is a lack of diverse perspectives within the media, hindering and often limiting the coverage of Black athletes. Hiring practices are limiting the number of minority voices, specifically Black voices, in the newsroom, with many Black sports journalists commenting that television stations will only hire one Black sports journalist (Hull et al., 2022). Potential discriminatory hiring practices have also been examined with regard to women. Previous research found that sports departments often struggled to retain female sports journalists, and this has created a lasting problem with a lack of diversity in the newsroom (Boczek et al., 2023; Hardin & Shain, 2005). In addition, because female sports journalists are more likely to cover women’s sports, which are often considered less prestigious than men’s sports, it may make it difficult for female sports journalists to rise in the ranks to cover the most significant beats or to become editors (Boczek et al., 2023).

Researchers examined association football (soccer) articles in German newspapers from 2006 to 2020 and found that women authors reported significantly more often on women’s association football than on men’s association football. Female authors were responsible for 49 percent of articles written about women’s association football compared to only 8 percent of all articles written about association football (Boczek et al., 2023). This is not to suggest that sports journalists are inherently prejudiced against women and women’s sports, but that gender bias and potential discrimination against female sports journalists still cause ethical and potential legal issues in the field that we must strive to correct.

More Excerpts From Introduction to Sports Journalism