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Prejudice in Play

Stereotyping in the sports media

In our sports-obsessed nation, athletes, particularly elite athletes, get a lot of media attention. But not all stories are created equal, a recent study has determined.

Cynthia Frisby, an associate professor of strategic communication in the MU School of Journalism, recently discovered that more than 66 percent of crime stories involved black athletes, while only 22 percent involved white athletes. More specifically, she determined that 70 percent of domestic violence stories involved black athletes, while only 17 percent involved whites. Finally, 53 percent of the stories involving black athletes had a negative tone, while only 27 percent of stories about white athletes were negative.

Frisby says these statistics point to the existence of stereotyping in the sports media, and suggest that professional sports journalists need to do more to avoid perpetuating prejudice.

“Journalists and reporters must reflect on how their own unfounded beliefs about race differences in sports likely contribute to the stereotyping of black athletes as engaged in more criminal activity and innately physically gifted yet lacking in intelligence and strong work ethics,” says Frisby. “Not only does negative media coverage serve to legitimize social power inequalities, but also it is likely to undermine black athletes’ achievements and contribute to stereotype threat.”

Frisby examined 155 news articles about male athletes from online and print news sources to determine the theme of each story. The themes identified included crime, domestic violence, training/hard work, moral success or failure, violating rules of the sports league, accomplishments, and personal lifestyle. She presented her findings at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association last May. The paper was also published in her latest book, How You See Me, How You Don’t, a collection of studies by Frisby examining various aspects of media stereotypes and their effects on minorities, women and adolescents.

“This study provides quantitative evidence of disparities in how media cover and stereotype black male athletes,” she says. “This serves as an important exploratory study that sets the framework for extensive future investigations into the way media portray and cover athletes from different ethnic backgrounds.”

Prejudice in Play Art by Brian Stauffer

Reader Comments

Susan wrote on March 8, 2016

It would be helpful if Ms Frisby would give statistics for what percentage black athletes vs white athletes commit crimes. If the numbers correlate with the media coverage then there may not actually be bias in the reporting.

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