Diversity in a Digital Age
By Pete Volk
The Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism hosted a panel on diversity in sports media in front of a full house in the Eaton Broadcast Theater at the University of Maryland Wednesday night. Moderate by Merrill College faculty member Kevin Blackistone, the panel was composed of Turner Sports’ David Aldridge, USA Today’s Managing Editor for Sports Mary Byrne, SBNation’s Kevin Lockland, Shadow League creator Keith Clinkscales, and professor of kinesiology David L. Andrews.
The panelists tackled the topic of diversity in sports media world, with particular focus on how the changing digital media landscape has changed the sports media picture.
Blackistone began the conversation by summarizing where the sports media landscape stands in terms of diversity, citing the American Society of News Editors, who released a study in April 2011 noting that journalists of color in newspapers and online newsrooms dropped for the third consecutive year.
Blackistone also discussed a report from Dr. Richard Lapchick from the University of Central Florida, which graded newsrooms on five different categories: Editors, reporters, copy editors, columnists, and designers. All five categories continue to have a failing grade in gender, and in 2012 each of those five categories were over 80% white (with over 90% of editors reported as white).
Aldridge, a reporter for the Turner Television Networks who formerly worked under Povich Center Director George Solomon at The Washington Post, started the panel discussion by discussing what the landscape looked like when he entered the job market in 1986. Aldridge called it the “golden age”, saying sports editors had a great deal of sway on what got covered and who was assigned to each story, adding that diversity was considered good on its own, without any further justification.
He also spoke of the importance of editors such as Solomon, who helped start the careers of Michael Wilbon, Christine Brennan, Sally Jenkins and J.A. Adande, among other big figures in sports media from minority groups.
“Nobody had to tell George Solomon that diversity was a good thing,” Aldridge said. “You name a person on ESPN, a person of color, and I guarantee you somewhere in their DNA was George.”
USA Today was a focal point of the discussion, as after recent lay-offs the company’s sports department only employs two African American writers. Byrne, who runs the sports department for USA Today, said that was a “horrible number” and added “if we’re not more diverse, it is at our own peril, and we will not survive as an organization.” She said diversity brings different perspectives into the newsroom, and that those perspectives are necessary not only to find the right stories, but to report on them correctly.
Another issue confronting USA Today that was brought up at the panel was a recent slideshow of Florida Gulf Coast coach Andy Enfield’s wife, Amanda Marcum Enfield. The slideshow showed various pictures Marcum Enfield, a former model, in swimwear. While audience members argued the slideshow was detrimental to both the company’s image and notions of progress in media, Byrne defended the choice, noting its objective was the page-views. She also added that Enfield was a model – not an athlete.
Andrews, a professor of Kinesiology at Maryland with a focus on social injustices, spoke of his experience coming to the United States in the late 1980s. Living in Illinois, he saw a local obsession with Michael Jordan and Andre Dawson, two African-American athletes, and started to wonder about the reputation of American racism. But he then realized what was being presented was a very “sanitized” view of these African American athletes, which depicted race in “simplistic and commercially expedient terms”. He said the core problem is a domination of the media by white males, who in turn provide a worldview palatable for other white males.
Clinkscales, former Vice President of Content at ESPN and creator of The Shadow League, said the increased financial capital in the sports world has changed how we cover sports. With the influx of money through television deals and better user tracking through digital media, Clinkscales said journalism has shifted from awards-based to one measured on ratings and “clicks”. Because of this, he said, editors are under pressure, which doesn’t allow diversity to become a main focus. “All editors are being asked to do more with much, much less,” he adding, “as a result diversity gets left behind.”
Lockland, a vice president for editorial at SB Nation, spoke about the company’s recent acquisition of Outsports, a leading sports website targeted at a gay audience. He said not only did Outsports fit in with the kind of values the network wants to have, but it made business sense to bring in such a large community into the network. Lockland says the question SB Nation still faces is how to take specialized and minority voices for specific communities and get them to a position where they can be more widely heard. The acquisition by SB Nation was “the first time a mainstream sports company has purchased a gay-oriented website”, according to Outsports.
Through discussions of how best to go about attaining more diversity in sports newsrooms, one consistent theme emerged: Diversity brings a much-needed perspective. . A recent piece on Baylor center Brittney Griner by ESPN writer Kate Fagan was brought up repeatedly by the panel as an example of this. Fagan’s gender, sexual orientation, and history as a basketball player gave her a unique handle on the story. Aldridge repeatedly pointed out that he could not have written that story nearly as well as she did, and that necessary perspective was able to turn into a important piece of journalism.