Doing Research while Watching Sports Center
Think about how many people you know whose days are punctuated by checking sports scores, and whose bedtime stories come courtesy of ESPN’s Sports Center. Even something that seems as mundane as tracking sports coverage has sociological meaning.
Suppose you wanted to learn more about this practice. You might use sociological research methods such as in-depth interviews with fans, surveys of television audience members, or ethnography of how news agencies produce sports programming to collect your data.
Another interesting method tends to be overlooked in many research methods texts and courses. Content analysis involves systematically observing the content of a text, including written, visual, and audio texts. Often used in communications research, sociologists also use content analysis to take a deeper look into media we might otherwise take for granted.
Essentially, content analysis involves counting the occurrence of specific phenomena that researchers are interested in learning more about. One of the first tenets of good content analysis is to establish specific guidelines to make sure researchers are clear and consistent about what they are counting. More than just watching TV and writing an overall opinion, content analysis requires clear definitions of a sample and the procedure the researchers will use to analyze their findings.
Something as familiar as Sports Center can be systematically analyzed, with clear quantitative and qualitative results. Sociologists Michael Messner and Cheryl Cooky recently completed a content analysis of Sports Center and the sports coverage of the three Los Angeles network news affiliates. Their report, Gender in Televised Sports: News and Highlight Shows, 1989-2009, features the results of their content analysis over five separate periods: one in 1989, 1993, 1999, 2004, and 2009.
As their title suggests, the researchers wanted to learn about how much sports coverage is devoted to male and female athletes, as well as to better understand the context of the coverage about sports. They measured six weeks of local news coverage, selecting three two-week periods at various times of the year. In addition, they also recorded three weeks of Sports Center during similar time periods as the local news. The researchers timed the amount of coverage men’s sports and women’s sports received, including the ticker at the bottom of the screen.
If you are a regular viewer of sports coverage, you won’t be surprised to learn that men’s sports coverage dramatically overshadows women’s coverage. You might even conclude that this finding is so obvious that it isn’t necessary to conduct a systematic study.
But you might be shocked to learn that local coverage of women’s sports has dramatically declined over the past twenty years (and in the last ten especially), as the graph below illustrates. This is something we can only learn through repeated content analysis studies.
After a rise in local news coverage between 1989 and 1999, women’s sports coverage declined dramatically from 8.7% of all sports coverage to 1.6%. Likewise, Sports Center’s coverage (only included in the last three time periods of the study) declined as well, albeit not as dramatically because women’s sports coverage was low to begin with.
Why the decline? We might even predict that coverage would increase rather than decrease; as the researchers point out, girls' and women's participation in sports has increased dramatically over the past twenty years. In 1989, 1.8 million high school girls participated in sports, compared with 3.1 million in 2009. Women are more likely to play collegiate-level sports, and women’s opportunities to play professional sports—most notably in the WNBA—expanded too. So it seems counterintuitive that coverage would decline.
While Messner & Cooky note that fans now have numerous ways besides television to get sports updates (including fan websites and smart phone apps, for example), they conclude that to understand why women’s sports coverage declined it would be necessary to study “the assumptions and values [that] guide the decisions of producers, editors and TV sports commentators on what sports stories are important to cover, and how to cover them.”
The researchers hypothesize that the structure of televised sports coverage might help us understand the lack of women’s sports coverage. As Messner & Cooky point out, the network’s promise to deliver an audience of young men to advertisers provides a financial incentive to not only keep coverage of women’s sports to a minimum, but also to portray women in specific ways:
A foundational assumption of those who create programming for men on programs like SportsCenter seems to be that men want to think of women as sexual objects of desire, or perhaps as mothers, but not as powerful, competitive athletes.
This long-term study found another interesting change: despite the reduced coverage of women’s sports, when women are part of sports coverage the tone was more respectful in 2009 than it had been in the past. Most of the time women appear in sports coverage as male athletes’ girlfriends, wives, or mothers, and yet some coverage now focuses more on women’s athletic prowess.
By contrast, the authors observed that in the past, sports coverage frequently ridiculed women. For instance, a 1999 story on women who bungee jumped nude and a 2004 story about a “weightlifting granny” made women appear more like comic relief than serious athletes. These stories haven’t completely gone away, but they were less common in 2009. The authors conclude that involving more women in the sports news production process might produce more favorable coverage of women’s sports, but concede that there’s no guarantee. For example, female reporters might be hired more for their looks than for their sports background.
As you can see, content analysis can take an everyday activity like watching sports coverage and analyze its deeper meanings. What other kinds of sociological information might content analysis give us?