The ASC has, and is continuing undertake extensive research into mass media coverage of women's sport.

Consistent and positive media coverage is one of the prime goals of all sports administrators and players. The reason for this is simple. Sport and the media are two of the most powerful influences that affect how society works. They are also intertwined in that both affect how people think and shape ideas and emotions.

Consistent media coverage can benefit a sport in a number of ways. It can provide a visual profile, create positive role models and, by increasing spectator appeal, help attract lucrative sponsorship opportunities for the sport.

How the media portrays a particular sport or athlete can also impact on both the sport’s or the athlete’s credibility.

With that in mind, we need to ask ourselves what sort of images of female athletes are commonly presented to readers, viewers and listeners. And how much space and time do newspapers, magazines, television and radio devote to women’s sport?

Research by the ASC into mass media coverage of women’s sport began in 1980, and has been carried out every four years since to gauge any changes in media coverage.

An illusory image: A report on the media coverage and portrayal of women’s sport in Australia 1996 (available from the ASC online publications catalogue - code 11-128 – see related links) shows that although the nation’s sportswomen are playing harder, faster and more professionally than ever, and have a proven international record, they still struggle for consistent, long-term coverage.

The 1996 survey took a snapshot of media coverage of women’s sport from newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations during a two-week period, establishing a measurement of coverage and additional information about the portrayal of women’s sport in the media. The results showed that media coverage of women in sport is treated very differently from that of men.

An illusory image showed television coverage of women’s sport for the period sampled was just 2 per cent of total sports broadcasting. Radio coverage was surveyed for the first time and showed a total figure of 1.4 per cent of total sports broadcasts while sports magazines, which were also surveyed for the first time, registered 6.8 per cent of coverage devoted to women’s sports.

There was some good news, with newspaper reportage of women’s sport doubling since the 1992 report and recording just over a 500 per cent increase from the first survey in 1980. However, results showed only 10.7 per cent of newspaper sports pages was devoted to women’s sport, compared with the men’s at 79.1 per cent.







Women’s sport






The above do not include any mixed sport coverage

Source: Menzies 1989, Gordon 1989, Stoddart 1994.

The report’s author, Dr Murray Phillips, said women’s sport also suffered from its positioning in newspapers, with women’s stories often placed at the bottom of pages or at the inner, most inaccessible pages of the sports section.

‘Only 5.6 per cent of women’s stories and 2.6 per cent of mixed sport made the ‘male’ domain of the back page, and the language used in the stories often differed from gender to gender.’

Women were often described in ways that stressed weakness, passivity and insignificance, in ways that deflected attention from their athleticism. Women were frequently portrayed as girls, no matter what their age. Readers were informed of their physical traits such as the ‘perky blonde’ or ‘powder puff’, or their emotional state was the focus. We frequently saw phrases such as ‘dissolving into tears’, but when men confronted stressful situations, they were applauded for their ‘toughness’.

Dr Phillips explored reasons for these appalling statistics and offered recommendations to improve the quantity and quality of portrayal of women’s sport in the media. These recommendations were directed at government, the media and sports organisations. To find out more about Dr Phillips’ recommendations, contact the ASC for copies of the report, An illusory image.

Similarly, the ASC’s Activate magazine has often published articles that provide advice and strategies to contribute to improving the media coverage of women’s sport.

An illusory image – facts at a glance

  • An illusory image is the fifth report in a longitudinal study of women’s sports coverage. The others were conducted every four years in 1980, 1984, 1988 and 1992.

  • An illusory image looked at the media over two-week period in 1996 from Monday 24 June to Sunday 7 July.

  • An illusory image surveyed 23 metropolitan and regional newspapers including dailies and weekend editions, two sports-specific magazines, all national television broadcasters and two Sydney-based radio stations.

  • Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show that in 1995–96, 44.6 per cent of players in organised sport were women.

  • Television coverage of women’s sport in 1996 was 2 per cent. Commercial network television coverage of women’s sport was 0.2 per cent. Non-commercial coverage was 20 per cent.

  • In 1980, newspaper coverage of women’s sports was 2 per cent. In 1992 it was 4.5 per cent. It doubled from 1992 to 1996 to come in at 10.7 per cent and from 1980 to 1996 this represents a 500 per cent increase in women’s sports coverage. However, with men’s sport registering 79.1 per cent in 1996, this still means six times more newspaper space is devoted to men’s sport than to women’s sport.

  • Radio coverage of women’s sport was also surveyed for the first time and showed a figure of 1.4 per cent of total sports air time. Commercial coverage registered at 0.4 per cent, while non-commercial coverage registered at 3.4 per cent.

  • In 1996, sports magazines were surveyed for the first time. Women’s sport registered 6.8 per cent of sports coverage.

More information

Other organisations have initiated research that also helps further build the picture of media coverage of women’s sport. Womensport Australia, a non-government organisation representing women in sport, recently released the findings of its survey into the media coverage of Australian women at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. The report, Inching forward, paints a very different picture of coverage when women are involved in high profile international events. The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) (the union which covers everyone in the media, entertainment, sports and arts industries) touched on the issue of women working in sports media in its project on Women in the Media (see related links). The project surveyed 3000 female MEAA members, examining the status of women working in the media and issues affecting their role in media organisations throughout Australia.

Further readings on women, sport and the media


  • Alston, M, Goals for women: Improving media representation of women's sport, Wagga Wagga, NSW Centre for Rural Social Research, Charles Sturt University, 1996.

  • Boutilier, MA, The sporting woman, Champaign Ill., Human Kinetics Publishers, 1983.

  • Cahn, S, Coming on strong, Cambridge Ma., Harvard University Press, 1994.

  • Creedon, P, Women, media and sport: Challenging gender values, California, Sage, 1989.

  • Donnelly, P (ed.), Taking sport seriously: Social issues in Canadian sport, Toronto, Thompson Educational Publishing, 1997.

  • Jackson, N, ‘Public attitude toward women in sport’, in Schwank, WC (ed), Winning edge, AAHPER, Washington, 1974, pp. 130–5.

  • Koppett, L, Sports illusion, sports reality: A reporter's view of sports, journalism and society, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1981.

  • Nelson, M, The stronger women get the more men love football, New York, Harcourt Brace, 1994.

  • Phillips, MG, An illusory image: a report on the media coverage and portrayal of women's sport in Australia, Canberra, Australian Sports Commission, 1997.

  • Stell, M, Half the race: A history of Australian women in sport, Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1991.

  • Williams, CL, ‘Patriarchy, media and sport in Lawrence’, in Rowe, G & D (eds.), Power play: Essays in the sociology of Australian sport, Sydney, Hale & Iremonger, 1986, p. 215–29.


  • Hall, MA ‘Sociological perspective of females in sport’, NAGWS research reports, Washington, AAHPER, 1977, vol. 3, p. 37–50.

  • Jones, Dianne, "Half the Story? Olympic Women on ABC News Online", Media International Australia, No.110, February 2004, pp. 132-146.

  • Metcalfe, A, Sport and the media in physical education, recreation and sport: Lifelong participation, Milton-under-Wychwood, England, International Association of Physical Education and Sport for Girls and Women, 1986, p. 332.

  • Inching forward: Newspaper coverage and portrayal of women's sport in Australia: A quantitative and qualitative analysis, 21 July to 3 August 1996 and 21 July to 3 August 1997, O'Connor ACT, Womensport Australia, 1997.

  • Invisible games: A report on the media coverage of women's sport , Aussie Sport Action , Canberra, Australian Sports Commission, 1994.

  • Women, sport and the media, a report to the Federal Government from the Working Group on Women in Sport, Australian Sports Commission, Canberra, Australian Government Publishing Service, 1985.

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