Thursday, March 7, 2013

Sports media and the white male scorecard

I once asked Tom Sorensen, the longtime sports columnist for the Charlotte Observer, why his newspaper wouldn't hire a woman to cover the Carolina Panthers back when the beat job came open in 1999. I've never forgotten his response.

"There aren't any good ones out there,'' he told me.

At the time, I was the Panthers writer for The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., and the only woman on the beat. So I thought the response was meant merely as an insult to me. But in the nearly 15 years I've lived in Charlotte, I believe the Observer has never had a full-time female sportswriter on staff.

Apparently, they really do believe there aren't any good ones out there.

I thought of Sorensen's comment again recently when an email from the
Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida showed up in my inbox. Every two years, the Institute conducts a study of diversity in sports media. And for the past three studies, sports media have received a collective grade of "F" for hiring women. The grade for hiring black men was a C+, just above passable but hardly exemplary.

I suspect there are many who would say, so what? In recent years, the prevailing opinion I've seen is that in a shrinking job market, diversity is a luxury that sports departments no longer can afford. It's simply not a priority anymore.

More importantly, some have argued, diversity in the past had not delivered a more diverse readership. Therefore, it was irrelevant to the bottom line.

Of course, today's media landscape doesn't bear much resemblance to what it was 20 or even 10 years ago. Back then, it was probably harder to measure the impact of a diversity hire. These days, all you have to do is count the clicks or check the number of Facebook likes or Twitter followers to see that many minority and female writers have been able to develop significant followings. Hire the right ones, and you can see the impact.

So I can't help but wonder if maybe the opposite might be true these days -- that staffs need to diversify now more than ever before.

Because the days of owning a monopoly on information in a market are long gone. And the diverse audience that has always read sports -- and was forced to swallow only the limited viewpoint offered by newspapers that historically tailored their sports sections to appeal primarily to white men -- now has more options when seeking out news and opinions.

If the local newspaper doesn't value and provide a diversity of thought on the sports issues of the day, readers will look for it elsewhere. And we will surely find it.

All you have to do is look around. There are a lot of good ones out there.