Sports media remains overwhelmingly white and male, study finds

Written by on September 22, 2021

Editor’s note: Richard Lapchick is a human rights activist, pioneer for racial equality, expert on sports issues, scholar and author.

For the first time since 2018 — a period of time that included a pandemic, a polarizing presidential election and the 2020-21 racial reckoning — The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) released a report card detailing race and gender among sports media.

In the 2021 Sports Media Racial and Gender Report Card: Associated Press Sports Editors (APSE) Racial and Gender Report Card, APSE earned a racial grade of a B-plus, an improvement from the B in 2018, while its gender grade remained an F. The overall grade of a C was an improvement from the D-plus in the 2018 study.

The report released Wednesday evaluates the racial and gender hiring practices of more than 100 newspapers and websites across all circulation sizes. These are same outlets that determine what stories to cover, when to cover them and how they are portrayed. Diversity, equity and inclusion among the staff in our media is crucial to news being representative of our society.

Over the three-plus years since the previous study was released, progress was achieved, but it was minimal. The story of our media is that it remains predominantly white and male — and that’s one narrative that must continue to change at a more rapid pace. Here are some key numbers from the 2021 report:

• 79.2% of the sports editors were white and 83.3% were men.

• 72.0% of the assistant sports editors were white and 75.8% were men.

• 77.1% of the columnists were white; 82.2% were men.

• 77.1% of the reporters were white; 85.6% were men.

• 77.0% of the copy editors/designers were white; 75.3% were men.

• 72.4% of web specialists were white; 78.1% were men.

“We need more women in this industry,” says Lisa Wilson, former APSE president and a key adviser to the study. “We need those voices. We need that perspective. We need them making coverage and hiring decisions.”

All but one gender category (assistant sports editors) improved since the 2018 report card, and still the grades are dismal.

Some highlights include:

• The percentage of women sports editors increased significantly from 10.0% in 2018 to 16.7% in 2021.

• The percentage of women columnists rose slightly from 16.6% in 2018 to 17.8% in 2021.

• The percentage of women reporters rose from 11.5% in 2018 to 14.4% in 2021.

• The percentage of women copy editors/designers increased significantly from 20.4% in 2018 to 24.7% in 2021.

• For the upper management category, a new category that analyzes the managing director position across an entire newspaper or website, women’s representation was a report card-high 36.3%.

“We can be encouraged by the increases, but we cannot be satisfied with our overall grades,” Wilson said. “It’s been a problem for a long time, and it will take time to correct. And it’s still a major problem for women and especially for women of color.”

“We need more women in this industry. We need those voices. We need that perspective. We need them making coverage and hiring decisions.”

Lisa Wilson

For people of color, the report card found that there was improvement in all racial categories, since 2018. For the first time, no racial grade fell below a B.

Some notable findings include:

• The racial percentage of sports editors increased significantly from 15.0% in 2018 to 20.8% in 2021.

• The racial percentage of assistant sports editors increased significantly from 23.6% in 2018 to 27.7% in 2021.

• The racial percentage of reporters increased significantly from 17.9% in 2018 to 22.9% in 2021.

• The percentage of Black representation improved in three positions: sports editors, columnists and reporters.

• The percentage of Hispanic/Latinx representation also increased in three positions: sports editors, assistant sports editors and reporters.

• The percentage of Asian representation increased in three positions: sports editors, reporters and copy editors/designers.

The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, said: “The stories that are being told should reflect those on the field as well as the audiences that they reach. Dr. Lapchick’s report indicates there has been some progress, but the sports media world is still overwhelmingly white and male.

“Our Rainbow PUSH Sports division, under the leadership of Pastor Joseph Bryant, stands with Dr. Lapchick in his continued quest to build fairness and equity. We have also had a great relationship with the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), and we believe it’s time for that organization to be more significantly included in these conversations to help bridge this significant gap. We will continue to partner in the process of creating more pathways of inclusion to keep hope alive in sports, on and off the field.”

The staffing at ESPN had a significant impact in several categories. Without ESPN, almost all racial and gender categories would suffer. Notably, 25.0% (five of 20) of all women who were sports editors worked for ESPN. ESPN also employed 38.1% (8 of 21) of all the women who were columnists.

To put this into perspective, if ESPN were removed from the data entirely, the gender percentage for sports editors would drop from 16.7% to 13.5%, while columnists would sink from 17.8% to 13.8%.

ESPN’s contribution is visible in racial percentages as well, as 61.1% of all assistant sports editors of color analyzed worked for ESPN, while 37.0% of all columnists of color analyzed worked for ESPN.

To further illustrate ESPN’s importance, if ESPN were removed from the data completely, five of the analyzed racial categories, including total APSE staffs, would suffer. Sports editors would decrease from 20.8% to 18.9%, assistant sports editors from 27.7% to 22.7%, columnists from 22.9% to 18.1%, reporters from 22.9% to 22.5% and total staffs from 23.5% to 22.0%.

“Our commitment is clear and we are proud of the role ESPN played in placing diverse talent in key roles as outlined in Dr. Lapchick’s 2021 Sports Media Racial and Gender Report Card,” said Rob King, senior vice president and editor-at-large at ESPN. “We believe, however, that there’s progress to be made and we’re actively doing the work necessary to continue to get better.”

Collectively, the industry has seen slight improvements since the inaugural 2006 APSE Report Card. The percentage of reporters of color has risen from 12.5% to 22.9%. Likewise, the percentage of women as columnists has risen from less than 7% in 2006 to 17.8% today.

When it comes to sports editors, arguably the most important position in sports media, we have seen progress soar from 5.3% people of color in 2006 to 20.8% in 2021.

This study analyzed 104 newspapers and websites, up significantly from 2018 when 75 newspapers and websites participated. While it is important to grade the industry as a whole, it is vital to highlight those that are leading the way in racial and gender hiring practices.

• The Chicago Tribune, Yahoo, Sports Illustrated, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, ESPN, The Athletic and the Sun Sentinel employed the only female sports editors among the largest (known in the industry as “A size”) newspapers/websites.

• Yahoo, Sports Illustrated, the Detroit Free Press, The Athletic and ESPN employed the only Black sports editors among “A” size newspapers/websites.

• In circulation size “A” newspapers and websites, the Miami Herald (Florida) had the highest percentage for people of color at 41.7%. For The Win had the most opportunities for women with 31.3%.

• The New York Daily News, the Los Angeles Times and ESPN employed the only Asian sports editors among “A” size newspapers/websites.

Like Lisa Wilson, I am encouraged by the improvements but not satisfied.

“I’ve seen a little progress here and there,” Wilson said. “There was once a time when I was the only Black woman leading a major sports section in the country and there were just three Black sports editors collectively.

“Our overall grade went up, but we really cannot celebrate anything yet because we are not close to where we need to be. However, as long as we are mindful of that and hold ourselves accountable, we can hold on to the slight gains we’ve seen in this study because otherwise it will feel hopeless. You never want to have a hopeless feeling about diversity and inclusion — you want have a feeling that things will improve in our industry.”

The truth about the narrative of our sports media landscape is that the lack of representation for women and people of color is disheartening and is far too real.

Racial and gender diversity must continue to be infused into the industry to dismantle stereotypes, provide a voice to the voiceless and avoid misrepresenting women and people of color — all of which are difficult to achieve when white and male remains a dominant theme.

Nevertheless, I hope that the improvements in all but one racial and gender category are foreshadowing a more complete, diverse, equitable and inclusive future for the sports media landscape. With this being the seventh chapter of the APSE Report Card series, following the 2006, 2008, 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2018 report cards, I look forward to the next chapter in 2023.

A.J. Forbes contributed significantly to this column.

Richard E. Lapchick is the chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program at the University of Central Florida. Lapchick also directs UCF’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES), is the author of 17 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the president of the Institute for Sport and Social Justice. He has been a regular commentator for on issues of diversity in sport. Follow him on Twitter @richardlapchick and on Facebook.

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