We need to talk about the atrocious media coverage at the Rio Olympics

The day after gymnast Simone Biles won a gold medal in Rio, the front-page headline in my local newspaper celebrated her as “Superlative Simone.” But I did a double-take when I saw a column headline underneath that read, “ ‘I don’t think she’s human,’ rival says of dominant Texas gymnast.”

Simone Biles

Flickr/Agência Brasil Fotografias

How could those words have sailed past the editors? Insinuating in a headline that a black woman is something other than human hearkens back to the days of slavery, when black people in America were considered three-fifths of a human being. (See your history book for the 3/5 Compromise from 1787). It also evokes persistent stereotypes of African American women.

I understand the sports connotation in the quote — that the athlete is better at her sport than any other human — but the historical context makes this headline demeaning.

An academic term called incognizant racism can explain some of the racist and sexist coverage we have seen in the 2016 Summer Olympics. The term refers to an unintentional bias on the part of journalists, who adopt the dominant white and male values of society and pass them along to the public through daily coverage. We have seen several examples of this phenomenon in the Olympics. Consider:

  • The San Jose Mercury News had to apologize after tweeting “Michael Phelps shares historic night with African-American,” in reference to the gold medal won by U.S. swimmer Simone Manuel, whose name was not even mentioned in the original headline. Twitter followers called out the tweet as racist and sexist.
  • The Chicago Tribune tweeted that “wife of a Bears’ (sic) lineman” — with no name — won a medal when Cory Cogdell won the bronze in women’s trap shooting. Social media critics noted that Cogdell has a name other than “wife” and that she won a medal for her athletic ability, not her marital role.
  • NBC commentators have been called out on social media for reinforcing sexist stereotypes. Examples: describing the USA “Final Five” gymnastics team as “they might as well be standing in the middle of a mall” and giving credit to the husband/coach of Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu for her breaking a world record.
  • The male athletes have not been exempt either, with NBC anchors Meredith Viera and Hoda Kotb virtually drooling over an oiled-up Tongan flag-bearer and magazines running headlines such as “36 Summer Olympics bulges that deserve gold” (Cosmopolitan.com). (I’m not hyperlinking to those — you can find them on your own).

Objectification — reducing people to their body parts — is dehumanizing. However, it’s much worse for women than men, since a long tradition of media coverage has focused on their appearances, their relationships to men, or their roles as wives and mothers (can you imagine the headline “Father of Two Signs Bill into Law?”). On the positive side, social media has made it easier for the public to hold media organizations accountable for spreading sexism and racism.

But when newsrooms still are 87 percent white, 63 percent male, and 90 percent of sports sections are headed by white men, it’s going to take more effort for media organizations to avoid harmful and degrading coverage. Awareness is step No. 1. Here’s hoping newsroom leaders will move forward to the next step.


Tracy Everbach is associate professor of journalism at the University of North Texas and a former newspaper reporter.

Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on FacebookShare on TumblrPin on PinterestShare on Reddit

Defending the First Amendment and promoting open government are more crucial now than ever. Join SPJ's fight for the public’s right to know — either as an SPJ Supporter or a professional, student or retired journalist.

  • Stuart Glascock

    Obviously, Ms. Everbach has spent way too much time in academia. She insinuates
    that a 110 percent positive story that does nothing but sing the highest
    praise for Simone Biles is somehow racist. That’s nuts. Not only that
    she commits the cardinal journalistic sin of taking a quote out of context. Here is the full quote from the Dallas Morning News story: “She’s definitely the best female gymnast there has even been. I don’t think she’s human,” said Canada’s Ellie
    Black, who finished fifth behind Biles. Ms. Everbach uses only the
    snippet and read into it her own preconceived interpretation. Clearly, any reasonable person would interpret the speaker to be praising Biles, saying she was MORE than human, certainly not less than. (But ‘less than’ fits the professor’s narrative, doesn’t it?) Of course, the media needs to be sensitive , and there are some examples
    out of Rio that deserve to be called out. But the full text and context
    of “don’t think she’s human” — quoted directly from an admiring and
    awestruck peer — isn’t one of them. The quote is innocuous at worst,
    and it’s Ms. Everbach who should be shamed for falsely tying it to
    slavery. Incognizant racism? Give me a break. More like incognizant

  • Chris Schneider

    That would be Dr. Everbach…And she was reacting to the headline in the article and the way it was presented by the media. Perhaps read the whole op ed and not shoehorn your mansplaining into her piece

  • Stuart Glascock

    For the record, the complete head and subhead are “Superlative Simone” and “Golden feat has many calling Biles the best ever” (Hardly negative or harkening back to slavery.) The partial quote was below the fold and the full quote is nearby in the story. The context could not be missed. Everbach linked to all the other examples, but not the Dallas Morning News piece that was the lead and basis of her post.

  • Tracy Everbach

    That’s because it was in the PRINT version, Mr. Glascock.

  • Stuart Glascock
  • Chris Schneider

    So, Dr Everbach should have read a non DMN source before reacting to the blatant racism and sexism that has overshadowed these Olympics? Are you a woman? Or black? Can you concede that the coverage in the media of these Olympics has been pretty craptastic when it comes to women and/or Black Americans? You think you are making a point, but you’re really just making yourself look like an out-of-touch idiot with a serious blindspot. And please refer to Dr Everbach with the credit she is due. She has a PHd

  • Stuart Glascock

    Chris, you should really follow links before commenting on them. The pressreader link I mentioned displays newspapers in their print form. Follow the link. It shows you the DMN Page 1 cover which is at issue. It is precisely what we are talking about. Everbach could have linked to it or something similar; she chose not to. As for Everbach’s title, it is not a slight but commonly accepted practice — outside of academia. Are you a journalist? Have you ever opened a stylebook? AP or any others? Check the listings under Dr. It refers to holders of medical degrees, not associate professors of journalism.

  • Chris Schneider

    Ok, I am not interested in making this an issue, but did you even read Dr. Everbach’s article? You pick and choose what parts you deign to comment on. The entirety of the piece was about racism and sexism in Journalism covering the Olympics. You single out one piece for it’s perceived ‘inaccuracy’ in reporting, yet you have no comment on the general tone of the piece? Yes, I have opened a few books in my time. And a PHd is considered Dr. She earned that. So please check your righteous indignation at the door, answer the questions (since you are so adamant on specificity), and stop deflecting your (perceived) racism. Just a troll who likes to deflect the systemic racism by taking issue with one particular comment. And, for the record, I did see your link, I even clicked on it! Dude, seriously, check your privilege and don’t comment on articles you know nothing about

  • Stuart Glascock

    Yeah, I get it. People who disagree with you are, in your words, mansplaining and privileged. (I dearly love Rebecca Solnit, btw. Look her up. She coined a term you seem to have heard.) As for the professor’s piece, I said in my first post upthread that some of the examples out of Rio are problematic — but she over reaches and misinterprets the DMN piece.

  • Chris Schneider

    Honey Baby Sweetheart. Yeah – people who disagree with me are soooo mansplaining. Except when they are And you did exactly that.

  • Art

    According to Wikipedia – took me five seconds to look up and eight seconds to skim through, but that’s probably my academic training – Rebecca Solnit did not coin the actual portmanteau. I will therefore seize upon this tiny inaccuracy embedded within a throwaway piece of snark and use it to dismiss everything you have said, regardless of any merits or lack thereof.

  • E. Cortes

    You’re an idiot.
    Obviously, they meant she was SUPER-human. Like a Super Hero.
    What? Black people can’t be superheroes??

  • Jason Kan

    Why can’t we just let a compliment be a compliment. The gymnast quoted meant it as a compliment, the author of the DMN article meant it as a compliment. Everyone has a bias, but maybe yours is the problem when you automatically read not a human as below a human when everyone else reads it as better than human.

  • Stuart Glascock

    Interesting point, maybe. But you cite Wikipedia. Really? I’m guessing that’s good enough for the academic standards committee at Donald Trump University.

  • alkh3myst

    Nobody ever said Nadia Comaneci wasn’t human, just the best in the world. NOW do you understand? Probably not.

  • hellifiknow

    In my professional opinion, the only issue I had was the Phelps headline. I agree with a poster below that says Tracy Everbach may spend more time in academia than as a working journalist. If you notice, the Chicago Tribune headline does not name the Bears lineman either. If the reverse were true, lets say the Olympian was the husband of a New York Liberty player and I was headling the story for a NY paper I would have done the same thing. It’s about drawing people in. Trap shooting to most Chicagoans is likely less interesting than a connection to local sports. As far as the Tongan athlete, I do think he could have been interviewed without all the touching going on, but if he was OK with it, then what’s the problem? As far as Housszu, the quote was taken out of context as the announcer provided the backstory that her coach/husband had helped her improve her confidence and her swimming and he even said that there were those who questioned his methods. In the live call, which I saw, you understood what he was saying as opposed to one thing taken out of it’s total context. As for Simone Biles, seriously? It would be racist if she was likened to a monkey or another animal but to say she’s not human is about how otherwordly her talent is. I think people got that.

  • Amy Wigsmoen

    “Check your privilege.” = “Shut up.”

    Do I find the coverage in Rio problematic? Yes. There’s a lot that needs to be changed. Even the attitudes of non-journalists need to change. My Afro – Latina friend and her daughter tried to explain why an African American woman winning in a gold in swimming is so momentous. It fell on deaf ears. That all being said, not every little thing is racist. How anyone can seriously take “She isn’t even human.” as anything less than a compliment, given the context, shows a desire to nitpick and find things where they don’t exist. Considering the amount of bad coverage that women and minorities receive, the author’s time could have been spent illuminating real instance of racist coverage.

  • Lois Adams

    By saying ‘I don’t think she’s human,’ is basically like saying she’s like a super hero who isn’t affected by things like gravity and the laws of physics. It’s a huge compliment.

  • June Piorkowski

    Headline space forces agonizing choices in a print newspaper, but there’s no limit to the space on a website. So the Chicago Tribune’s ridiculously wordy and clumsy “Wife of a Bear lineman …” headline could have used Cory Cogdill’s name at the start or in the middle.

    As for the Simone Biles coverage, I hope I would have read the big type and thought SUPERhuman, not the word SUBhuman that we’ve encountered in literature about slavery. If the story has a complimentary tone throughout — no diminishing Biles’ accomplishment, no pseudoscientific and icky explanation about her body — then I would have tried to move my thoughts about it out of the gloom and into the sunshine.

  • Stuart Glascock

    Has the Dallas Morning News issued an apology, a retraction, or correction?

    No. Because the alleged slight is crazy talk from crazy town.

    To be fair, someone should inform DMN about how wrong they were for
    quoting someone lavishly praising Simone Biles — especially since the
    allegedly offensive article was not identified with a link — unlike the
    other examples cited by the SPJ blogger. DMN is a large, professional
    daily newspaper (I assume with many SPJ members and SPJ sympathizers on
    staff.) DMN also has a written ethics code. It says they try to be inclusive
    and respond to readers.

    Anyone try to engage anyone at the paper about this great crime against dignity? Yeah, thought so. Because it’s easier to throw stones, whine, mislead and agitate. “We need to talk….” That headline is the biggest joke. #incognizantacademic

  • Kudryavka

    Because they’re mass communicators. It’s their job to make sure their articles are written well, and it’s their job to know the nuances and politics of what their writing, even if they’re in sports.

  • Pingback: Journalism Prof Sees Racism In Rio Coverage Where There Isn't Any – Daily Caller | iExclusives()

  • Zombie John Gotti

    No one could be this clueless. I have to believe this is simply satire, but she failed at the execution.

  • Keith

    Wow, no wonder journalism is a flaming pile of crap these days. With professors teaching crap like this, it’s bound to happen. Wow, if you are that delicate where even the color green is a somehow racist, or grapes have oppresive qualities, you may need to check into a facility, or check out of life, because this one aint for you.

  • Maggeek

    The entirety of some of the arguments attacking this post are basically, “This person didn’t mean it that way”—well you’re right, no, the speaker didn’t mean it that way—and Everbach never said a thing about the speaker (or really the writer of the article), just that we have to take care in how we contextualize things. In this case, the editor or someone like them pulled the section of quote they thought was most sensational (understandable) and made it into a subhead below the fold and beneath the photo of a black woman who just displayed some amazing feats. That has a historical context; knowing that, it would have been a better decision to pull the first part of the quote instead. Everbach’s overall point—and way to discredit that based on one example some folks don’t quiiiite agree with—is that as people who are trusted with things like quotes and facts and with the ability to put them together in articles, we need to be aware when things get taken out of context and how that can look to people who are not well represented in our newsrooms, as seen in that sad newsroom statistic she cites in the last graf.

    The writer took care to use that full quote in the article so the context is there—the person who segmented that quote so that it would catch the eye did not take that care. (And despite the cute idea that people can just go to the main article and read it for the full quote, we do all know that’s not how reading newspapers works–people skim.)

    Could there be an argument that by putting that chunk of quote into this context, which is generally clearly positive based on the other indicators, we could re-contextualize it into something more positive? Sure, maybe—I’m not POC so I can’t speak from that point of view. But why not make that argument, instead of throwing up straw men (“academia,” poking fun at “incognizant racism,” etc.) and ignoring this post’s important points about representation in the newsroom and being aware of what we’re doing when we put words out for the public to consume. We like to think that we only need “reasonable people” to understand what we mean and screw those other weirdos if they don’t get it, but newspapers aren’t elite organizations and we don’t get to choose who reads them and how. One look at Trump’s trajectory this election year should tell you all you need to know about how much we can assume everyone is reasonable just like “us.”

  • Art

    Nice use of a sneeringly elitist argument after kvetching about academic elites. I call projection, brah. Sad!

  • Stuart Glascock

    But it’s not really about Trump. It’s about one SPJ Blogger manufacturing a slight where none existed. The associate professor could have highlighted real examples of bias, negative or insensitive news coverage upon which to frame a productive discussion, build consensus and eventually achieve change for the greater good. The example she built her argument upon is not one of them, and it killed any remaining logic and truth in the piece, which is too bad. Saying such a positive quote, in its context, “hearkens back to slavery” is overreaching and it deserves to be called out, especially in a journalistic forum. #incognizantacademic

  • Maggeek

    I’m not disputing your right to call it out; I, and a few other folks, happen to disagree with your point. And
    that’s cool. Your rhetoric, though, tells me that you’re more interested
    in stirring the pot than having a real dialogue about the issue (that usually means not making it personal). I’d only suggest you consider the other side before you deploy
    your thirsty hashtag again, and perhaps take a minute or two to consider
    both your faulty premise (that this blog post author wrongly called
    something out–she didn’t, she merely expressed an opinion about the
    presentation of a partial quote and the historical context that
    recalled) as well as those newsroom stats and the privilege and POV they contain. As I said, there could be an argument in there for ignoring the historical context–but that would entail actually having that discussion with the author and not dismissing and belittling en route to making the point.

  • Stuart Glascock

    For the record, Maggeek a.k.a. Mr. or Ms. Anonymous Coward, there are as many folks here who agree with my point as those who don’t. So there’s that.

    Again, your so-called historical context only exists if you take the quote entirely out of context and somehow turn the compliment into a racial slur. You and the blog poster see a slur were none exists — because it fits your predetermined narrative.

    I’ve adequately expressed my opinion here, but I would be curious to hear from Kevin Sherrington at the Dallas Morning News? He is the writer of the story that the SPJ Diversity blog claims “hearkens back to the days of slavery, when black people in America were considered three-fifths of a human being.”

    I wonder what Mr. Sherrington’s opinion might be — or those of the several other Dallas Morning News professional journalists, editors and copy editors and page designers who approved the allegedly racist quote. What was it again? Oh yeah: “She’s definitely the best female gymnast there has even been. I don’t think she’s human.” Wow, that really hits below the belt doesn’t it, Maggeek?

    Launch whatever salvos you want to at me for having an opinion — but SPJ National owes the Dallas Morning News an apology.

  • Pingback: Posts on media diversity – Media Writing, MC2010()


Twitter Facebook Google Plus RSS Instagram Pinterest Pinterest LinkedIn

© Society of Professional Journalists. All rights reserved. Legal

Society of Professional Journalists
Eugene S. Pulliam National Journalism Center, 3909 N. Meridian St., Indianapolis, IN 46208
317/927-8000 | Fax: 317/920-4789 | Contact SPJ Headquarters | Employment Opportunities | Advertise with SPJ