Looking On From the SidelinePerceived Role Congruity of Women Sports Journalists
Female sports journalists face many challenges, including being judged differently from men, based on their looks and the sport being covered. The present study utilized a quasi-experimental design to examine the impact of attractiveness and role congruence on source credibility and reader loyalty for female sports print journalists. A sample of 328 individuals read a newspaper story involving either football or volleyball, authored by a man or a woman of varying attractiveness. Women who covered football were not seen as less credible but were perceived as less congruent for the job in comparison to female volleyball writers. Furthermore, males covering maleappropriate sports not only were perceived as a stronger fit but also were of greater likelihood to generate reader loyalty than those covering female-appropriate sports.
social role congruence, source credibility, sport media, reader loyalty
In 2014, 42 years after the enactment of Title IX, 9,581 women played for intercollegiate varsity athletic teams in the NCAA and 13,963 women worked in intercollegiate athletics (Acosta & Carpenter, 2014). Both of these figures represent all-time highs. Outside of increased participation in organized sports, amateur and professional alike, the number of female sports fans has continued to grow. In fact, women posted 21% of all tweets related to sports events in 2014 (Nielsen, 2014). However, coverage of female sports in the media has been disproportionately lacking, relative to their male counterpart (Cooky, Messner, & Hextrum, 2013).
To illustrate, Turner (2014) found no significant changes in the amount of coverage of women’s sports on the popular ESPN program SportsCenter between 1999 and 2009. Similarly, Eastman and Billings (2000) examined the content from major media outlets (e.g., ESPN, CNN, the New York Times, and USA Today) and noticed a heavily imbalanced focus toward male sports. Specifically, ESPN and CNN’s Sports Tonight were found to show 95% and 93% coverage of male sports, respectively. Likewise, USA [End Page 79] Today and the New York Times respectively devoted 5 and 10 times more coverage space to men over women’s sports (Eastman & Billings, 2000).
A parallel scarcity of females employed in sports media also persists, even though there has been an increase of women in the field of journalism in recent years (Schmidt, 2013). Sheffer and Schultz (2007) claimed that women held close to 40% of the jobs in local news outlets, but only 7% were associated with sports broadcasts. A 2014 report on race and gender inequalities in journalism by Associated Press sports editors indicated that males comprised 87.4% of sports reporters and 87.6% of sports editorial jobs in the United States and Canada (Lapchick et al., 2015). Furthermore, Harp, Bachmann, and Loke (2014) reported that in 2012 only 4.2% of all sports columnists were women.
Hardin and Whiteside (2009) maintained that these low numbers of female sports journalists are a result of perceptions that women lack credibility in sports reporting. Messner (2012) suggested that the reason for such biased treatment toward women sports professionals has to do with the notion that sport is perceived to be a male entity. Kane’s (1988) findings even showed that women could receive negative feedback if they participate in activities that are not seen as ladylike.
This suggests that perceived gender roles and, by extension, social roles for women in society may be a factor in determining how the audience may respond to female sport journalists, be it sportswriters or sportscasters. As the sports-media industry has increasingly become a staple of entertainment media, netting 526 million unique U.S. television and digital users across the top nine sports-media properties in 2015 (USA Today Media Kit, 2016), the role of female sport journalists is a significant topic in gender equality and diversity in the media and society alike.
The current study proposes to explore this phenomenon by examining the effects of perceived social roles and gendered sport-type expectations on perceived source credibility of male and female print sports journalists and on audience loyalty toward each. Specifically, it will utilize social role and source credibility theories to construct the conceptual framework to assess whether perceived reporter credibility is influenced by the perceived congruity between the reporter and his or her coverage of a perceived male- or female-oriented sport. This study will be among the first to investigate whether physical attractiveness will influence perceived credibility of male and female print reporters, as reporter images may appear in the online version of their articles. [End Page 80]
Social Role Theory
Social role theory posits that observers construe a comparison between an individual’s behavior and their intrinsic predisposition (Eagly & Karau, 2002). Typically, these constructions involve the stereotyping of gender-based activities, wherein males and females are expected to fulfill discrete social roles that are predicated on societal appraisal of distinct, perceived gender-appropriate behavior. More specifically, Eagly and Karau (2002) found that women were perceived negatively through participation in agentic behavior, which reflect masculine traits such as ambition and leadership ability. Wachs (2005) suggested that behaviors that divert from preconceived notions about social roles for different genders exude the appearance of a lacking conformity. These preconceived notions thus dictate that while female behaviors should be ripe with gentleness and compassion, male behaviors should showcase vitality and robustness.
By extension, sports participants also appear to be expected to fulfill certain presupposed social roles that are seen as congruent with the socially prescribed behavior of their gender. For instance, Kane (1988) contended that a female athlete’s role has multiple dimensions, including the playing of a selected sport and the type of activity associated with the sport. Specifically, when women compete in athletics that are not considered ladylike, they could receive negative social judgments. As a case in point, women’s participation in perceived female-appropriate sports such as golf and gymnastics received more media coverage than perceived female-inappropriate sports such as rugby and auto racing (Koivula, 2001).
While Kane’s (1988) work illuminated the fact that women walk a fine line in sports participation, Krane (2001) noted that perceptions of sexuality in competition present a catch-22 as well. Specifically, if a female sports participant is perceived as possessing masculine characteristics, she risks being ostracized as a homosexual. By contrast, if female athletes are seen to embody strong feminine traits, then their athletic prowess may sometimes be questioned and their physical characteristics may dominate audience and media chatter instead of their athletic abilities. In addition, audience gender may also moderate discrimination against women who participate in perceived gender-inappropriate sports. For instance, Jones and Greer (2011) found that men were more interested in reading a story about the same female athlete playing volleyball—a perceived feminine sport—than engaging in a perceived masculine sport such as women’s basketball. [End Page 81]
This type of gender-based social perception, which associates certain sports as being feminine or masculine, could also be levied against female reporters who cover “male-oriented” sports, such as football or hockey. The influx of social media has also led to increased public castigation of female reporters, targeting specifically those who cover “male” sports. According to Masters (2014), female British soccer writers have been accused of resorting to “unchaste” behavior to cultivate sources in order to produce exclusive coverage. Consequently, when female sports journalists are involved in reporting perceived male-oriented sports, they could evoke audience perceptions of social-role incongruities between them and the sports they cover. Moreover, the strong levels of audience identification with their favorite sports (Gantz, Wang, Paul, & Potter, 2006)—combined with the ubiquitous presence of sports-media offerings and prominence associated with sports coverage (Schmidt, 2013)—are all potential barriers for female sports reporters to gain acceptance.
In the current study, we anticipate that a female sports print reporter who covers a perceived female-congruent sport (e.g., volleyball) will be seen to have a stronger reporter-sport fit than if she covered a perceived male-congruent sport (e.g., football). We further hypothesize this theoretical assumption as follows.
H1: There will be an interaction effect between sport type and reporter gender on perceived fit between sport and reporter. Specifically, the perceived fit for a female reporter covering a male-appropriate sport will be lesser than a female reporter covering a female-appropriate sport.
Source credibility theory asserts that people are more inclined to be persuaded by a message source that is perceived to be credible (Hovland & Weis, 1951). Message sources that are perceived to communicate with high credibility are also more respected and accepted by the intended audience (McCroskey, Holdridge, & Toomb, 1974; McCroskey & Jenson, 1975). Journalist source credibility, thus, involves a focus on how a news correspondent can affect the dispensation of a message (Addington, 1971).
Research on source credibility has evolved over time, due to the multidimensional nature of this construct (McCroskey & Young, 1981). Hovland and Weiss (1951) offered that the degree to which the message sender is perceived to be knowledgeable and trustworthy is essential for evaluating [End Page 82] sender credibility. McCroskey (1966) proposed a two-factor model of ethos that comprised perceived authoritativeness and character of the message source. Ohanian (1990) considered expertise, as reflected by perceived source intelligence and qualifications, to be an important dimension of source credibility. Other measures of source credibility have also been offered, including attractiveness (Amos, Holmes, & Strutton, 2008), presenter voice (Addington, 1971), and dynamism (Berlo, Lemert, & Mertz, 1969). As the current study examines the perceived credibility of print journalists who have their images appear alongside their articles online, we will focus on evaluating the following three source-credibility dimensions: perceived trustworthiness, expertise, and attractiveness.
Giffin (1967) defined trust as the “reliance upon the characteristics of an object, or the occurrence of an event, or the behavior of a person in order to achieve a desired but uncertain objective in a risky situation” (p. 105). Hence, source trustworthiness is related to the confidence that message receivers possess with regard to the intent of the message sender (Ohanian, 1990). In the case of a sports journalist, perceptions of source trustworthiness may be strong if the audience feels that the reporter is authentic and if their message is viewed as believable. Recent work by Hahn and Cummins (2014) found that regardless of the sex of the reporter, perceived reporter credibility is higher when covering men’s sport. These findings seem to imply that gender-incongruent sports reporting may, in fact, boost a female sports reporter’s credibility, if she is viewed as capable of projecting an acceptable agentic quality (or be “one of the guys”) to cover important male sports.
Based on the existing literature reviewed above, we anticipate that a female print sports reporter will be perceived as more trustworthy if she covers a female-congruent sport (e.g., volleyball) instead of a male-congruent sport (e.g., football). Moreover, we also expect that female sports reporters who cover male-incongruent sports will be perceived as more trustworthy than male sports reporters who cover the same sports. We further hypothesize these theoretical assumptions as follows.
H2: There will be an interaction effect between sport type and reporter gender on perceived trustworthiness of the reporter. Specifically, a female reporter covering a male-appropriate sport will be perceived as less trustworthy than a male covering a male-appropriate sport. [End Page 83]
Perceived source expertise involves the apparent validity of the message sender’s relevant background on the topic (Amos et al., 2008). A display of germane knowledge related to the subject in question is often an important factor in assessing the perceived expertise of a message source. According to Siemens, Smith, Fisher, and Jensen (2008), if a message sender can demonstrate that he or she has ample professional proficiency and experience presenting a message with credibility, then consumers are likely to be influenced by the intended persuasion goal of the message (i.e., consumption intentions).
Ordman and Zillman (1994) found that female sports commentators were seen as less knowledgeable than their male counterparts by sports fans. Additional research by Claringbould and Knoppers (2012) found that female sports journalists have been criticized for their inability to provide quality analysis, due to the perception that they possess less sports knowledge and have obtained their jobs as a result of their physical attractiveness; similar criticism has not found to be directed toward male reporters.
In the current study, we anticipate that female sports print journalists who cover female-congruent sports (e.g., volleyball) will be perceived as having greater expertise than those who cover male-congruent sports (e.g., football). Furthermore, we also expect that female sports reporters who cover male-incongruent sports will be perceived as having less expertise than male sports reporters who cover the same sports. We have hypothesized these theoretical assumptions as follows.
H3: There will be an interaction effect between sport type and reporter gender on perceived expertise of the reporter. Specifically, a female covering a male-appropriate sport (e.g., football) will be perceived to have less expertise than a male covering a male-appropriate sport.
Attractiveness is considered to be a key variable in the source-credibility paradigm, as objects that are visually appealing have an air of competence associated with them and are more likely to garner a positive perception (Eagly, Ashmore, Makhijani, & Longo, 1991; Ohanian, 1990). While research has touted the benefits of being an attractive communicator (Amos et al., 2008), Hahn and Cummins (2014) found unique implications within the context of sport. Their findings showed that the less attractive a reporter [End Page 84] was, the more they were deemed credible, provided they were covering a sport played by individuals opposite their sex.
Davis and Krawcyzk (2010) also reported that while perceived attractiveness may be correlated with a reporter’s trustworthiness, competence, dynamism, and expertise, the same is not true for female sportscasters who are deemed to be highly attractive. The authors surmised that when source attractiveness also embodies message source credibility, a tipping point could exist to reflect a credibility-perception threshold. In other words, the audience could perceive that sportscasters high in physical attractiveness are perhaps valued for their physical appearance instead of their journalistic acumen.
This type of audience perception may involve a gender bias. As indicated by Toro’s (2005) study, for women who work in sports media, a pretty face could cause damage to her credibility as a sportscaster, though the same is not necessarily true for her male counterpart. Hence, women are judged by a different standard—compared to their male counterparts in television-based sports media—whereby their physical appearance seems to play a relatively important role for their career success or failure (Ordman & Zillman, 1994).
The distinction between print versus nonprint journalists has blurred in today’s converged media environment, as “print journalists” regularly appear on television (e.g., Tim Cowlishaw of the Dallas Morning News and ESPN’s Around the Horn and Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press and ESPN’s The Sports Reporters) and have their photos displayed in the digital version of their publication (e.g., Bob Ford of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Jeff Jacobs of the Hartford Courant). In major media markets such as New York City and Philadelphia, major newspaper sportswriters have been contracted to make regular appearances on cable network sports shows (Eichel, 2013; Raissman, 2008). Hence, physical attractiveness, which was a nonissue for the print journalists in the past, could now play a role in how their perceived credibility is judged when the audience could identify their face with their words.
As female sports print journalists have been accused of potentially, or on occasion, using their physical attractiveness to compete for gaining access to news sources (Masters, 2014), research has yet to ascertain whether the physical attractiveness of female print sports journalists is used to judge their journalistic trustworthiness and expertise. Based on the relevant literature discussed above, we anticipate that the more attractive a female sports journalist is, the less likely the audience will find her to possess trustworthiness and expertise. Likewise, we also assume that a more [End Page 85] attractive female sports print reporter will be perceived to be less trustworthy and have less expertise than an attractive male counterpart. The following hypotheses are proposed to test these theoretical assumptions.
H4a: Physically attractive female sports print journalists will be perceived to be less trustworthy than physically attractive male sports print journalists.
H4b: Physically attractive female sports print journalists will be perceived to have less expertise than physically attractive male sports print journalists.
H4c: Physically attractive female sports print journalists will be perceived to be less trustworthy than less physically attractive female sports print journalists.
H4d: Physically attractive female sports print journalists will be perceived to have less expertise than less physically attractive female sports print journalists.
In general, consumer-loyalty research has indicated that exposure is a crucial precursor for the development of attitude toward a product and consumption behaviors (Thomson, MacInnis, & Park, 2005). Given what is known about the benefits of source credibility on influencing positive brand attitudes and future consumption intentions (Siemens et al., 2008), it is reasonable to assume that perceived attractiveness, expertise, and trustworthiness of a print journalist could directly contribute to reader loyalty. This type of consumption pattern cuts across all media platforms and is particularly dominant in sports radio and television (Pedersen, Miloch, & Laucella, 2007).
However, the research literature on sports-media audience loyalty remains scarce. Depending on the field, loyalty can be represented via a bottom-line figure. For example, in radio, audience loyalty is represented by ratings (Lin, 2006). Print-news entities can measure loyalty through newspaper sales, readership analytics, web page clicks, news stories shared online and via social media, and the like, as reaching an audience through both online and offline news venues is equally important (Althaus & Tewksbury, 2000). This study seeks to assess the impact of perceived [End Page 86] credibility of print sports journalists on reader loyalty, which is a key factor that predicts future exposure to the sports coverage provided by these print reporters.
Based on the literature reviewed above regarding source credibility and consumer loyalty, we anticipate that print sports reporters who are more physically attractive will generate greater reader loyalty. Additionally, we also presume that perceived congruence between reporter gender and the reporter’s coverage of gender-appropriate sport will influence reader loyalty. To test our theoretical assumptions, the following hypotheses are proposed.
H5: The physical attractiveness of sports journalists will have a significant effect on reader loyalty. Specifically, reader loyalty will be greater for attractive sports journalists.
H6: There will be an interaction effect between sport type and reporter gender on reader loyalty. Specifically, reader loyalty will be greater for a female print journalist who covers a female-appropriate sport than for a female print journalist who covers a female-inappropriate sport.
The participants of this online experiment were recruited from a large northeastern university. As both men and women are actively involved in college sports competitions and athletic success is often tied to school pride and identity (Gladden, Milne, & Sutton, 1998), college students were an ideal population for the current research. Aside from the fact that this study focuses on the reporting of college sports, college students from the millennial generation support gender equality more than their predecessors (Broido, 2004).
Undergraduate students enrolled in a general education course from different academic majors across the university were offered course credit to participate in the study. Overall, 328 participants completed the online experiment; 50.2% of them were males and 49.8% were females. Most participants were Caucasian (68.4%), followed by Asian American (13.4%), Hispanic (8.1%), African American (3.6%), Native American (1.2%), Asian Pacific Islander (8%), and mixed race (8%), with another 3.6% categorized as “other.” The average age of the sample was 19.4 years old (SD = 1.7). [End Page 87]
Study Design and Procedure
This study adopted a 2 (reporter gender) × 2 (sport type) × 2 (level of reporter attractiveness) between-subject design. Following Institutional Review Board–approved protocol, participants were instructed to provide their informed consent on the study website, before proceeding to click on a hyperlink that randomly assigned them to one of the eight study conditions. These conditions included (a) female football reporter with high attractiveness (n = 64) versus low attractiveness (n = 42); (b) female volleyball reporter with high attractiveness (n = 41) versus low attractiveness (n = 37); (c) male football reporter with high attractiveness (n = 42) versus low attractiveness (n = 26); (d) male volleyball reporter with high attractiveness (n = 40) versus low attractiveness (n = 36).
Following the random assignment, participants read an instruction that asked them to read a brief newspaper story associated with their school’s intercollegiate football or volleyball team, which was written by either a female or male sports journalist (with a high- or low-attractiveness level). After reading the article, participants were prompted to complete a set of questions that measured the variables tested in the study. Afterward, they were asked to answer an open-ended question to assess the overall credibility of the journalist who wrote the story.
Based on prior research on perceived gender congruity of sports types (Koivula, 2001), football and volleyball were selected as masculine- and feminine-congruent sports suited for male and female journalists to cover, respectively. The study stimulus was comprised of two mock newspaper stories: one was about a men’s football game, and the other was about a women’s volleyball game at the intercollegiate level. The layout of the news story was manipulated to appear as if the story was published online by a major metropolitan newspaper in the state where the university is located. Both mock sports stories were similar in length and topic, as they recapped either a college football or a college volleyball team’s final performance of the season. Each story was presented with a mock byline and headshot of either a male or female journalist who represented either a high or a low level of physical attractiveness.
The female journalist in the high-attractiveness condition appears to be in her early thirties with long blonde hair and a nice smile; she looks thin [End Page 88] and beautiful with nice makeup and a gleaming hairstyle. By contrast, the female journalist in the low-attractiveness condition also appears to be in her early thirties with short dark hair and a similar smile; she seems rather heavy and “ordinary” looking without any makeup or lustrous hairstyle. The male journalist in the high-attractiveness condition is a man who appears to be in his early thirties with dark hair in a long buzz cut and a bright smile; he looks tan, fit, and handsome, with perfect teeth and a polished wardrobe. The male journalist in the low-attractiveness condition also appears to be in his early thirties, with dark hair in a long buzz cut and a similar smile; he seems to be a rather heavy, pale, and “ordinary” looking individual, without perfect teeth or a polished wardrobe.
A group of 22 undergraduate students were recruited separately from the same sample frame to ascertain the perceived attractiveness of each mock male and female sports journalist. These participants were presented with two sets of photos; each set contained two male or two female journalists that embodied either a high or a low level of physical attractiveness. All participants correctly selected the gender of each reporter. Via a yes or no response, these participants also confirmed the intended attractiveness level (low or high) of the sports reporters. In addition, the 328 study participants were also asked to rate each journalist’s level of physical attractiveness (1 = least attractive and 10 = very attractive) on a 5-item semantic differential scale, adopted from Ohanian’s (1990) scale. Independent-sample t-test results showed that journalists with a high-attractiveness level were rated as significantly more attractive than journalists with a low-attractiveness level, t(238) = 8.12, p <.001.
Participants were also asked to assess the perceived masculinity of the sports used for this experiment on a 1–10 scale (1 = least masculine and 10 = very masculine). As expected, football (M = 9.67) was considered as a male-congruent masculine sport, and volleyball (M = 3.06) was regarded as a female-congruent feminine sport. A paired-sample t test indicated that the difference between the two means was significant (Mean difference = 6.62; p <.001). Together, the results of the pilot test indicated that the manipulation of physical attractiveness by gender and the gender identity of the two types of sports were successful. [End Page 89]
A 10-point Likert-type scale was used to measure all variables. Trustworthiness, expertise, and attractiveness of the sports journalist were measured by adapting Ohanian’s (1990) 15-item credibility scale. The five items for evaluating perceived journalistic trustworthiness included responses to the statements, “I feel that the writer of this story is” (a) undependable–dependable; (b) dishonest–honest; (c) unreliable–reliable; (d) insincere–sincere; and (e) untrustworthy–trustworthy. Combined, these items generated a Cronbach’s alpha of .92. The five items gauging perceived journalistic expertise were responses to the statements, “I feel that the writer of this story is” (a) unskilled–skilled; (b) unqualified–qualified; (c) unknowledgeable–knowledgeable; (d) inexperienced–experienced; and (e) not an expert–an expert. The reliability for these items combined was .94. The five items measuring a journalist’s physical attractiveness included responses to the statements, “I feel that the writer of this story is” (a) unattractive–attractive; (b) not classy–classy; (c) ugly–beautiful; (d) plain–elegant; and (e) not sexy–sexy. Together, these items produce a Cronbach’s alpha of .90.
Till and Busler’s (2000) five-item scale of endorser-product fit was modified to describe perceived reporter-sport fit. These items included (a) “I think the combination of this writer and football/volleyball is a good fit”; (b) “I feel that the writer of this story is an appropriate journalist to cover football/volleyball”; (c) “I think the combination of this writer and football/volleyball goes well together”; (d) “This writer is an effective reporter for football/volleyball”; and (e) “This writer is a suitable reporter for football/volleyball.” Combined, these items generated a reliability of. 97.
Reader loyalty, a self-constructed measure, served as a variable to assess participants’ future desire to consume sports coverage presented by the reporter in question. This variable consisted of two items, including (a) “How likely are you to read the stories published by this reporter?” and (b) “How likely are you to follow postings from this reporter on social media?” These two items have a correlation of. 76 (p <.01).
Sport involvement takes into account participant involvement with the specific sport (football or volleyball) associated with each study condition. This measure was adapted from Trail and James (2001), which included the following three items: (a) “I am a big fan of football/volleyball”; (b) “I am very involved with football/volleyball”; and (c) “I closely follow football/volleyball.” The scale formed by these items had a Cronbach’s alpha at. 97.
Sports-news consumption was a self-constructed measure that reflected the participant’s sports-news use. Three items for this control measure [End Page 90] included (a) “I am a big fan of reading sports news”; (b) “I am very involved in reading sports news”; and (c) “I closely follow sports news.” The reliability for the items that formed this scale is .98.
Descriptive statistics, including means and standard deviations, of the dependent variables for each condition are shown in Table 1. An ANCOVA procedure was used to test the hypotheses. While reporter attractiveness, reporter gender, and sport type were entered as fixed factors, expertise, trustworthiness, reporter-sport fit, and reader loyalty were treated as the dependent variables. Specific sport involvement and sports-news consumption served as the control variables. Results for testing the hypotheses are presented in Table 2.
Hypothesis 1 predicts that the interaction effect between reporter gender and the type of sport covered by the reporter will influence perceived reporter-sport fit. The main effects on the interaction between reporter [End Page 91] gender and sport type were significant on perceived reporter-sport fit, F(1,238) = 5.67, p <.05, partial η2 =.02; this finding provided support for Hypothesis 1. An independent-samples t test indicated that the perceived fit was greater for a female reporter covering a female-appropriate sport than a male-appropriate sport (M = 6.04 versus M = 5.48, p <.05). Likewise, the t test also showed that perceived fit was greater when a male covered a male-appropriate sport than a female-appropriate sport (M = 6.29 versus M = 5.68, p <.05). In addition, male coverage of a male-appropriate sport was perceived as a greater fit than female coverage of a male-appropriate sport (M = 6.29 versus M = 5.48, p <.01).
Hypotheses 2 and 3 propose that the interaction effect between reporter gender and the type of sport covered by the reporter will influence perceived reporter trustworthiness (H2) and perceived reporter expertise (H3). The main effects for perceived reporter trustworthiness or reporter expertise were not statistically significant; hence, neither Hypothesis 2 nor Hypothesis 3 was supported. Therefore, the assumption that female sports reporters who covered female-inappropriate sports would be perceived as having less trustworthiness and less expertise than male sports reporters covering the same sport was not validated.
Hypothesis 4a, which claims that physical attractiveness will negatively influence perceived trustworthiness for female journalists more than male journalists, was not supported. Though results show that the interaction [End Page 92] between reporter attractiveness and reporter gender was significant on trustworthiness, F(1,238) = 5.42, p <.05, partial η2 =.02), an independent-sample t test indicated that a more attractive male reporter (M = 7.07, p < .05) was seen as more trustworthy than a less attractive male reporter (M = 7.09 versus M = 6.69, p <.05). Hypothesis 4b, which assumes that physical attractiveness will negatively influence perceived expertise for female more than male journalists, was not supported. Hypothesis 4c, which posits that physically attractive female journalists will be seen as less trustworthy than their less attractive counterpart, was also not supported. The same was true with Hypothesis 4d, which postulates that physically attractive female journalists will be seen with less expertise than their less attractive counterpart.
Hypothesis 5, which asserts a significant relationship between the physical attractiveness of sports journalists and reader loyalty, was supported. Results indicated that reporter attractiveness, F(1,238) = 7.73, p <.01, partial η2 =.03, had a significant main effect on reader loyalty. Bonferroni post hoc analyses also revealed a significant mean difference between attractive reporters (attractive M = 4.11 versus less attractive M = 3.42, p <.01).
Likewise, Hypothesis 6, which presumes an interaction effect between sport type and reporter gender on reader loyalty, was supported, F(1,238) = 4.96, p <.05, partial η2 =.020. However, follow-up tests indicate only partial support for this hypothesis. Female sports reporters who covered female-appropriate sports did not garner greater reader loyalty than female reporters covering male-appropriate sports. Instead, for male reporters, an independent-samples t test revealed a significant difference in reader loyalty, based on sport type (M = 4.18 versus M = 3.44, p <.05). Specifically, reader loyalty was greater when male reporters covered football instead of volleyball.
This study is among the first to assess the potential impact of gender and physical attractiveness of print sports reporters and the gender-typed sport that they cover on audience perception of their credibility. Our hypotheses about gender-role congruity between reporter and sport type were supported by study findings and social role theory. In particular, the current study revealed that females employed in sports media who cover sports that are perceived to be male appropriate are seen as incongruent with the rugged characteristics of those sports. The prescribed masculine images of those sports, thus, appear to extend to the evaluation of reporters [End Page 93] who cover the sports events. Such sexism has been evidenced in advertising research, which found women to be overwhelmingly showcased as the typical “cheesecakes,” compared to their male counterparts as the occasional “beefcakes” (Lin, 1997).
Study findings also suggest that male reporters were considered more suitable to cover football. From the open-ended answers collected by the current study, a remark about a female covering football stated, “Since I consider football as a masculine sport, I would also assume an effective writer would be more masculine.” Another response relating to gender and sport appropriateness, in reference to a female covering volleyball, noted, “Because volleyball is generally viewed as a feminine sport, it is important that it is covered by a female to ensure effectiveness.” These findings lend credence to Heilman’s (2001) claim that job success could be evaluated by considering what is prescribed as the abilities required to perform the tasks, in conjunction with the impression of intangible qualities such as one’s gender. Therefore, if there is an imbalance in matching an individual’s gender and abilities, employers may underrate the individual’s achievements—or neglect to attribute proper credit when warranted—due to a gender bias.
Gender studies have also shown that women are often perceived as being ripe with caring and friendly attributes (Ely, Ibarra, & Kolb, 2011; Hardin & Whiteside, 2012). Yet when demonstrating more assertiveness, a characteristic associated with masculinity, they can be labeled as cutthroat (Rudman & Glick, 2001). This infers that—not only does gender play a role in job-performance appraisal—adherence to associated prototypical behaviors also influences such evaluation. For female sports journalists, the coverage of a certain type of sport, hence, influenced perceptions of adequate prototype fit. In other words, agentic attributes that are perceived to be more in line with males are an important quality necessary for competently carrying out “masculine” duties (Eagly & Karau, 2002). By contrast, communal attributes that are seen as being in alignment with females are deemed more suited for taking on “feminine” tasks (Rudman & Glick, 2001).
Though males were regarded as more suitable to cover football, the fact that women were not perceived to be lacking in trustworthiness or expertise in covering football may be indicative of changing mind-sets toward female sports reporters. This finding contradicts prior work, which claimed that female reporters are perceived to lack competence in covering male-appropriate sports (Claringbould & Knoppers, 2012; Ordman & Zillman, 1994). It also seems to reflect the increased presence of female [End Page 94] sportscasters who cover both intercollegiate and professional football games, as they host commentary shows as moderators, present feature reports, or report games live from the sidelines; some female sportscasters also cohost game discussion with male sportscasters. This greater presence of female sports journalists in conducting football coverage could influence greater social acceptance of such presence over time across all offline and online media platforms alike.
Not unlike their female counterparts, the interaction between reporter gender and gender-appropriate sports coverage did not impact perceived trustworthiness or expertise of male sports reporters. However, our findings also reveal that men face similar negative perceptions if they trespass the boundary of gender-appropriate sports coverage. That is, a male football reporter was of greater likelihood than a male volleyball reporter to generate reader loyalty. This finding hence further indicates the impact of gender type in reporter roles, as reflected by perceived congruence between gender and gender-appropriate sports coverage.
Unlike prior research findings (Davis & Krawcyzk, 2010; Hahn & Cummins, 2014), this study’s results also showed that physical attractiveness had no influence on perceived trustworthiness or expertise for female sports reporters. This seems to suggest a shift away from the prior sexist notion that women lack the necessary expertise to excel in sports media and may rely on their looks to develop a sports-media career (Claringbould & Knoppers, 2012; Toro, 2005). Furthermore, results also showed how physical attractiveness was found to be associated with favorable audience behavior—such as a desire to follow a reporter on social media—or read the reporter’s work in the future.
Thus, our findings suggest that physical attractiveness is an important characteristic for print sports reporters in the news platforms online, despite their lack of regular face time on a big television screen. However, as print news has undergone a convergent shift and become part of sports-media organizations’ multimedia platform, all newspaper websites now contain news videos. It is not uncommon to see “print” journalists performing video features that are showcased as online content.
Given the current findings about physical attractiveness and female print sports journalists, there are particularly intriguing industry and social implications about this phenomenon. First, as many print journalists now appear in sports-news videos online and are featured with a photo alongside their bylines in their online stories, their physical appearance could now play a more important role in building audience following than before. Second, as physical attractiveness could give female reporters an [End Page 95] edge in cultivating audience loyalty, similar to the notion of “sex sells” (Cunningham, Fink, & Kenix, 2008), these findings may suggest that career advancement opportunities for women in sports media will remain limited. Lastly, for those female print reporters who may lack physically attractive features but have strong journalistic abilities, they could face another glass ceiling associated with physical attractiveness.
This study has several limitations. First, the generalizations of study findings are limited to the college-student population. Second, even though college students can be loyal supporters of their sports teams, they may not be heavy readers of sports news. Thus, an experiment in which participants were instructed to read a news article might capture the sports-news consumption habit for avid fans but not for the more casual ones. Third, the presentation of a beat reporter providing a game recap may not be the most conducive approach for measuring expertise in the sports-media realm. Presenting an opinion piece pitting a male columnist against a female columnist might elicit a stronger contrast in terms of perceived credibility. Lastly, the current study focused on volleyball and football as female and male gender-appropriate college sports, respectively. Since volleyball is not a sport that is heavily followed by most, regardless of gender appropriateness and especially in comparison to football, this discrepancy in popularity of sport type could have reduced our ability to generate statistically more significant findings to support additional hypotheses.
Practical and Research Implications
As sports participation and consumption among women has become prevalent (Acosta & Carpenter, 2014), it is reasonable to anticipate that this could lead to a carryover effect to increase the profile of women’s sport as a whole. To that extent, we suggest that notions of sport being a male-dominated entity should dissipate over time, and women in sports media may be less likely to be seen as a novelty as a result. Furthermore, an increased focus on covering women’s sport would benefit all concerned parties, including athletes, advertisers, and the media industry. For instance, ESPN has begun to balance the gender gap by assigning more female sportscasters to anchor, report, or comment on both male and female sports at the intercollegiate and professional levels.
Future research could further validate the current study’s findings. Additional [End Page 96] work could also examine the impact of perceived athletic background on assessments of sports-journalist credibility and the potential corresponding gender differences. Due to the uniqueness of the sports product and the propensity of related media outlets to employ former athletes and coaches (Keene & Cummins, 2009), research on potential gender dissimilarities would continue to add to the growing knowledge base of women in sport and the gender issues associated with sports coverage. Given what we know about the importance of attractiveness in the source-credibility framework, it could be useful to examine the obstacles that may curtail the success of former female athletes who seek ascension in the sports-media industry.
Michael Mudrick (Ph.D., University of Connecticut) is an assistant professor in the Department of Hospitality, Recreation, and Sport Management at York College of Pennsylvania. His research interests include sports-consumer behavior and mass media’s impact on sport.
Carolyn A. Lin (PhD., Michigan State) is a professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Connecticut. Her research and teaching focus on the content, uses, and effects of communication technologies; informatics; risk; and crisis communication, advertising, integrated marketing communication and cross-cultural communication. She is the recipient of a University Distinguished Research Faculty Award and the founder of the Communication Technology Division at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.