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March’s media bias

Special to The Times

This time of year people at the office ask me the same question they ask many of their colleagues: Who do you have in the Final Four?

My answer: Which one?

I have two Final Four lineups -- one bracket for the men and one for the women. As the tournaments near a conclusion, again my handicapping has crashed on the rocks of reality.

Good thing I follow the NCAA basketball tournaments not for the payoff, but because I’m a newshound who likes sports. Men’s sports have a larger fan base than women’s, and I understand that the media respond proportionately in coverage.

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I also understand why the media exercise the poor news judgment of not covering a terrific story by making a judgment based on the player’s gender. It’s what I call the male default.

How else to explain a local TV sports segment last week? After the obligatory hand-wringing over the Lakers’ latest swoon, the rest of the sports budget was scores and game footage from the National Invitation Tournament. You know, the one they hold for all the second-rate Division I teams that couldn’t make the NCAA cut? Apparently, the slender local angle of the Cal State Fullerton men being bounced from the NIT by Georgetown in Washington, D.C., arena was news enough to spike any mention, much less footage and analysis, of three better stories that happened concurrently in the women’s NCAA tournament.

I’d be happier if the station had decided not to cover these stories out of an embarrassing provincialism, but I know better. A media culture in which the default was gender-neutral would have reported that Pat Summitt, head women’s coach of perennial powerhouse Tennessee, had achieved singular college sports status that night, winning the 880th game of her career, and surpassing the all-time victory record of legendary men’s coach Dean Smith of North Carolina.

Another good story that day was that the Rutgers women -- the Scarlet Knights -- beat the Temple Owls. I don’t expect a sportscaster to puzzle over the curious image of girls in chain mail, as I might, but is it unreasonable to expect delivery of the news? Rutgers is coached by the venerable C. Vivian Stringer, who was assistant coach of the 2004 Olympic women’s basketball team. You know, the only U.S. basketball team that won a gold medal last year? Last week Rutgers snapped the 25-game winning streak of the Owls, who are coached by WNBA player Dawn Staley, who also played point guard on Stringer’s Olympic team.

And though I don’t expect most news outlets to enjoy, if not indulge, as I might, the delicious karmic quality of evangelical Christian Liberty knocking off the DePaul Blue Demons, isn’t the news value of Chancellor Jerry Falwell’s No. 13-seeded team wiping out a No. 5 to be worthy of mention? On Saturday two thrilling NCAA men’s games deservedly claimed primacy. Both local newscasts I saw that night began coverage along the lines of, “In NCAA tournament action, the Cinderella team from West Virginia lost to Louisville, and Arizona collapsed against Illinois.”

No gender distinction -- what Mary Bucholtz, associate professor of linguistics at UC Santa Barbara, calls “gender marking” -- was made, even though women’s games were played that day too. Ditto the situation Sunday evening, when both TV sportscasts I watched, as well as National Public Radio on Monday morning, defaulted to the male reference, reporting the NCAA Final Four to have been determined. Well, they were half right: The women’s Final Four weren’t set until Tuesday. No TV newscast I watched so much as mentioned the women’s NCAA weekend action.

I don’t expect reporters to be charmed, as I might be, that only men fulfill the role of “Cinderella” on their way to “the Big Dance,” but I must question the news judgment of airing a report of an Easter egg hunt at a NASCAR race, and footage of an Indiana high school basketball game instead of all the big collegiate news.

People employ gender ID “based on normative expectations,” Bucholtz says. “Language tells us about society and the way you think gender is organized.”

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When for 12 consecutive years the women’s Final Four tournaments have sold out; when 49.5% of people admitted to medical school are female; when the lawyers and judges cast for “Law & Order” are regularly and unremarkably female, I submit that the fair and proportionate coverage of news is normal. When media language chronically defaults by gender, it sells our culture short.

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Ellen Alperstein is an editor with the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service. She can be reached at weekend@latimes.com


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