An analysis of tennis press conferences hints that, relative to men, women are asked fewer questions about the game—and more questions about their parents.
By Nathan Collins
Professional tennis player Andy Murray reacts to a reporter’s question after a match at the 2014 Shanghai Rolex Masters. (Photo: Kevin Lee/Getty Images)
Professional sports are still dominated by men. Guys are paid more—and receive more coverage in the media—than their female counterparts. But the inequality doesn’t only surface in the dollars or the screen time: According to new research, men field much more serious questions from sports reporters than women.
“Gender bias is an increasingly important issue in sports journalism,” write Cornell University computer scientists Liye Fu, Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, Lillian Lee in a paper presented at the 2016 Natural Language Processing Meets Journalism workshop in New York City.
But quantifying that bias has proven difficult. While the Cover the Athlete campaign asserts that women are much more likely than men to get asked about who they’d date, at least one analysis of ESPN sports coverage suggested men, not women, were more likely to be described in terms of physical appearance and personal lives.
So who’s right? To find out, Fu, Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, and Lee turned their attention to tennis, where they analyzed transcripts of post-match interviews with both male and female players. Tennis, they point out, is one of the few sports in which men and women get roughly equal coverage, which makes for a stronger test than, say, basketball.
Words like “clay,” “greatest,” and “volley” were much more likely to pop up in questions for male players.
But more important than the sport they chose was the team’s method: Rather than watch and read coverage and make potentially subjective judgment calls, the computer scientists analyzed transcripts from post-match press conferences to see what words reporters used most.
As a first pass, the team looked at how frequently individual words showed up in reporters’ questions. The results “seem to suggest that questions journalists pose to male players are more game-related,” the researchers write. Words like “clay,” “greatest,” and “volley” were much more likely to pop up in questions for male players, while “fight,” “love,” and “mom” were much more likely to show up when talking with female players.
Of course, it’s possible (if not especially plausible) this disparity reflects differences in the particular matches in question. To control for that, the researchers next compared reporters’ questions to the words used in play-by-play commentary from the British sports website Sports Mole. Specifically, they used a measure called perplexity. Intuitively, “How about your serve, Rafa?” is a low-perplexity question, while “Who designed your clothes today?” is not.
As the initial results suggested, women do get more perplexing, non-game-related questions than men, even after controlling for other factors, such as player rank. Although the difference is more pronounced among lower-ranked players, top-10 men still hear fewer high-perplexity questions than top-10 women.
The study is by no means the final word, the authors caution; it’s based entirely on one sport, and then only on reporters’ questions during post-match press conferences. Nonetheless, it provides some of the first hard evidence that sports reporters ask men more serious questions than women.