Record numbers of women have entered politics since 2016, but there is still an…
Naomi Osaka’s Refusal to Talk to the Media Raises Similar Issues Faced by Women Candidates
Naomi Osaka recently dropped out of the French Open because she did not want to attend required news conferences, due to concerns about her mental health. As I read Osaka’s news, I thought about the impact of the media on women in politics, and whether it is causing qualified candidates – especially women of color – not to run or serve because of how they are often treated, both in terms of the questions they get asked and the coverage they too often receive.
Osaka tweeted, “I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health and this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one. We’re often sat there and asked questions that we’ve been asked multiple times before or asked questions that bring doubt into our minds and I’m just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me.” While many people understood Osaka’s position, others argued that facing the media is simply part of the job. Whether or not you think that media access should be part of being a professional athlete, a closer look should be taken at what happens at those press conferences.
Women tennis players have faced questions from reporters about their racial identity and ethnicity, their clothing and weight. A research project by the International Tennis Federation on gender equality in sports found that “coverage of men’s tennis includes a strong combative narrative and a sense of history, elite competition and achievement…the conversation around women’s competition is less intense and relatively more focused on off-court stories, from health and age to family.”
Those who study the differences in coverage of men and women political candidates may recognize some similarities.
A Times Up study of the 2020 election found that one quarter of coverage of Kamala Harris included racist and sexist stereotyping and tropes. More than one-third – 36 percent – of media coverage focused on Harris’ ancestry.
There has been a lot of research on press coverage of women candidates – in fact, I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the topic in the early 90’s and, nearly 30 years later, I still teach a class about it to college students at American University. There is research on whether the coverage is different and whether it has a negative impact. However, what we don’t know is the impact it has earlier on – on the decision to run.
Whether in sports or politics, in order to have equal representation, things need to change. Just three years ago, Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) fought for, and won, a change to long-standing congressional rules so that she, and any woman of the Senate, could bring a baby to the Senate floor and breastfeed. And this year, only after several women athletes with young children asked for an exception to Japan’s ban on foreign spectators and said it may prevent them from participating in this year’s Olympics did the Tokyo Olympics organizing committee change a rule that would allow those women to bring their children with them.
I recognize there are differences between athletes and politicians. And, I also strongly believe there is a need for transparency from our elected officials and the media plays a key role in ensuring that the public has the information that they deserve. So, I am not arguing that candidates or politicians should stop talking to the press. But, I do think there is a role for the press to play in ensuring that women continue to want to run for office. Reporters have a responsibility to ask questions and cover candidates in a fair and objective way – regardless of the gender or race or ethnicity of the person they are covering. And, we all must recognize that sometimes the rules may need to change – and we need to recognize it is for the better.