Top sports journalists share career insights at CCLP forum on Women & Communication Leadership

This article was written by CCLP intern Faith Jessie, a USC Annenberg senior majoring in Public Relations, and CCLP web editor Elizabeth Krane.

Women are still fighting to break into sports journalism, an industry that has historically been dominated by men. According to a study done by the Women’s Media Center, 90% of sports editors are male. The 2012 Associated Press Sports Editors Racial and Gender Report Card gave an F grade for gender representation in sports columnists and editors.

But as NFL Network host Lindsay Rhodes pointed out, “We’re all proof that if you work hard and you’re persistent, you’ll find your way.” Rhodes was among the five women working in sports journalism who joined our March 11 panel discussion “Off the Bench: Women & Sports Journalism”.

Rhodes, a two-time Emmy winner for sports reporting, was joined by Janis Carr, sports writer for The Orange County Register; Robyn Norwood, sports writer and the only woman president of the US Basketball Writers Association; Kari Van Horn, producer and content editor for Yahoo Sports; and Jill Painter Lopez, twice named one of the top ten US sports columnists by the Associated Press Sports Editors.

The conversation was hosted by CCLP Director and USC professor Geoffrey Cowan and moderated by CCLP senior fellow, author and journalist Narda Zacchino, with an introduction from Annenberg Journalism School Director Michael Parks.

Ears perked up when Narda Zacchino shared her experience of being one of only two women in a news room of 60 people when she started at the Los Angeles Times. Janis Carr added that she remembered a time when she was denied access to the Green Bay Packers locker room when trying to report on the game, and Robyn Norwood shared that when she started out in sports journalism, employers actively sought to meet quotas for “women and minority hires”.

Zacchino then asked the panelists how they felt about lists like the Bleacher Report’s “50 Hottest Female Sports Broadcasters”, and the room erupted in laughter when Rhodes joked that the panelists would be staying for a photoshoot after the discussion. Janis Carr suggested that many young women starting out in broadcast journalism contribute to the problem by choosing to wear revealing outfits, most likely in an effort to get ahead in a very competitive field. Jill Painter Lopez added, “Like in any industry, you need to dress the way you want to be perceived.”

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Kari Van Horn shared a shocking anecdote about seeing a journalist cry on set because she was prohibited from reporting on camera because her hair wasn’t straightened. “I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly,” said Van Horn. She learned early on that to work as a woman in sports journalism, “I had to muscle up.”

Turning to the topic of social media, Jill Painter Lopez summed it up well: “Now you don’t just have to be good at your job; you need a fan base too.” Janis Carr pointed out another way that social media has changed how journalists do their job: “A lot of athletes now are breaking stories themselves on Twitter.” The panelists agreed that getting a scoop or breaking a story is harder than it’s ever been. Robyn Norwood added, “And once you do break a story, it’s gone in two minutes.” On a positive note, Kari Van Horn shared that she’s found online interactions between female fans and sports journalists are “almost always positive,” and that female sports fans “do exist and they’re trying to get their voice out there.”

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A student asked Van Horn, “Earlier you said you had thick skin. What other characteristics are important to succeeding?” Van Horn suggested, “Show up early. Ask to do more when your job is done. Ask if you can stay late and clean up.” Van Horn said she did about 20 internships while at USC, without owning a car, so “it can be done!” The other panelists agreed that internships offered an excellent opportunity for aspiring journalists.

Students stayed late after the discussion to thank the panelists and talk with them one-on-one.

Professor Cowan ended the panel by thanking everyone for attending, and noting that the issues brought up in the discussion were important not only for sports journalists or women in journalism, but for all journalists.