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Levelling the Playing Field – By Emma Young

Levelling the Playing Field – By Emma Young

Dixie Marshall will never forget the shock of male reporters and the general public when she began sports reporting in Melbourne in the 1980s. Marshall remembers being spat on and getting death threats in her first year covering Australian Football League games.

She says the first time she turned up in an AFL change room, there was chaos; overloaded switchboards and letters to the editor followed. All this, she says, “Simply because a chick wanted to have a crack at doing what the boys did.” She hadn’t played the game, so how could she possibly report on it?

She did report on it, and successfully. Over the next 25 years, Marshall won awards for sports reporting as she rose through the ranks at Channels Seven and Nine to become Channel Nine’s senior news presenter. She gave the game away earlier this year to become the WA Government’s media director.

Marshall had a tough time starting out as a young sports reporter. But how much has changed for women reporting sport in Australia?

These questions and more were raised when more than 70 media and sports-women, and a handful of men, gathered at Patersons Stadium on July 27 for Women in Media’s 20th event, Levelling the Playing Field: Women in sports broadcasting.

Warm and dry in the John Worsfold room, overlooking a rain-lashed football field, WIM members caught up and networked over wine and canapés before assembling to hear WIM’s Victoria Laurie welcome Marshall to lead the discussion.

Marshall represents a time in sports reporting that, at first glance, is far away from this evening; and women of both hers and a new generation were eager to hear what she and her panelists had to say.

She introduced panel members Roanna Edwards, from the ABC’s Grandstand, and Caty Price, sports reporter with Channel Ten – “the princess of the punt”.

“These girls weren’t born when I went to Melbourne in 1986,” Marshall joked, as she kicked off a discussion ranging over concerns about tokenism and role models, making decisions about which sports to cover and how to cover them, and women’s treatment of each other as sports reporters.

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Do female sports journalists ever feel like “token” representatives of their gender?

“I’m a woman and Indigenous, and if I cut off my arm and was homosexual, I’d be the whole package,” Roanna Edwards says, but she refuses to let ideas about tokenism define her success. She started as a cadet at the Geraldton Guardian before taking up an Indigenous traineeship at the ABC, and at the end of the traineeship she had to earn her position.

“There were no guarantees. I had to work my butt off,” she says. “I’m comfortable knowing that I’m [in this job] because of the work that I do.”

Should female sports reporters be role models, or is their responsibility to their jobs alone?

Edwards rejects this pressure outright. “I’m not a women’s advocate,” she says. “I love sport and I cover what I’m interested in.” Caty Price agrees, saying although she enjoys covering minority sports, it is unacceptable to give them “charity” coverage that they neither want nor warrant.

Price, Channel Ten’s weekend sports presenter, started out as a news reporter and reader but realised she was more interested in sports than politics. She made a name for herself covering sports, winning numerous awards for her AFL reporting. She says as a commercial broadcaster, she has to consider ratings and that the public interest, not discrimination, is the deciding factor for what to cover.

Price and Edwards want to be judged on their merit and ability to work in a sometimes hostile world, and accept compromise as part of this. Price says as modern culture worships celebrities, sportspeople must accept they will be viewed as role models. “You can’t have it both ways,” she says.

Female sports journalists face a similar problem. Their primary loyalty remains with doing their jobs well to advance their careers, rather than practising “campaign journalism”.

But, by simply doing their jobs, are women sports reporters advocates for their colleagues and for women’s sports? And is there more they can – or should – do?
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Marshall and audience member Miriam Borthwick have both had successful journalism careers that, no doubt, have involved both accepting the conditions they worked in and knowing when to reject them. Yet they both thought it hard to separate the roles of advocate and journalist.

Borthwick, a former ABC journalist, asked why women sports reporters can’t cover women’s and minority sports more fully as a result of being aware firsthand of discrimination in coverage. She says that public interest often equates to “white middle-aged males’ interests”, and reporters have both the opportunity and the responsibility regardless of gender to be mindful of imbalance in their reporting. She says reporters often follow what is thought to be mainstream, when in fact they are reflecting a narrow view – that of the often white middle-aged male editors.

The discussion revealed the complexities of being a female sports journalist, a job that resists definition and prescription at every turn. It was clear there would be no easy answers to the challenges raised, including the next:

Are women hardest on their own, expecting each other to resist the pressure to focus only on the AFL, that most mainstream of Australian sports?

As with much of the discussion, there was much disagreement and no clear conclusion. Yet it was clear that though they have diverse and strongly held views, all women present have thought deeply about these issues in the course of their careers. This mindfulness, as Borthwick says, is the first step towards good journalism.

Recently elected MEAA WA president Martin Turner spoke briefly and echoed the sentiments of Edwards and Price, who want primarily to be recognised for their work as journalists. Speaking about the changing roles of modern journalists, he said that more than ever they needed to be supported in these roles and “wedded to their craft”.

WIM thanks Lamont’s winery and Secrets Shhh for the door prizes and gifts.

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As a young journalist mentored through participating and reporting on this WIM event, it seems to me that it’s a long time since Dixie Marshall was first jeered at in a locker room, yet some things appear not to have changed. Roanna Edwards and Caty Price do not face overt abuse but still encounter the old attitudes towards female sports reporters – if you do not play sport, you can’t report well on it; though, as Price says, plenty of male broadcasters seem to escape being held to this standard.

Far from generating a feeling of every (wo)man for themselves, the comradeship in the room remained strong at night’s end. There was value in simply having the discussion, even when no definitive answers were possible, and the respect the women had for one another was clear.