Wick Communications

Body image and the press

In journalism on 16 Jul 2015 at 12:56 pm

Screen Shot 2015-07-16 at 12.17.22 PM

Boy, did The New York Times step into a swamp with what I at first thought a fairly benign story on Serena Williams, female athletes and body image.

The story quoted several professional tennis players who said they refused to lift weights and work on greater strength training necessary to combat the juggernaut that is Williams. Williams, of course, is perhaps greatest tennis player of all time. She has a famously powerful build and it’s easy to assume that build has something to do with the power she generates. So why don’t her competitors take steps to increase their own power through weight-training and so on?

It turns out that at least some of them are afraid they will lose their girlish figures. That is quite a statement from enlightened professional women in the year 2015.

The Times story appeared below the fold, buried in sports. It wasn’t a long story. It felt kind of perfunctory, to me. The response was vitriolic, however.

Hundreds of readers took the newspaper to task for failing to challenge the stereotypes or that a female athlete should be some kind of delicate flower. …

New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan chimed in with this: “… It’s unfortunate that this piece didn’t find a way to challenge the views expressed, instead of simply mirroring them.”

OK, look. I am fascinated by this topic. And I think the story could have been better, too, but not by a direct challenge to those who think Williams looks like a brute. Let those caveman buy themselves with their own words. Times Editor Jason Stillman similarly bristled when questioned on NPR. He said Sullivan’s suggestion that his reporter take sides flew in the face of 150 years of journalism at the Times.

“There is a suggestion that it’s our role to fight this battle,” he told Sullivan in her blog. “But this wasn’t a column or an editorial.”

I mostly agree with Stillman. I don’t think the timing of Wimbledon has anything to do with whether this is a worthwhile story. I don’t think it’s a newspaper writer’s job to question public stereotypes, nor do I think he should ignore sensitive topics because it will tick off some readers. If readers aren’t opening the newspaper to challenge their presumptions, well, then what are they paying for?

The takeaway is twofold. First, we can always do better with sensitive topics like this. That doesn’t me we shouldn’t try. Secondly, our critics have become used to partisan news sources and come to expect that is the norm. That doesn’t make it right. I think the Times’ story by its very existence challenged normative thinking.




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