Some thoughts about media coverage of Diana Nyad’s swim

On Monday, when Diana Nyad was in the final hours of her historic swim, I was at work.  I work as a web producer for a cable television news station, which means I work in a newsroom with three screens around me: two computer monitors and a television.   I was handling my normal tasks – writing stories and editing photos and such – while keeping an eye on the online media coverage of Nyad’s swim.

Note that I said “online.”  That’s because my television was basically worthless when it came to finding out what was going on. CNN was the only news organization that seemed to dedicate any time to Nyad, dipping in and out to give updates as to what was going on.  The best stuff was happening online with live feeds courtesy of a couple of local NBC affiliates, who were streaming video from the scene live on their websites, and from social media, particularly Nyad’s team, which was very active on both Twitter and Facebook, and Miami reporter Julia Bagg, who was posting updates on Twitter as well.

After a while, I got curious and flipped over to ESPN, figuring that, hey, maybe they’d have something to say about this!  After all, this is a big sporting event! The kind of thing I’d expect the Worldwide Leader of Sports to be all over, in fact.  Alas, I was saddened – but not at all surprised – to see that ESPN decided that the Green Bay Packers’ decision to sign Seneca Wallace as a quarterback was more important.  I checked their website, thinking that maybe I was just tuning in at the wrong time, but instead all they had was a wire story near the bottom of the Headlines section on the front page.  I don’t remember what the main story is, probably because the kind of day-to-day sports coverage ESPN focuses on is the kind of sports coverage that renders me comatose in a matter of seconds.

Every channel I looked at was carrying on as if it was business as usual.  Most of the news websites had wire stories.  I decided to stick with CNN, but then when the moment of truth came, CNN was showing a long view of the crowd on Smathers Beach.  My Twitter feed was erupting with jubilation, while the hosts kept on talking as if she was still swimming.  They didn’t get confirmation that her swim was over until they spoke with a woman on the beach who told them that she had made it. Can I just repeat that?  They did not know the swim was over until a woman walking past told them it was.  But you know, at least they tried.  MSNBC was airing an episode of “Chained to My Ex” while Fox News was probably freaking out over Obamacare again.  TVNewser reports that Fox got around to reporting her feat about an hour after it happened.

After everything had settled down, I was left with the impression was that decision makers in the nation’s newsrooms failed to grasp the momentous nature of what was happening, and they also underestimated the world’s interest in Nyad’s accomplishment.  The fact that so many news outlets began paying close attention after the fact was proof to me that they were caught off-guard by this.

(That said, espnW?  Was all over it. I’m a huge fan of espnW, and it’s not just because they cover female athletes, but because they expand their reach beyond the obvious sports, like basketball, soccer and tennis, to give some love to things like mountain biking, wakeboarding and triathlon. I ❤ you, espnW! Don’t ever change!)

Now, I will say that I understand that there were logistical issues that a non-media professional would probably not be aware of.  For one, this was a holiday weekend, which means a lot of newsrooms were probably short-staffed and so they had to allocate their resources accordingly.  There’s the fact that she was landing on Key West, which is not an easy place to get to, especially during holidays. (Anyone who has ever gotten stuck behind a truck towing a boat while on U.S. 1 can attest to this.)  Then there was the fact that this was her fourth attempt in two years, and that managers probably assumed that this was going to be another quixotic attempt so why bother?  I suspect that CNN sent a crew from their Miami bureau as soon as they realized that odds were in fact quite good that she would be successful this time.

I almost don’t blame the news organizations for being caught flat-footed on this.  I wish they would have done better, but I understand why they didn’t.  Maybe I’m cutting them some slack because I work in the industry?  Probably.  I can acknowledge my own biases and admit that maybe I’m being myopic as a result.

But ESPN?  The Worldwide Leader in Sports?  They all but ignored one of the biggest sports stories of the year in favor of obsessing over the minutiae of  professional football.  (Maybe that’s part of their relationship with the NFL, along with pulling out of doing actual journalism if it runs the risk of making the league look bad.)  That is just astounding to me, and truly it sums up so much of what I dislike about mainstream sports culture in the United States, which is that we idolize a handful of men who are good at playing one of a few select sports, and we basically ignore everyone else.  And don’t get me started on the absurdity of the fact that “being really into sports” usually means one watches hours of sports programming but doesn’t actually play any sports yourself.

Do I think the lack of live coverage about Diana Nyad’s swim was fueled by a general indifference to female athletes?  I don’t know. I have to say that I think the fact that she’s an endurance swimmer is probably a more likely culprit.  After all, endurance swimming is a sport where records and milestones are being set all the time but if you don’t pay attention to specific corners of the internet, you’d never know that any of this was happening at all.   Certainly there is a huge gender-based discrepancy when it comes to sports media coverage, especially when you consider the way commentators will spend more time talking about a single football game than it actually takes to play the game itself while barely mentioning women’s basketball or soccer, but there’s also a huge discrepancy when it comes the kind of sports that get play.  The big four – and occasionally golf and tennis – get the obsessive-to-the-point-of-meaninglessness coverage, and everyone else can go fuck yourself, at least until it’s time for the Olympics, when we’ll talk about how inspiring and awesome and hardworking you all are again.

As a sports fan who doesn’t much care to watch football and as an athlete myself, I find all of this incredibly frustrating.  If you ask sports fans why they love to watch sports, they’ll tell you they love the drama of it, they love the passion, the fearlessness, the beauty of seeing physical bodies doing these difficult things for which they’ve been highly trained to do.  But we have become so locked into this sports-entertainment industrial complex and all of the money it makes for a handful of elites, that when something actually happens that embodies all of the things we love about sports, no one is there to cover it.  Maybe if Tim Tebow had been there or if Miley Cyrus had humped a foam finger, we might have gotten some live coverage.  Who knows.

I’m not the only one who was frustrated and irritated by this.  I’ve seen other discussions of this elsewhere on the internet.  In addition, here’s a great post that just came across my Facebook feed that talks about this too, in the context of the missed opportunity to show a woman doing something magnificent.  And I think a comment in this article about an Oregon woman who completed the Oceans Seven is relevant here as well:

Thanks, Conner, for bringing us the story of yet another human being that makes our society a more interesting, more exciting place. Her accomplishments are great, and I hope she has many more.

The point of the media is not just to tell about all of the terrible things that happen around us – the murders and the war and the child rapes and all that – and it’s not supposed to be just about making as much money as possible for our corporate overlords.  It’s to reflect the world back to us as accurately as possible, and part of being accurate is to show that people are also capable of wondrous things, of committing acts of goodness and beauty, of achieving incredible, awe-inspiring feats.  They had a clear opportunity to do precisely that, and they failed.

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13 responses to “Some thoughts about media coverage of Diana Nyad’s swim

  1. I just posted this link to my FB page, which is read by many journo’s, male and female, and two women sportswriters.

    You say it well.

    But I think you cut our media business FAR too much slack. Key West is not that difficult to get to — stringers!? Between Twitter and a $20/hr pair of “legs” assigned to that story, it could easily have been reported in real time, and well. It’s a question of priorities — and women athletes who are not young/cute/$$$$$-winners are rarely seen anywhere in the mainstream media. If I started to make a list off the top of my head…Lindsay Vonn (now mostly mentioned becs she’s dating Tiger Woods), Michelle Wie, Se Ri Pak and the many other young phenom/Korean women golfers….and now…I start to sputter….Couldn’t even get to the fingers of one hand.

    If it’s not the US Open or the Olympics, we’re invisible. And a woman of 64…OMG. Of course, she could do it. She’s. An. Athlete.

    • Yeah, I suspect I am taking it too easy on the industry. I think I’m mostly trying to cover all of my ass by saying that I know what the decision-making processes probably were like, even if I wouldn’t have agreed with them or the outcome.

  2. “we idolize a handful of men who are good at playing one of a few select sports, and we basically ignore everyone else.”
    THIS SO MUCH. I hate that there’s little to no coverage of the WNBA, women’s soccer, or even men’s sports like swimming, cycling, and gymnastics. I hate tuning into Sports Center only to hear off-season analysis of last year’s national championship men’s basketball game when there are lots of athletes out there doing amazing things in track, skiing, and figure skating. The common defense of networks doing this is that “no one watches” those sports. Well, maybe people would watch them if they knew they existed during non-Olympic years.

    • Agree with this completely. I could write a graduate thesis on how badly ESPN has actually F”&ked the wide world of sports (pun intended).

    • Exactly. The “we’re just providing what the market demands” is a real cop-out, because it ignores the fact that the market demand is influenced by a variety of factors, including advertising, culture and availability. I have grown extremely weary of the way that rationale is used to excuse some very gross trends in capitalist media.

      And yeah, it’s not just female athletes who pay the price. So many male athletes lose out under this system too.

  3. Great post! I am NOT a sports fan. Oh, I enjoy the occasional live sporting event (which is usually less than once a year and always locally based,) but I never watch televised sports. That includes the Olympics, because even though I enjoy watching the games, I get bored and frustrated by the coverage. However, I found Dian Nyad’s story fascinating, because it is sport – but it is also so much more than that, it is also a wonderful story of what humans can accomplish when they put their minds to it. The challenge, the training, the “not giving up” – all of that is riveting. What the networks should have realized is that her story, and ones like it, are of interest to sports fans – but also an opportunity to reach the rest of us. Everyone loves a great story, and this was one that should have had people glued to their screens.

    • That’s a good point, about how this is an opportunity to cover something that transcends sports and reaches out to a wider non-sports-fan audience. It’s real life drama and we humans eat that shit up. And the good thing about this drama unlike a lot of other real life drama that we humans eat up is that no one died or suffered some grotesque injustice to make it happen.

  4. Love the piece and agree with your point mostly. This one got laughing (as a guy who managed to play a couple sports through college and into my early 40’s): “And don’t get me started on the absurdity of the fact that “being really into sports” usually means one watches hours of sports programming but doesn’t actually play any sports yourself.”

    I know. Off the main point but provides a huge window into the problem of ESPN and what it’s done to sports broadcasting. Safe to say I HATE ESPN but shrug my shoulders at it’s place in the “watcher” pantheon.

    But back to the coverage issue, since I swim, your point about record acheivement is right on and I know what’s going on in big open water swimming all the time. My facebook was blowing up mid-swim, because I have a ton of friends that swim. We thought everyone would think it was a cool, even if fanciful (because of DN’s previous failed tries) feat.

    Nah. The guys on ESPN’s national morning radio show gave her a verbal high-5 after she finished, but before moving on to “NFL minutiae,” their producer chimed in saying why did everyone think it was such a big deal, “It’s just swimming.” This from a guy in his 20’s who’s probably never done anything for three straight hours, let alone 53 straight hours. There’s no frame of reference on the mental challenge of such an accomplishment, let alone the physical feat being so severely uncomfortable.

    It reminded me of the early 2000’s when Lance was propelling bicycle stage racing into the national consciousness (sorry if that dredges up a bad taste in the mouth for anyone). I remember an ESPN football figure say “who cares, anyone could ride a bike with those guys.”

    But that’s the “watcher” mentality. Men watch documentaries on the Navy Seals and their several week weeding process and think, “with the right training, I could do that” not realizing that the military is testing the will and mental toughness of these candidates, and not the physical part.

    Sorry if I am rambling here, but I just drank a Full Throttle, so give me break. I am also sorry if this dilutes your feminist thesis on the subject a little too. But I believe it’s just possible here that the only reason she got as much coverage as she did was because she’s female and she’s 64!

    As always, keep up the good writing.

    • Thank you! You make a good point about the “holy shit” factor that might have come into play with regards to Nyad’s age and gender. I would like to think that this accomplishment is big enough that it would have received attention no matter who did it, but honestly I really have no other huge thing like this to which I can draw a comparison. The closest I can think of is Felix Baumgartner’s jump from space, but he had the benefit of having a huge corporation and a partnership with the Discovery Channel to amplify what he was doing. It’s hard to say but it’s definitely something to consider.

      If you are into open water swimming then you know what I mean when I say things happen all the time that go unremarked upon, like the fact that – what, four people? – have completed the Oceans Seven. That’s just bananas to me and yet no one outside of the OWS community seems to care!

      And the rest of your comment is just spot-on. I had to laugh at your recounting of the producers being all “bah, swimming the Florida Strait is no big deal” or “riding the Tour de France is zzzzz.” Yeah, any schlub on a Schwinn can ride at 30+ mph up a huge mountain. Any asshole can put on some water wings and dog-paddle 100 miles. Totally, bro, you’ve got it figured out, lol.

  5. An older woman performing epic feats of physical endurance is not news. Older women are not valued by our society so how could their actions be newsworthy?

  6. I was so excited to see she finally finished it! (I had read about her earlier attempt, the one where she had to stop because she was stung by a jellyfish, I think, and may have read about the one before that, too. Anyway, I’d been following her story for a while.)

    I don’t watch any TV news, so all I see is either on the Internet (which is mostly the feminist and disability blogospheres, so, not the best source of All the News) or in my local newspaper. (I read a newspaper. My family subscribes to one. All y’all in the media business should love me now.) It was in the paper that I found out about Diana Nyad. (Also, with that name, she HAD to be a long-distance swimmer!)

    If I had to come up with a reason why TV news didn’t cover her feat live, I would’ve guessed it was just the nature of her sport. Watching a woman swim for more than two days would be really bad TV, even if it is an awesome feat of athleticism. But then, watching a bunch of guys riding bikes for days isn’t exactly riveting either, and people manage to cover the Tour de France. So maybe it is just that the sports media is run by a bunch of dudes who don’t care about women they don’t find attractive.

    Anyway, SO GLAD she made it!

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