The Media's Olympics

Aug 22, 2008

Sunday morning August 10, the Washington Post offered readers a front page story about US swimmer Michael Phelps’ gold medal victory in the 400-meter individual medley, the first of eight he would earn at the Beijing summer Olympics.

“There might have been a more spectacular and thoroughly dominant manner in which Michael Phelps could have begun his Olympics on Sunday morning,” the piece began, “but that seems unlikely.” 

The following morning, on NBC’s Today show from Beijing, Ann Curry reported on Phelps’ second medal victory with a fixation on numerology. “In a country where eight is a lucky number, Michael Phelps’ improbable quest for a record eight gold medals hinged on teammate Jason Lezak's anchor leg swim…By eight lucky and dramatic hundredths of a second, Lezak out-touched the trash-talking French, shattering the world record, and delivering Phelps his second gold of the games.”

The mania only grew from there. And by the time the week was out, Michael Phelps would dwarf all other American athletes multiple times in media attention.

How has the U.S. press covered the Olympics Games? To what extent did the news media take the opportunity to cover the country of China while they were there? And how has U.S. coverage differed from that in other countries?

To get answers, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism conducted a special analysis of coverage of the Olympics and China generally in the week leading up to the Games and during the first week of competition.

The study finds that the coverage has been heavily tilted toward just three areas of competition—swimming, gymnastics and track and field. No other sport has attracted much news coverage at all. The games were also dominated by a single athlete, Michael Phelps, with virtually no one else really emerging as a major figure, including the star female gymnasts.

Read the complete findings The Media's Olympics on the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism Web site.

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