Donna Symonds on Diversity in Sports Coverage

UNESCO is pleased to make the audio and text of this interview available copyright-free for the celebration of World Radio Day 2018. Radio stations are especially encouraged to broadcast the interview, either in its totality or by extracting the answers and announcing the questions themselves.

UNESCO spoke to Donna Symonds. She is a lawyer and sports commentator from Barbados. Hailed as one of the pioneers, she first did radio commentary on tennis in 1985. In a career spanning over 3 decades, Donna has commented on many sports including tennis, road tennis and cricket to name a few.


What has been your experience as a sports broadcaster? Was it difficult being a woman broadcaster?

It has been mostly positive. Certainly sometimes it has been difficult but it’s different all the same to being a male broadcaster, particularly on television where how you look and what you are wearing and those sorts of things are seen sometimes to be paramount. But as you go on in the business, you get used to that, and once you show that you are competent, able, know your sport and that you are enjoying it and people respond to you, I think that after a while, it becomes to them something that is routine.

How did your listeners react to a woman talking about sports?

I think it was mixed initially with a number of them expressing some surprise. Particularly because cricket had been a traditionally male-dominated sport.

Were you ever stereotyped? Is there any particular incidents that you would like to share?

Yes, I can tell you that sometimes you sign up and your contract says that you’re supposed to be doing cricket commentary or tennis commentary or whatever, and then when you go there, you’re told by the producer that “We just want you to interview people, just stay around and find people to talk to”, and that’s not the arrangement. Sometimes you have to push back. I have to say that I do remember that I had experienced something that was quite surprising where you’re picked on a commentary panel, and the production team says “No no no, we are not having any females here”, and I have to say that to their great credit – and that did happen to me once – the males on the commentary team said “if she’s not working, we are not working” and that situation was quickly resolved.

So what do you think of the way of women’s sports are covered? How much coverage does women’s sports get in the Caribbean?

In the past, I think the coverage was often very perfunctory and you would often only just get scores and the results talked about, just mentioned in a sports broadcast. Now it is much improved with not just reports and some analysis, but sometimes you get previews, live coverage and post-game analysis, and it’s treated fairly equally. But it can still be improved.

How much is the coverage for the grassroots?

Media in the Caribbean have taken the position, and rightly so, that they do have a responsibility to cater to public need, and what is of public interest, and they do cover grassroots sports, I would think again mostly football, mostly cricket but then other things as well have come into play. One would have to say that is an area that has increased over the ten to fifteen years.

Shall I say that there is coverage of cultural or traditional sports in the Caribbean?

We have a particular sport which we think is pretty indigenous to Barbados – road tennis, which is covered quite extensively now, a number of competitions are played and it’s been promoted more and more. As a result of that, public interest has gone up in it and it has taken off, and is covered more and more. Public interest really drives commercial media and it’s something that has to be from the grassroots itself. Those persons involved in that sport really have to push to have their game and their sport covered. What I will also say, though, is that with the improvements in social media and technology, there has been an uptick in reporting from such grassroots tournament and competitions, where persons who attend and budding journalists will go, they’ll do their own thing, and they’ll produce that media content to radio stations and other media and they will take it. That has helped in term of what those freelancers do - working with traditional sports media and it really opens up opportunities to young journalists to practice their craft and to grow. .

Why do you think it’s important to cover a broader range of sports?

Because it’s public demand and it is also incumbent on the media to understand. I think their mandate which is I think is certainly looking at this public interest. And therefore if there are these sports being played, then I think there is a duty for the media, particularly the public media but also private, to cover what your population is engaged in, what is of interest to your consumers. It’s a mandate that the media has and it’s something that they must take seriously and pursue.

There have been examples where sports has actually helped in social inclusion and integration. Can you share with us such examples from the Caribbean?

The Caribbean is made up of a number of disparate islands, most with independent governments and a wonderful mix of people of different ethnic origins. Because of our small size and populations, we often come together as one team. As a result, communities, races, they learn about each other and remain friends, colleagues, citizens. Media coverage of the life and times of so many in our sporting world show that coming together – the long lasting friendships, how they interact with each other’s families, their respect and admiration for each other. It certainly helps to show how much stronger and better it is when people work together and act together.

Do you think if we talk about it from the media’s perspective, media coverage of such stories can actually help in sending positive messages?

Without a doubt – that is the very point. The fact that you hear of young people coming together, different races, sometimes they have some enmity, they have associated into different groups, but they come together, they play their football, they become friends – and things change. So yes, it’s a very important aspect of the media shining a light on sports and what it can do and how it can bring people in societies together!