Why do the Paralympics get so little media attention in the United States?

Hunter Woodhall of the United States leads the 4x100m race before the team was disqualified, giving the victory to the squad from Germany. Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

Have you heard about the 1500-meter world championship run in which each of the top four competitors crossed the line faster than the winner of the Olympic men’s final?

Or about the guy who is the most accurate distance shooter in the history of archery?

Or the woman who may win seven medals?

If the answer is no to any or all of these questions, then it means you probably haven’t been paying much attention to the Paralympics, the international competition for disabled athletes that follows the Olympics.

It also means you have something in common with the American sports media.

While NBC is offering more coverage of this year’s Paralympics Games than it did for the London Paralympics in 2012, the absence of reporters and photographers with a U.S. passport is notable. Since Sept. 4, I have been in Rio working with student journalists from the University of Georgia and from Penn State University, where I run the sports journalism program. Our group’s assignment is to supplement coverage of the Games for the Associated Press.

But according to a list provided by the International Paralympic Committee, through Sept. 13, the total number of editorial and photo credentials issued to Americans – this excludes NBC – was 52. Take out the student teams from Penn State and Georgia, plus faculty, and the number drops to 29.

By way of comparison, for the Rio Olympics, more than 400 credentials were issued to U.S. print and photo journalists.

So why does coverage fall off so much for the Paralympics?

Is there really a lack of interest?

One of the few studies to look at the issue in depth, now more than a decade old, found that journalists felt audiences weren’t interested in the Paralympics, that the event was costly to cover, and that they didn’t consider the games to be real sport.

Certainly, attitudes have changed somewhat – and in some places – since.

The London Paralympics attracted 2.7 million spectators; Britain now has at least 56 accredited print and photo journalists in Rio, according to the IPC list, with substantial coverage back home. The BBC World News has included Paralympic event stories in its morning sports report.

Japan has 122 accredited journalists in Brazil. Germany checks in with 99.

The United States, meanwhile, still lags behind – just as it trails China in the medal count.

Covering what matters

So is the decision not to aggressively cover the Paralympics unwise?

There’s an argument to be made that it is. For one thing, the media isn’t necessarily in tune with what the public wants, or how readers and viewers perceive news events. That was evident this summer, when NBC and other news organizations were called out by consumers as sexist for their coverage of female athletes – particularly the U.S. women’s teams, which won more medals than their male counterparts.

In addition to a possible divergence from its own audience, there’s also the issue of whether the U.S. sports media is concentrating on stories that really matter. At a time of shrinking resources, particularly among newspapers, each decision to cover something means – significantly – that something else will not be covered. Reporters can’t be in two places at once.

Take, for comparison’s sake, the accusations that New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady cheated during the AFC championship in January 2015, a scandal and legal tangle known as Deflategate that ultimately resulted in a four-game suspension for Brady this season.

A search of the word “Deflategate” in the Access World News database for U.S. news sources turns up 6,823 mentions in the last year alone. Do the same for “Paralympic” and you get 3,832 mentions, many of which seem to be TV schedules or passing references in Olympic stories.

Meanwhile, after all the hysteria surrounding Brady, it turns out that New England won its first game on the road Sept. 11 against a tough Arizona team. After all that coverage, the Patriots didn’t even need their superstar to win. Was his case worth the resources media poured into it?

Averse to advocacy?

As someone who spent nearly 25 years in daily journalism before becoming an academic, I can say that, in my experience, reporters are generally loathe to advance an agenda, regardless of how noble it is. The Paralympic movement does have one: promoting awareness of disabilities to make life easier for those who have them.

And yes, there’s something in reporting culture that also finds inspiring stories a bit grating after a while. Certainly the Paralympics is full of them.

But many stories aren’t uplifting, like the one about a Belgian wheelchair racer who is prepared to end her life when her constant physical pain becomes unbearable.

Then there are the stories that are simply amazing. On Sept. 14, Iran’s Siamand Rahman became the first Paralympian to powerlift – that is, bench press – more than 300 kilograms. His winning lift was 305 kilograms (about 672 pounds), which, according to IPC press materials, is the equivalent of two baby elephants.

Powerlifting gold medalist Siamand Rahman of Iran poses with his medal. Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters

So perhaps it’s time for the U.S. media to pay more attention to this festival, the world’s third-largest sporting event behind the Olympics and World Cup.

Craig Spence, spokesman for the International Paralympic Committee told me as much in a brief interview on the topic of American journalists.

“Maybe they’ll one day come to realize that it’s not just fantastic sport,” he said, “but sport that changes the world.”

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