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How American and Russian journalists cover their own – and each other’s – doping scandals

Mushrooms. Alcohol. Bulls’ blood and testicles.

The use of prohibited performance-enhancing drugs as a form of cheating in sport has been documented as early as the ancient Olympic Games. And even then, PED use “breached the competition rules and was punished with public denunciation, penalties and disqualification,” according to Matthias Kamber in a 2011 Forensic Science International article. By the 19th century, athletes migrated to other substances. Barrie Houlihan’s 2002 edition of Dying to Win: Doping in Sport and the Development of Anti-doping Policy mentions caffeine, nitroglycerine, and opium. Widespread doping increased after the Second World War, when it became easier to create banned substances in large quantities. “Several cases of death at competitions boosted understanding that something had to be done against doping in sport not only for reasons of fair play, but also to protect the health of those involved,” Kamber said. The World Anti-Doping Agency was created in 1999 on the heels of the Festina Affair cycling scandal to govern worldwide oversight of doping in sport.

Yet, the world of sport remains rife with drug-related sports scandals. And journalists continue to investigate these scandals, searching for best practices when covering and researching this complex, multi-national issue.

I presented results of a paper I co-authored with Jennifer Harker, PhD., at the Play the Game conference in Odense, Denmark, today in which Dr. Harker and I examined how American and Russian journalists covered doping scandals of their own athletes and athletes hailing from the other country after the athlete in question denied using PEDs. More specifically, we measured whether American and Russian journalists framed doping scandals as isolated, episodic incidents or as larger, complex thematic problems. This was important because how audiences interpret an issue or event is largely based on the news frames journalists use when organizing and crafting their content. According to William A. Gamson and Andre Modigliani’s 1987 chapter in Research in Political Sociology, a frame is “a central organizing idea or story line that provides meaning to an unfolding strip of events.” Frames are like lenses through which we will see the issue and make sense of its components and consequences. Two overarching frames in journalism research are episodic and thematic. Episodic frames depict episodes, or, as Shanto Iyengar explained in his 1991 book, Is Anyone Responsible? How Television Frames Political Issues, issues as instances or specific events. These are often through the lens of an individual’s personal narrative. Thematic frames, on the other hand, focus more on breadth and background information. They include multiple variables that have influenced a situation or incident. Through a thematic news frame, problems are presented as collective issues, often with government- and/or society-level solutions, according to a 2015 Human Communication Research article by Sheila A. Springer and Jake Harwood.

In the current study, Dr. Harker and I examined 422 English-language American and Russian-language Russian news articles and television broadcast transcripts published or aired between August 1, 2012, and August 30, 2013, and August 2, 2015, to August 29, 2016, respectively. About 57.9% of the articles were about Russian athletes, followed by 38.3% about American athletes, and 3.8% about both American and Russian athletes. About 18.8% of the sample was specifically about doping in baseball, followed by 13.1% about track and field, and 8.8% about cycling.

We found that despite hailing from dramatically different media systems, Russian and American journalists’ use of episodic and thematic frames did not initially appear to be all that different. However, when we controlled for the national origin of the athlete or team journalists were covering, substantial statistical differences emerged. When reporting on Russian athletes or teams, both Russian and American journalists framed doping stories more thematically, presenting doping as a collective problem, often with government-based solutions. However, when reporting on American athletes or teams, both Russian and American journalists framed doping more episodically, portraying the scandal as an isolated issue, specific to that athlete accused of [and denying] doping. In other words, when it was Russian doping, it was Russian society and/or the Russian government to blame. But when it was an American athlete, it was the individual American athlete to blame. That’s regardless of whether the journalist was Russian or American. It’s worth noting that the sample spanned 2012-13 and 2015-16 – before a 2016 WADA investigation, headed by Robert McLaren, concluded “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the Russian Anti-Doping Agency, the Russian Ministry of Sport, and the Federal Security of the Russian Federation had “operated for the protection of doped Russia.”

Besides episodic and thematic, we also examined the presence of crisis communication frames, and the role a denial has on journalists’ adversarial role enactment. For the full study, an ahead-of-release version is published by International Journal of Sport Communication and is available at

Русскоязычную версию этой статьи можно найти здесь.



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