Behind the Story: A Gymnastics Media Experience
As a gymnastics judge, I am sometimes frustrated with how judges are portrayed by the gymnastics media. I feel judges are occasionally misrepresented and accused of unscrupulous, biased evaluations of routines. I know that corrupt judges are out there, but I think the media is often quick to assume that any questionable scores are due to nefarious reasons. As a judge, I try to give as fair evaluations as possible, and I take several intentional precautions to guard against subconscious bias. Subconscious bias, such as those based on expectations, can lead to inaccurate scores for even the most well-meaning, honest judges. I was reminded of the importance of my preventative habits as I assumed a different role at this year’s European Championships: being part of the gymnastics media outlet GymCastic. The collision of my judging bias safeguards with media practices helped me to better understand why the media sometimes portrays judges as they do and reflect on the many precautionary measures I personally take to minimize the occurrence of subconscious bias in my own judging.
My experience at the European Championships was different from my roles at previous competitions. I have experienced gymnastics competitions as a gymnast, coach, parent, meet director, meet referee, competition organizer, volunteer, fan, and of course, as a judge; but being a member of the media was an entirely different experience, particularly from that of a judge. My immersion into the media tribune offered me an inside perspective of how and why the media views and portrays competitions, athletes, and officials as they do. The different purpose of the media from my usual judging role inspired me to consciously reflect on how I prepare for competitions, how I think about the athletes during a competition, and how I process gymnasts’ scores.
Before we dig in, let’s consider the media’s purpose. It is the media’s job to observe and share the competition experience with fans, to make the fans feel as if they are present in the arena no matter where they may be in the world. The media outlets need to generate excitement about a competition and tell a story that will engage and hold the interest of the listener/viewer/reader. By stepping into a media role, I realized how much the media's job requires a different perspective, preparation, and thought processes from that of a judge.
The difference between media and judge perspectives was evident right from the very first phases of preparation. The media needs to review previous gymnast performances in order to have the background for a storyline about the gymnast and competition. They need to cultivate interest in a competition so people will watch it and consume their coverage of the event. One way they do that is by making predictions based on past performances. This was the first thing that bumped against my usual judging safeguards. As a judge, I don’t go into a competition with expectations or predictions of outcomes. I don’t really think about who is going to win, and I don’t have conversations with other judges about who we expect, or hope, will win. I might recognize a gymnast’s performance potential, but it is always through a framework of “let’s see what they do today”. As a judge, I prepare by reviewing past routines to practice, not to predict. I don’t want to get caught off-guard with an unfamiliar element, or an unusual presentation that I haven’t considered how to evaluate according to the rules. A gymnastic routine goes too quickly to be able to stop and ponder an evaluation mid-performance. If I am not well prepared for any scenario, then I leave myself open to let expectations and assumptive biases fill the gaps, which can lead to inaccurate scores.
As I ran into this conflict between preparation to practice and preparation to predict, it clarified why the media sometimes assumes that judges are scoring based on expectations and memory of past performance. It aligns with how the media prepares. The media frames the competition based on predictions and expectations, and it is human nature for people to think others view the world through a similar lens as themselves. Thus, since the media predicts and has expectations for competition outcomes, it is natural for the media to assume that judges do too, which is not always the case. Good judges will view the competition through a lens of “Let’s see what they do today.”
The media and judges also differ in how they engage with a gymnast’s identity during a competition. The audience is tuning in to find out who did what. For the media to relay the action without reference to the actor is pointless. Beyond that, the media’s perspective is aimed at creating an easy-to-follow storyline, which is often centered on the gymnast: who they are, their past experience, and their future potential. The more background, the better it is to craft the story. But as a judge, I don’t focus on who the gymnast is that I am judging, just what they are doing and how well they are doing it. I think it is difficult for non-judges, and especially fans, to understand how judges can compartmentalize and separate the gymnast’s identity from the gymnastics, but it is something that comes with judging experience. Each time we judge a gymnast, we become less star-struck by who they are and what they can do. Judges also take simple steps to limit identifying factors. For example, many judges only write the gymnast’s number instead of the gymnast’s name on their paper. This simple action helps to create a buffer between the gymnast’s identity and their gymnastics. However, the media cannot make such a separation. In fact, it is the media’s job to create a connection between who the gymnast is, what they have done, what they can do, and what their future might possibly be. Judges, on the other hand, need to focus on what the gymnast is doing in that moment, and only in that moment. My specific media task (live-blogging the action in the arena) required a similar focus as when I judge: just report what I see. I was grateful that my colleague, Kensley, provided the framing expertise so I did not need to push that boundary farther than necessary.
Another glaring difference between the media and judging perspectives was in the focus on scores. As unbelievable as it may sound, as a judge, I don’t focus on final scores. It is another one of those safeguards against bias. I focus on what the gymnast did and/or how well they did it. The scores are just a mathematical representation of the performance. I evaluate the routine according to the D and/or E rules and then the math is just math. When one routine is done, it is on to the next. You get into a flow state that makes judging so rewarding. The separation of D and E tasks and having scoring software that does the final computations further help to distance the judge’s focus from the final score. But for the media, scores are everything. The scores help to tell the story and are interwoven with scores of the past, how it affects the gymnast’s ranking in the present and what it means for their future. It is the media’s job to create excitement with the anticipation of possible outcomes, meanwhile, as a judge, I am at my best when I am in my zone, living in the present moment, and not concerning myself with the past or the future.
Which brings me to my final difference: really being present in the moment. At many competitions, judges are prohibited from using cell phones or tablets that connect to the outside world. While these rules are in place to prevent cheating, it also helps to keep the judges focused and present in the moment. However, for the media, their entire job is to connect and bring the inside of the arena to the outside world, going as far as creating live conversations on social media platforms. Fortunately, Kensley took care of tracking scores and the back and forth engagement on social media, which allowed me to remain in the moment and just report on what was happening in a very similar way to how I judge.
As I went through my media experience, it became apparent to me how many precautions and safeguards I have habituated over the years and I was surprised at how much the media role challenged those safeguards. For the judges reading this, what are some practices you put in place to help guard against subconscious bias when you judge? For any readers in the media, do you have different considerations that I have not taken into account here?
Please write me and let me know!