Asking ‘What Does Naomi Osaka Owe Media?’ is the Wrong Question

What we *should* be wondering is, what has to happen to create a safe work environment for her?

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Stacy Lee Kong

Jun 04 2021

10 mins read

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Like in last week’s newsletter, I’m thinking journalism thoughts again. In my defence, it has been hard not to over the past few days, what with traditional sports media (and, uh, Piers Morgan) losing its collective shit over an athlete declining to speak with them. But while much of the Naomi Osaka discourse has centred around her supposed responsibilities to tennis reporters, I think there’s actually a better question: what do journalists owe her?

 

This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about—and not just in the context of sports. The recent surge of think pieces and documentaries that turn a critical eye to the ways media mistreated young, mostly white women in the 90s and early 2000s are a good start, but we still need to have some serious conversations about our responsibilities as journalists, including how our ‘best practices’ can actually uphold really problematic power dynamics.

 

How did we get here?

Last week, Osaka, the No. 2-ranked tennis player in the world, tweeted a statement announcing she would not be doing press following her matches at the French Open due to her mental health. “I've often felt that people have no regard for athletes' mental health and this rings true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one. We're often sat there and asked questions that we've been asked multiple times before or asked questions that bring doubt into our minds and I'm just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me,” she said at the time, before comparing the experience to “kicking a person while they are down.” She accepted that she’d receive a fine for her decision and requested the money be donated to a mental health charity.

 

The response was unsurprising: Gilles Moretton, president of the French Tennis Federation, called Osaka’s decision a “phenomenal error” that was “hurting tennis” (???), while the board of Grand Slam tennis tournaments not only fined her $15,000, they also threatened her with expulsion from the tournament and suspension from future Grand Slam tournaments. (Oh, and also sub-tweeted her.)

 

On Monday, Osaka responded by pulling out of the tournament entirely.

There are a lot of factors at play here, including a capitalistic and exploitative understanding of labour and a desire for Osaka’s obedience that was almost certainly inspired by misogynoir. But we also have to consider the norms of journalism itself.

 

Expecting obedience from Osaka is capitalist, sexist and racist

 

I should note that Osaka has received a lot of encouragement from celebrities and politicians, her corporate sponsors, progressive sports journalists, basically everyone who works at a women's magazine and no small number of her fellow athletes, including Serena Williams, Lewis Hamilton and Steph Curry. But it’s hard not to notice that the people who were coming to her defence were overwhelmingly Black or racialized, while her critics were mostly white. And even those white people who expressed support, like tennis greats Billie Jean King, Rafael Nadal and Ash Barty, the only woman in the world ranked higher than Osaka, were measured in their statements. For example, both Nadal and Barty said while they respected her stance, “they consider speaking to reporters part of the job,” according to CBC.

 

The implication is Osaka should attend post-game press conferences because it’s the professional thing to do. But “capitalism uses white supremacist ideologies of ‘professionalism’ and respectability to keep workers in line and as productive as possible,” as writer Breya Johnson argues in Refinery29. “Workers are often expected to suffer humiliation at the hands of colleagues and/or overseers under the guise of ‘professionalism.’ What we have been socialized to understand as ‘professionalism’ is oftentimes just domination and subjugation in our working relationships. Capitalism teaches that the professional thing to do is to refuse your own needs, agency, wellbeing, and personhood, when in reality, we have to refuse the way things are, refuse domination and refuse capitalism.”

That is especially true for young Black athletes, who are thrown into the professional sports machine, often with little support, and receive the most scrutiny for perceived transgressions. And it's even more difficult when that athlete is a woman or, worse, doesn't adhere to the gender binary. This likely explains why the response to Osaka’s decision has largely been split along racial lines. Black and racialized people recognize that what Osaka faces from the press—“scrutiny about her identity, perhaps to a greater degree than white male tennis players [and] questions of how ‘Japanese’ she may be,” as Vice pointed out this week—is significantly more disrespectful than what Nadal or Barty might experience during their worst press conferences. (I mean, you know Williams understands what it’s like to be posed incredibly racist questions that serve literally no editorial purpose.)

And that is because the ‘rules’ of journalism were created by white men, and still serve white men best.

 

Part of the problem is that media remains a white supremacist institution

 

I should know: I learned how to be a journalist at some of the biggest mainstream magazines in Canada—which also meant that I internalized a lot of ideas about the ‘right’ way to do things that both stemmed from white supremacy and patriarchy, and also served to uphold white supremacy and patriarchy (yes, even though they were women's mags). Things like, never send questions to sources ahead of time. Avoid email interviews at all cost. Save your hardest or most contentious questions for the end of the interview so that, if a source hangs up on you, you’ve already got what you need. Never share the angle of your story. Never show a source a story before publication.

 

To be fair, many of these rules exist for good reason—sometimes an interviewee will try to change a quote to make themselves sound better or dispute a timeline that you’ve fact-checked with other people because that’s not how they remember it going down. But the more I write and edit stories that touch on the trauma of trying to live and work in a society that’s not built for you, the more I believe that the way so many journalists approach interviews—as if sources are adversaries and we must hold onto every shred of power that we can—just isn’t ethical.

 

Why shouldn’t we grant our sources the opportunity to prepare for our conversation? Why shouldn’t we offer them the opportunity to express themselves in the way they feel most comfortable—or the way that is most accessible to them? Why shouldn’t we make sure they understand exactly what we mean to ask them so they can provide informed consent to an interview? In what world is it moral to spring a potentially difficult question on someone, and are we hoping they’ll let something slip while they’re surprised? And, while I do think this is only acceptable in certain cases, if you are writing about a vulnerable person’s trauma, why shouldn’t they get a chance to make sure that you got it right?

 

But this is also a labour issue  

Which brings me back to Osaka, and the question of what tennis media owes her. I actually agree with Nadal and Barty on one thing: speaking to media is part of Osaka’s job in the same way that actors are contractually obligated to participate in the press tour for their new movies, influencers have to promote their brand ambassador deals and musicians do endless radio interviews before their new albums drop. This is all part and parcel of managing and maintaining a brand, which all sports leagues are, and athletes play an important role in that process. Not to mention, someone like Osaka is also building her own brand.

 

But this begs an obvious question: if media availability is one of Osaka’s professional obligations, what is being done to ensure that she feels safe at work? Because regardless of whether she has a ‘cool’ job or not, Osaka is entitled to labour protections, just like anyone else. She shouldn’t be paid less than a white or male athlete who has experienced the same level of success. She shouldn’t have to endure racist or sexist harassment. And if her mental health makes it difficult to do part of her job—like, say, participating in post-game press conferences—then she’s entitled to a reasonable accommodation.   

 

Though frankly, maybe press conferences aren’t good for anyone. As Guardian sportswriter Jonathan Liew explained in a column on Monday, “the modern press conference is no longer a meaningful exchange but really a lowest‑common‑denominator transaction: a cynical and often predatory game in which the object is to mine as much content from the subject as possible. Gossip: good. Anger: good. Feuds: good. Tears: good. Personal tragedy: good. Meanwhile the young athlete, often still caught up in the emotions of victory or defeat, is expected to answer the most intimate questions in the least intimate setting, in front of an array of strangers and backed by a piece of sponsored cardboard.”

 

The French Open, which is functionally Osaka’s employer in this case, plays a role here, of course. But so do journalists. Because much like the idea of objectivity, which is still sacrosanct in media even as BIPOC journalists demonstrate, time and time again, that it actually deters fair and accurate coverage of our communities, treating the people we interview as if they’re members of the opposite team is all fun and games for straight white dudes, but legitimately harmful for everyone else.

 

And Did You Hear About…

 

Alicia Elliott’s searing Washington Post op-ed on the racist legacy of residential schools in Canada.

 

Actor Ellie Kemper being outed as a “KKK princess” earlier this week. The Atlantic very thoroughly breaks down her participation in a ball hosted by a 135-year-old St. Louis, Missouri “civic organization” called Veiled Prophet—but the mag takes pains to distinguish between it and the KKK, and this guy really doesn’t.   

 

This NY Times profile of Khaby Lame, the Italian everyman who’s on track to become the most followed creator on TikTok—but who still doesn’t hold Italian citizenship, because, as the Times explains, “Italian citizenship is based on blood and can be earned only by the children of immigrants who reach age 18 after living in the country since birth.”

 

The story behind Prince William and Kate's social media rebrand. (I knew something was going on with their Instagram!)

 

This smart New Yorker piece on gossip podcast Who Weekly, and the shifting parameters of fame.

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