When Vancouver blogger Rebecca Bollwitt was writing about the Olympics, traffic to her website grew 400 per cent.
It dropped back to normal levels with the extinguishing of the Olympic flame, where it has stayed even though Bollwitt is now writing about the Paralympics.
That may help explain why social media appear to be following the lead of many mainstream media outlets in reduced coverage of the Paralympics compared to the Olympics.
It’s an issue with no easy answers. Even as media and social media numbers drop for the Paralympics compared to last month‘ s Olympics, the optimist will see the increase in coverage from past Paralympics.
And both social media and the mainstream media added their voices to the call on CTV for more extensive broadcasting of Paralympics opening and closing ceremonies.
“ I would take a step back and think about what motivates the various media outlets,” said Marc-David Seidel, associate professor at the University of B. C.’ s Sauder School of Business organizational behaviour and human resources division. “ They want to sell papers, get eyeballs or whatever you want to call it.
“ In reality, social media has the same goal; they are both looking for audiences.”
Donovan Tildesley, a Paralympian and multiple-medal winner in swimming, would argue it is up to the mainstream and social media to help raise the profile of the Paralympics.
While some might say the size of the Paralympics – 650 athletes and 10 days of events compared to the Olympics’ 17 days and more than 2,600 athletes – is explanation enough for diminished coverage, Tildesley dismisses that. The profile being given the Paralympics speaks to its importance to media providers, he says.
“ I think there is definitely an improvement from past Games but by no means is it adequate,” he says. “ It is being covered more than it has been, but successes in the Paralympic Games seem to be pushed to the back of the news reports.
“ When Alexandre Bilodeau won his [ Olympic] gold medal it was the lead story on radio and TV. Yesterday when Brian McKeever won his gold medal it was 10 to 15 minutes into the [ CBC’s] World at Six.
“ It wasn’t the lead story. If they want to make it equal or parallel, as the Paralympics should be, it should be leading off the top of the news.”
In The Vancouver Sun, which produced both Paralympic and Olympic supplements, McKeever’s gold-medal performance, along with that of fellow Canadian Lauren Woolstencroft, was Tuesday’s front-page news.
It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg question. If Google searches are any indication, the Paralympics rank far below the Olympics in online interest.
But as Bollwitt points out, the fact that the Paralympic opening ceremony didn’t register as a Twitter trend compared to the Olympic opening that did could be explained by the lack of broadcast coverage.
“ It is not as widely televised so you are not getting people watching in Florida on NBC and tweeting about it,” she said. “ It would be great if it had the same kind of profile.
“ But I think more people are aware of the Paralympics in Vancouver than in any other year. It is still kind of a young event.”
Bollwitt, who is accredited to cover the Paralympics, said she’ll continue to write about them, despite the dwindled readership.
“ I write about stuff that may get zero comments and maybe two retweets but it still is important for me to get it out there,” she said.
It’s an attitude Tildesley would applaud.
“ If we want to understand more about the Games themselves and what these athletes go through, I think the media has the responsibility to take it upon themselves and make it the lead story,” he said. “ I think the mainstream media are just apprehensive because it means stepping out of their comfort zone, writing about something they are not convinced the public will consume.
“ What they don’t realize is that it is the only way to grow the movement from a grassroots movement to a mainstream movement.”
Tildesley says the public wants coverage of the Paralympics and there are indications both in mainstream and social media that some are ready to supply it.
A survey published in the United Kingdom after London won its bid for the 2012 Summer Games indicated 69 per cent of the U. K. public thought there should be more media coverage of the Paralympic Games.
However while February’s Olympics made headlines in U. K. papers – with some controversial coverage – a check of files turns up little in U. K. papers about the Paralympics.
One exception is a Guardian story, headlined: “ BBC criticized for scant coverage of Winter Paralympics.”
A tally of newspaper coverage shows mixed results. A search on Paralympics for The Vancouver Sun turned up 69 results in the Infomart database from opening day March 12 to Tuesday March 16. A search on Olympics from opening day Feb. 12 to Feb. 16 had 286 results, the proportion of stories close to the proportion of Paralympic competitors compared to Olympic competitors.
The Globe and Mail had 222 results for a search on the term Olympics between Feb. 12 and Feb. 16 and 15 results for Paralympics between March 12 and the 16th.
During the same period, an Infomart search of the New York Times turned up two results for Paralympics, while the term Olympics between Feb. 12 and Feb. 16 had 78 results.
The London Daily Mail turned up 40 hits on the term Olympics in stories from Feb. 12 to the 16th, while the opening of the Paralympics registered zero results. The Liverpool Echo had a single Paralympics story during that time, one about Merseyside marine and Paralympian Pete Dunning.
So is there cause for optimism that coverage is increasing?
Robert Scales, who organized a social media website for the Olympics, Vancouver Access 2010, argues that although social media coverage has dropped significantly with the Paralympics, a number of factors are involved. One is that South by Southwest, the largest social media event of the year, is being held in Texas this week.
On the other hand, accreditation for the Paralympics was much easier for bloggers to obtain, as Bollwitt, who wasn’t eligible for the top-level official Olympic media accreditation, found out.
Of the eight people who contributed to Vancouver Access during the Olympics, Scales said only three are left in Vancouver, with the others at SXSW. Even he hasn’t been using his Paralympic accreditation as planned because of injuries from a recent car accident.
Echoing in part what Tildesley suggested, Scales said the Paralympics may be outside the comfort zone of some. “ Yes, we are disappointed they are not getting the same attention,” he said of the Paralympics. “ Do they deserve the same attention?
“ Bloody hell, yes, they are heroes. They show the same endurance that any Olympian does – they are Olympians.”