How journalism hinders female politicians
Pick up any major magazine or newspaper that houses a politics section and, if you look hard enough, you will notice a stark difference in the way that female politicians are covered by the news media in comparison to their male counterparts. It is undeniable how far society has come in accepting and even embracing more women becoming involved in the political sphere. However, one must consider the residual effects of the media’s biased coverage of female politicians, not only in the narratives reinforced by blatant or subtly sexist reporting, but also in regards to the future of women in politics.
Let’s start with the very basics of media coverage: wording. While this may seem like a small piece of the coverage of female politicians, word choice makes a difference. In an Elle magazine article from April 2015, Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, said “When the media talks about men and calls them ‘strong and assertive,’ that shows strength and that’s important. But when women are described in those same words, that can be very negative and very detrimental to them.”
Nichole Bauer, an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Alabama, expanded on this issue of wording in media campaign coverage. “Rather than talking about policy, the media talks about personality traits when a woman runs for office,” she said.
Articles about female candidates are more likely to discuss issues of temperament — or the health of the candidate — based off of their performances at rallies and in the debates, Bauer added.
“This is a problem because political leadership is defined through masculine characteristics, not stereotypically feminine traits,” she said.
Bauer said if the media portrays a female candidate as having traditionally feminine traits, such as being caring, voters are less likely to think that candidate would be a good leader. However, she said the same does not apply to male politicians.
“If a male candidate is described as caring, he is still seen as a good political leader,” Bauer said.
As a result, female politicians, just like any woman perceived as being in a position of power, walk a very fine line when it comes to their image in the political arena.
Additionally, in one of her studies of media coverage, Bauer found that it matters how the media covers the physical characteristics of female politicians. She found that voters respond quite negatively to coverage that does not focus on the appearance of a female politician, actually counting it against the candidate.
Another problem with the media’s coverage of female politicians is that there often isn’t enough of it. Erika Falk, author of the book Women for President: Media Bias in Nine Campaigns, studied the media coverage of the nine women who ran for president before 2008. These women included Victoria Woodhull, Belva Lockwood, Margaret Chase Smith, Shirley Chisholm, Patricia Schroeder, Lenora Fulani, Elizabeth Dole, Carol Moseley Braun and Hillary Clinton.
Falk compared men and women who ran in the same races and found some startling differences. For every article written about the woman’s campaign, there were two published about the men in the race.
Falk’s data also supported Bauer’s assertion that the media is less interested in female politicians’ policies, as only 16 percent of the text in the articles about female politicians had to do with their policies. In contrast, 27 percent of the text in the articles about men covered their policies. Along these same lines, Falk found that 40 percent of the text in the articles she examined contained some kind of physical description of the female candidate. These kinds of descriptions were included in just 14 percent of the text in the articles Falk looked at about male candidates.
Due to the data she gathered, Falk expressed concern that while the press may not have a direct hand in preventing women from getting elected, the bias of the media may discourage women from running in the first place.
Falk explained, “When women run for office, not at the presidential [level], at lower levels, they win as often as men do. And that’s not how people perceive it. My concern is that one of the reasons women don’t run as often is because of the press coverage.”
A specific example of the media travails women have to endure when running for political office, as cited by Political Parity — a “nonpartisan platform” that works to increase the number of women in political office — was when Elizabeth Dole ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000.
“The amount of coverage she received failed to reflect her standing in the polls, disproportionately focused on her lack of funds, and treated her bid as a novelty,” the website noted.
Jean Sinzdak, associate director for the Center for American Women and Politics, theorized on where this media bias against female politicians originated.
“A big factor probably has to do with cultural expectations of what public leaders look like,” she said. “Until very, very recently in history, the default image of a U.S. president has been a white male. Women who have run for office have often faced attempts to trivialize their candidacies, often by stereotyping them or not taking them seriously enough.”
In the current presidential race, Hillary Clinton is campaigning to be the very first woman to win the Oval Office. But rather than focusing on this potentially historic moment, much of the media coverage of Clinton has criticized her for being “too cold,” “unemotional” and “unrelatable.”
This has a demonstrable impact. A study done in 2010 by the organization Name it Change it, whose goal is to “work to end sexist and misogynistic coverage of women candidates by all members of the press,” found that voters focused heavily on if female candidates were reported as likeable.
Clinton addressed the criticisms of her personality in an interview with Humans of New York author and photographer Brandon Stanton.
“I know that I can be perceived as aloof or cold or unemotional,” she said. “But I had to learn as a young woman to control my emotions. And that’s a hard path to walk. Because you need to protect yourself, you need to keep steady, but at the same time, you don’t want to seem ‘walled off.’”
However, Newly Paul, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at Appalachian State University, argued there are a few more factors at play when it comes to coverage of Clinton.
“I don’t think we should consider Hillary Clinton as a representative of all women candidates,” Paul said. “She is very different because she has been in the public eye for decades, has a lot of political baggage and is a very polarizing figure,” Paul said.
She explained that media criticism of politicians’ personalities isn’t limited to Clinton. While the press may be portraying Clinton as emotionally cold, Paul referenced times in 2008 when then Sen. Barack Obama was criticized for seeming too aloof.
“I think leaders in general are expected to be warm and mix easily with the public,” she said. “Those who do not fit this frame, regardless of their gender, face some amount of criticism.”
So what will it take for there to be fair press coverage of all politicians without gender getting in the way of what they are standing for? Paul said one method is for journalists to “try to reduce the popular impression that politics is a gendered field.”
Times are changing, and how these political narratives are dealt with will have a significant impact on the future of politics and whether it can be redefined as an un-gendered field. It is important that voters recognize the implicit biases and antiquated stereotypes that are still prevalent in the coverage of female politicians. Awareness of these factors is important when voters decide what candidates to support.
Overall though, Bauer said the problem of the media’s coverage of female politicians will be a difficult one to solve.
“Journalists and news routines create a climate where it may be easy to fall back on implicit stereotypes about women when covering a female candidate’s campaign,” Bauer said. “And combating implicit bias is really hard.”
However, she said having knowledge of the problem is one way to begin addressing it.
“Being aware of the fact that there are implicit biases at all stages of the electoral process, including news coverage … is a good start.”
Mila Phelps- Friedl is a second-year journalism major who doesn’t put up with the media’s crap. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.