Thursday, October 15, 2009

Female Candidates and the Media

Posted By on Thu, Oct 15, 2009 at 4:17 PM

After Hillary Clinton teared up in early January during the 2008 presidential race, the incident generated vast amounts of media coverage — about 500 stories.

Less than a month earlier, however, candidate Mitt Romney had also teared up. That incident generated 14 stories.

The situations were similar. Both Romney and Clinton were answering questions. In both cases, their voices quivered and their eyes teared up, but they didn't cry. So why would Clinton's tears be so much more newsworthy?

Was the discrepancy because Clinton was an election front-runner? A Democrat? A woman?

Erika Falk, the head of the master's in communications program at Johns Hopkins University and author of Women For President: Media Bias in Eight Campaigns, would no doubt attribute it to Clinton's gender. And armed with data from her book, I think she could make a very strong case to its truth.

"Women are twice as likely to be described emotionally in the media," she said during a panel discussion at the Peabody this morning during the National Association of Women Judges' annual conference.

In her book, Falk looked at eight campaigns from 1872 to 2004 (the book was written before the 2008 presidential campaign, but she is including data from that election in the next edition). Though she expected to see coverage becoming more equal as the years went by, the data did not support that.

"With the changes in the overall world, it's surprising," she said, "that there are not as many changes in the press coverage."

Per month, male candidates still got twice as many articles as female candidates did, and the articles about men were 7 percent longer. (Falk compared female candidates to male candidates who got similar vote totals, so she wasn't comparing a female loser to a male winner, a situation that could easily explain the discrepancy in coverage.)

Male candidates get more issue coverage, and 40 percent of articles about female candidates include at least one physical description of said candidate while only 14 percent of articles about male candidates did.

The coverage of President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton was slightly different in that both Obama and Clinton received less issue-based coverage than past male candidates and there were more stories about both mentioned their appearance. But I would argue that probably has less to do with gender equality and more to do with the president's racial background.

But, this morning, Falk left the assembled judges on a positive note.

"When women run, they win as often as men, but they don't run as often," Falk said. "The best way to fight this is to run for elected office."

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