Less Gender Bias or Less Media Coverage Overall?

A new study by American University Professor Jennifer Lawless and George Washington University Professor Danny Hayes found that media gender bias – “either by the media or the voters – is no longer the impediment to female candidates.”

It’s important to note that the study by Lawless and Hayes covered candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives, not Senate or presidential candidates.

Still, this is what the researchers say they found:

We first conducted a detailed analysis of local newspaper coverage of House races in nearly 350 congressional districts across the country. Analyzing 4,748 articles, we found virtually no gender differences whatsoever.

News coverage of women was just as common as coverage of men. And the content of campaign stories was nearly indistinguishable across candidate sex. The frequency with which reporters referred explicitly to candidates’ sex or gender – for instance, noting how they dressed or their family roles – was the same for men and women…Mentions of candidates’ personal characteristics also did not fall along stereotypical gender lines. Women were just as likely as men to be portrayed as possessing competence and leadership skills and no more likely to be covered as trustworthy or warm.

In the paper itself, they describe their methodology:

In this paper, we rely on a detailed content analysis of local newspaper coverage from nearly 350 U.S. House districts across the country, as well as data from the 2010 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES), to demonstrate that gender stereotyping does not affect journalists’ coverage of, or voters’ attitudes toward, female candidates…To identify the appropriate newspaper for each House race, we first consulted maps of the 380 congressional districts represented in our 2010 Cooperative Congressional Election Study survey data. We identified the largest city in each district, and then determined whether the city had a daily newspaper that we could access through one of several electronic databases or through the newspaper’s online archives. In the vast majority of cases, this was a straightforward, though time- consuming, task. In the few cases for which we could not gain access to newspaper coverage from the district’s largest-circulation daily paper, we relied on coverage from the largest paper in an adjoining congressional district.

Those who are interested can read the full paper “A Non-Gendered Lens: The Absence of Stereotyping in Contemporary Congressional Elections,” and the conclusions they draw from this methodology.

In 2012, Name It. Change It. was closely monitoring media coverage of the 166 House races and 18 U.S. Senatorial races where women ran for office. Of the House races we watched there was frankly not much media coverage at all. What coverage that did exist was largely very shallow, limited mostly to horse race analysis about polling and fundraising. When local TV news stations covered candidate's races it was largely to discuss any new TV ads that were released. There was often very little analysis of the political or policy differences between the candidates.

One possible explanation for the change Lawless and Hayes found is that newspapers simply aren’t covering Congressional races with the same intensity as they did even just a few election cycles ago. The newspaper industry in just the past decade has been undergoing immense cutbacks (and some outright newspaper closures). With fewer reporters, newspapers then could only offer limited coverage of campaign stops, few in-depth profiles, and little space devoted to analysizing the candidates' political views.

This was what Name It. Change It. found when studying the media coverage of the 2012 House races -- it was generally focused on the horse race issues of polling and fundraising -- and there was less of it overall. This was true for races involving both men and women candidates.

The same could not be said of many of the Senate races we monitored during 2012. (It’s worth noting, the Washington Post article discussing the study is illustrated with an image of Elizabeth Warren, who ran for the Senate, not the House.) We found many examples of gendered coverage of U.S. Senate candidates. Naturally it was the women candidates with the highest profiles, Elizabeth Warren, Michele Bachmann -- and Sarah Palin, especially during her vice presidential run – who get the most gendered coverage and are in the races where we've found the most egregious examples of sexist coverage.

It may be that Congressional House race coverage is substantially different than in the decades past when newspapers had more robust newsrooms. It would also be interesting to see if gender bias of Congressional races is found in online or broadcast media which this study didn't monitor.

Generally speaking though, Name It. Change It. has found that the higher the profile of the woman candidate, the more media attention and the more opportunities for gender bias to creep in.

Published by Rachel Larris on 11/27/2012

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