Media Coverage of Appearance Hurts Women Candidates; People Who Challenge Need To Show Data

We Showed Media Coverage of Appearance Hurts Female Candidates.
People Who Challenge These Findings Need to Present Some Data.

In a post at the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, two researchers claim to have a study that finds press coverage of candidates’ appearance is not a problem for women candidates.  But their data and research is not available to the media or anyone else to evaluate their work.

Our Name It. Change It. project has published research that finds such coverage does serious damage to candidates who are women.  Our complete research is available here.

In their Wonkblog piece, Danny Hayes and Jennifer Lawless make inaccurate and sweeping generalizations about the Name It. Change It. research.  We are therefore issuing this statement to correct the assertions of these researchers and restate our confidence in the research conducted for Name It. Change It.  And we challenge Hayes and Lawless to make public their research methodology and data. 

Name It. Change It. is a groundbreaking project of The Women’s Media Center, one of the nation’s premiere media accountability organizations and She Should Run, award winning national experts in addressing the barriers that keep women from serving in public office. Tracking and responding to sexist media coverage of women candidates and public leaders, Name It. Change It. also generates and disseminates groundbreaking research conducted by Lake Research Partners and Chesapeake Beach Consulting, two firms with experience both researching women candidates and working with real women’s campaigns.

Danny Hayes and Jennifer Lawless, recently wrote that “women don’t pay a higher price than men for coverage of their appearance.”  An American University press release touts Hayes’ and Lawless’ new research as “refuting a Name It. Change It. study concluding candidate appearance plays a significant role in voter candidate support.”

In their comments challenging our findings, Hayes and Lawless got much of our research wrong.  Specifically:

  • They missed that Name It. Change It. had a control group, which meant we could correctly identify which variable in our experiment was having the effect.

  • In addition, in critiquing the appearance coverage Name It. Change It. tested as “unrealistic,” Lawless and Hayes missed that all of Name It. Change It.’s media quotes about women candidates were actual quotes pulled from media.

In addition, there are flaws in the methodology of their previous study on appearance-based coverage, voiding their conclusions that such coverage of women is “rare” and no more frequent than similar coverage of male candidates.

To explore these points in greater detail:

The importance of a control group cannot be overstated. Hayes and Lawless did not accurately describe the methodology of the research we conducted for Name It. Change It. when they failed to mention that we had a control group that had no appearance coverage, with all other language identical. This allowed us to compare the impact of other language and control for the appearance coverage, and to compare how a woman fared against a man candidate when neither received a treatment that referenced their appearances. In the control group with no appearance-based coverage, the woman fared much better than she did when her appearance was described neutrally, negatively, or positively.

Moreover, as the survey began, we introduced two well-rounded candidates. Just as in real life, they did not have identical biographies or experiences.  This was intentional, not an oversight. Hayes and Lawless claim that these differing biographies make it “impossible to know whether gender differences in candidate assessments were a result of media coverage.” But, to the contrary, at the beginning of the experiment—before the introduction of any mention of appearance—voters actually said they would support either candidate in about equal measures. We had no way of knowing voters would respond the way they did, however, since we started from a neutral point, the descriptions of our candidates’ gender, sans appearance coverage, weren’t an influencing factor in the survey.

We know that our appearance-based media quotes were realistic, because they were real. In their Post article, Hayes and Lawless suggest that their examples of appearance-based media coverage are “more realistic” than ours, claiming that “it’s difficult to envision a scenario in which sentences like these would pass muster with an editor and regularly make their way into mainstream news outlets.” However, all of the language we tested came directly from real-world media coverage of women candidates and politicians. The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple even previously reported where those examples came from —The Washington Post and Huffington Post. Meanwhile, while we do not have their complete report, it appears that the language Hayes and Lawless tested to simulate a media story was simply made up.

When we requested a copy of that research directly from its authors, Hayes responded via email, “We’re working on a paper right now and should have a draft to send to you within the next couple of months.”  We cannot properly respond to Hayes and Lawless’ new research claims when we can’t review it—more to the point, neither can anyone else, including the media.  In contrast, the day we announced our Name It. Change It. findings, we also released the full methodology of our surveys alongside our results. We are confident our methodology is sound. If Hayes and Lawless are confident in their work, they should release their full report as well.  Announcing their conclusions to the media but not opening their work to scrutiny—as is standard in academic research—is in bad form.

Hayes and Lawless cite their own previous research to back up their critique of our study, but that research contains flaws of its own. In arguing that voters do not care about a woman’s appearance, Hayes and Lawless reference their previous research, where they conducted detailed analysis of local newspaper coverage of U.S. House races in nearly 350 congressional districts.  There are three important flaws to this previous study: 

First, the study looked at coverage from October 2 to November 2: the end of campaign coverage.  Our research leadership team includes campaign professionals, each with more than 30 years of experience advising and leading campaigns, and we know that not only is appearance coverage more likely to occur early in campaigns, but also the bulk of coverage during this time period focuses on the horserace in other words, who is ahead, who is behind, and the case each candidate is making for him or herself in the weeks and days leading up to the election. 

Second, while their study was robust in its scope, it should be noted that it was limited to the largest-circulation local newspapers. This is problematic. Analysis of suburban races in the city newspaper may have limited coverage of the congressional district, due to a lower proportion of readers in the district — which means their study was looking in the wrong place for election coverage of some candidates.

Third, by only focusing on local newspaper coverage, Hayes and Lawless fail to take into account many media platforms that significantly impact campaigns, including sources of sexist and appearance-based coverage.  Smaller newspapers, blogs, magazines, and local and national television also cover women candidates. In fact, research has shown there is more sexist coverage in cable TV.  Analysis of local newspaper coverage is important, but there are many types of media outlets that ultimately define a candidate for voters. 

In reality, regular media coverage of the vast majority of male candidates does not include references to their hairstyles or hair color, physique, clothes, shoes, accessories, or wrinkles or lack thereof.  There are 437 men in the House of Representatives, 80 men in the U.S. Senate, 45 male governors, 40 male lieutenant governors, and 5,600 male state legislators.  We looked for references to the appearances of male leaders as we drafted our survey instrument. With few exceptions — notably Rep. Paul Ryan, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and Rep. Eric Cantor —overwhelmingly coverage of male candidates focuses on the issues rather than what they wear or how they look.  At the same time, we easily found innumerable examples of sexist, appearance-focused coverage of women ranging from Michelle Bachmann to Nancy Pelosi, Nikki Haley to Elizabeth Warren. 

Frankly, it diminishes the real-life experiences of women candidates to suggest that they do not have to care whether the media cares about their looks. By using real-world examples and replicating the real-world environment where most women candidates receive appearance coverage while most men do not, we show that voters do judge a woman candidate based on descriptions of her appearance.

We agree with Hayes and Lawless that sexist media coverage shouldn’t stop any woman from running for office. But minimizing gender-based differences in coverage actually leaves women in politics bereft of the tools and knowledge to level the playing field—and gives media a pass for the role it plays in ongoing gender inequity in politics. Research shows, as long as women candidates respond to such coverage – they undo the significant electoral damage done by such coverage. Lawless and Hayes risk putting women candidates at risk by diminishing the frequency and negative impact of sexist coverage – and the research-tested power of response.

Siobhan “Sam” Bennett, President/CEO of She Should Run
Julie Burton, President of The Women’s Media Center
Robert Carpenter, Chesapeake Beach Consulting
Celinda Lake, Lake Research Partners


Published by Kate McCarthy on 06/28/2013

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