Media Coverage of Women Candidates

Do the media treat women candidates for governor or senator differently, focusing more on personal traits than on substantive issues or on horse race? Is that sort of coverage helpful or harmful to women candidates? If there are such effects do they hold for primaries as well as general elections?

I can’t answer those questions in the context of a Democratic Party primary for governor featuring a woman candidate but an article in Political Research Quarterly has me thinking: Johanna Dunaway, Regina G. Lawrence, Melody Rose and Christopher R. Weber, “Traits versus Issues: How Female Candidates Shape coverage of Senate and Gubernatorial Elections.” (2013).

My ignorance of politics and gender is both broad and deep. Dunaway et al. help me out with the reminder that news coverage is important to women’s electoral efforts and to outcomes in general as well as to the issue agendas the public perceives as important at a given time and its ability to learn substantive information about the candidates. Of course, the campaigns themselves work hard to mold coverage in beneficial ways. Scholars of gender politics have recently focused on the hypothesis that women may face greater challenges than men in establishing their “qualifications” for office, especially if coverage focuses more on traits than on substance. Dunaway et al. researched three important questions: Do news stories about races with female candidates focus more on traits than races with only male candidates? Is this more the case in gubernatorial than senate races? And are news stories about gubernatorial races with a woman candidate more likely to focus on traits than issues or a horse race stories?

And now an important caveat: The article was based on research of general election coverage, not primaries. I would hypothesize that is important because there is liable to be less issue differentiation among candidates in a primary and thus candidates and the media might be far more likely to focus on traits in a primary.

So the key findings of the study are that yes, races with female candidates are more likely to feature trait stories. The idea that gubernatorial races generate more trait coverage regardless of the gender of the candidates was partially supported. There is more trait coverage when women run for governor than senator.

We’d expect less issue differentiation in a primary and that is what we are getting. So it can be tough to generate sharp differences without candidates or their SuperPAC backers bringing up traits. In Coakley’s race the key trait would be that she is a terrible horrible not good very bad campaigner who will wilt in a general election.

Coakley also seems to be a magnet for some truly weird coverage. For instance, a state Republican Party tracker recorded the Attorney General’s car parking in restricted areas while she attended events. Big deal. For pretty obvious reasons the AG and governor have State Police security and for pretty obvious reasons the State Police and state’s highest law enforcement officer need ready access to a vehicle, and not to be wedged in on the eighth floor of some garage. Nonetheless the Globe and others bit on the story. The AG is a scofflaw! Not only that but the tracker recorded the same thing a few weeks later and some in the media bit again. (Good job by the Massachusetts GOP on that one by the way).

Remember back when a talk radio host remarked that Elizabeth Warren had stated she worked her way through college without taking her clothes off and Scott Brown reacted “Thank God”? Later when Warren’s campaign appeared stalled I recall some criticism in Democratic ranks of her hair and glassses. Attention to personality or appearance attributes is known in social science literature as “hair, hemlines, and husbands” or “lipstick watch.”

Dunaway et al. offer a number of ideas for more research. For instance, heightened attention to traits may not be harmful to female candidates if that coverage focuses on attributes traditionally associated with women (involvement in children’s education or parent’s health care). Issue coverage may not be beneficial if that sort of coverage is associated in the public mind with stereotypical male attributes (e.g., crime).

A final distinction to keep in mind is that the PSQ article is careful social science research and this is a blog post. Still, it’s something to think about as we watch coverage of the primary and perhaps the general election unfold.



About Maurice T. Cunningham

Maurice T. Cunningham is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He teaches courses in American government including Massachusetts Politics, The American Presidency, Catholics in Political Life, The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, American Political Thought, and Public Policy. His book Maximization, Whatever the Cost: Race, Redistricting and the Department of Justice examines the role of the DOJ in requiring states to maximize minority voting districts in the Nineties. He has published articles dealing with the role of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts politics and on party politics in the state. His research interests focus upon the changing political culture of Massachusetts.
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One Response to Media Coverage of Women Candidates

  1. Ed Lyons says:

    Professor Cunningham,

    That female candidates are often treated differently is obvious. Journalists and, to a lesser extent, activists, need to be reminded of this.

    However, I believe there is a gray area where a candidate might deserve unflattering coverage (regardless of her sex) yet some people will say it is because she is a woman. That zone, albeit a narrow one, is where I get uncomfortable about this kind of analysis.

    So I think AG Coakley is a fine citizen and has done a mostly good job as AG. (I found her inaction on probation and the Health Connector troubling.) But I find her campaign lacking substance. She is working extra hard to get the votes of women, as she knows there is a “gender gap” that will guarantee Charlie Baker cannot win.

    Here is where I am going with this: if she isn’t a great candidate (many believe this), and if she doesn’t run an issue-oriented campaign (even I can’t name policy reforms she wants), and she spends a lot of time working to appeal to women as a specific group, and her advocates make a big point about electing “the first female governor”, then it seems like there is a much larger zone where campaign issues could be blamed on journalists covering her differently because of her sex. (e.g. If she runs as being the “first female governor” than her identity as a woman clearly isn’t off limits as an ad-hominem attack, eh? I mean, you can’t say we should have a female govenor without pointing out a difference a woman would bring, as a woman, right?)

    So yes, let’s be on the watch for unfair coverage of AG Coakley and other female candidates. Unfortunately, we will see some of that. But there have to be some stylistic issues around the campaign of a woman aggressively seeking the votes of women to become our first female governor, that are legitimate.

    p.s. And while I don’t think the MassGOP should have people filming the parked cars of Democratic candidates, I think AG Coakley should park legally like the rest of us. She isn’t the president or even our governor.

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