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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University January 14, 2008 | Vol. 37 No. 17
Has Media Bias Affected Women's Run for the White House?

In her new book, communications expert Erika Falk analyzes press coverage of eight women who ran for president between 1884 and 2004 and finds that they were treated differently than their male counterparts.
Photo by Kaveh Sardari

By Amy Lunday

In a February 2006 poll by CBS News and The New York Times, 92 percent of Americans said they would vote in a presidential election for a qualified female candidate from their own party. When asked if America is ready for a woman president, 55 percent of those surveyed said yes, a figure that has been steadily rising since the middle of the 20th century.

So why hasn't there been a woman in the White House?

A Johns Hopkins communications expert suggests that potential Madame Presidents have been obscured in the press. As a result, female candidates haven't been as familiar to voters as male candidates, said Erika Falk, associate program chair of the Master of Arts in Communication in Contemporary Society program at Johns Hopkins and author of Women for President: Media Bias in Eight Campaigns, to be published this month by the University of Illinois Press.

The book is especially topical during the 2008 presidential campaign, in which there has been considerable attention paid to the lone woman in the race, Sen. Hillary Clinton. Despite the fact that we see Clinton in print and on TV on a daily basis, Falk argues, the bias continues: The coverage isn't nearly as comprehensive, she says, as it is for Sen. Barack Obama.

In Women for President, Falk analyzes gender bias in press coverage of the presidential campaigns of Victoria Woodhull (who ran in 1872), Belva Lockwood (1884 and 1888), Margaret Chase Smith (1964), Shirley Chisholm (1972), Patricia Schroeder (1988), Lenora Fulani (1988 and 1992), Elizabeth Dole (2000) and Carol Moseley Braun (2004). According to Falk's research:

Men received more frequent and longer press coverage than women in the same race, with men having twice the number of stories written about them. The stories about the men were also 7 percent longer.

Stories about female candidates emphasized their physical appearance and families. For the women, there were three times as many physical descriptions (e.g., references to clothing or a candidate's age) as for their closest male competitor in the race. Women also were stereotypically portrayed as more emotional, and their professional titles were more likely to be omitted from stories.

Men received much more substantive coverage, with 27 percent of the paragraphs written about them focusing on issues. In comparison, only 16 percent of the stories about the women were based on the issues at hand.

Even if they polled at the same rate, men were more likely than women to be portrayed as having a shot at winning, even though they were just as likely to lose.

Sometimes the different portrayals of women worked in their favor: Though they received less coverage, women's quotes were 14 percent longer, and they received more frequent references to their biographies and character, with 37 character depictions for every 10,000 words, compared with 28 such depictions per 10,000 words for men.

"With the radical changes that have taken place for women in politics and journalism over the last 130 years, it is significant that the press portrayals of women candidates have not changed more," Falk said. "Although I found some differences in the press over time, the strongest trends did not show regular progress. Instead they suggested that women candidates from 1872 to 2004 were treated differently from their men counterparts, with women often getting the short end of the stick."

Falk believes that the same forces are at work in the 2008 campaign. From the beginning, she said, Obama has been more prominent in the press than Clinton: Both candidates announced their intentions to run for president in January 2007, and despite the fact that Clinton was higher in the polls from the start, the top six newspapers in the country ran 59 stories mentioning Obama in the headline that month compared to just 36 mentioning Clinton.

"In presidential campaigns, media portrayals are particularly important," Falk said. "Unlike lower-level races where interpersonal contact plays a central role, in presidential contests most of what constituents know about any candidate is learned from the media. Depending on the content, the media can encourage people to participate, engage and become interested in the political process, or instead determine that the political process is not for them."

But the media's influence reaches beyond Clinton's run for the White House. "Another reason for us to be concerned is that the press coverage or lack thereof may have a chilling effect on women's desire to run," Falk said. "That is to say, the press, which tends to ignore women candidates and paints them in stereotypical ways, may deter women from running, and this may be the most significant problem in making gains for women in office."


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