Women In Politics: Coverage Focuses More On Personality Traits, Less On Issues, Study Finds

07/08/2013 06:16 pm ET
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When female candidates are running for office, is the media coverage different?

Yes, according to new research led by Johanna Dunaway, an Assistant Professor of Political Science and Mass Communication of Louisiana State University.

The study, published in the most recent issue of Political Research Quarterly, found that the gender of the people running in an election influenced newspaper articles about the candidates. Articles about female candidates included more discussion of character traits than articles about male candidates.

The research team collected data from 9,725 newspaper articles covering 2006 and 2008 Senate and gubernatorial races across America. They then looked at the gender of the candidates written about in each article and whether the piece focused on the personality traits of those running or the political issues at hand.

When only male candidates were running, stories focused on character traits 6 percent of the time and political issues 55.5 percent of the time. When only female candidates were running, the stories focused on character traits 9.4 percent of the time and issues 51.7 percent of the time. And when a mix of male and female candidates were running, the articles focused on traits 10.8 percent of the time and the issues 53.1 percent of the time.

These results indicate that the media may focus more on the personality traits of female politicians than of male ones -- and the presence of a female candidate in a political race brings personal characteristics to the forefront. The researchers concluded: "Races with a female candidate lead to news that is more focused on the personal traits and characteristics of the candidates, and this finding is especially stark for gubernatorial campaigns."

It's not only female politicians' personalities that disproportionally interest the media. Coverage of female candidates' appearances and clothing choices is widespread. There has been conflicting research on the extent to which this focus on appearance hurts women politicians more than men, but the issue is certainly not going away. In the past two months, New York Times and Washington Post articles have focused on female Senators' purses and a White House Counsel's shoe collection respectively.

Since articles about a male Senator's tie collection or unfriendly demeanor in the name of equality seem unlikely, we'd settle for fair and accurate coverage of any politician -- regardless of gender.

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