Men Still Report the Bulk of Our Elections Coverage

We appear to be on the verge of entering an election that hinges on women’s political engagement, yet our press corps is largely male

Credit: Mihajlo Maricic/EyeEm/Getty

Since the start of the Trump administration, politics has been women’s work — but you wouldn’t know it from the men who cover the news. Women did the bulk of the day-to-day activism and organizing against Trump throughout his first term. It was female voters who propelled Democrats to victory in the midterms, and it was female Democrats who dominated those very electoral contests. And we now have more women running for president than at any recorded point in history. Yet 66 percent of the reporters assigned to cover “international news and politics” for major newspapers are men, according to a new report from the Women’s Media Center.

Drawing from more than 94 studies, the report also found that at newswires like the Associated Press and Reuters, men were credited with 63 percent of elections coverage and 70 percent of political coverage overall. At online news outlets, 74 percent of election news was credited to male journalists.

So, if you’re wondering why female candidates seem to get tougher press coverage than their male counterparts, the answer is actually not hard to figure out. No matter how many advances women make in the political arena, they will always be working at a disadvantage as long as men are allowed to determine how the public perceives them.

Of course, the relationship between sexist media coverage and male reporters is not one-to-one. Plenty of men are capable of treating female candidates fairly (and plenty of female reporters have their own internalized misogyny to work out). Yet, on the whole, the national media has shown time and again that it still hasn’t learned how best to talk about female candidates. Women are persistently scrutinized more harshly than men over issues like “likability” (because powerful women are bitches) or “authenticity” (because all women are liars). These concerns may certainly float up in men’s coverage, but they never play the disproportionate role they do for women: The New York Times recently reported that voters rated both male and female candidates on “likability,” but “only in women, research shows, is it considered non-negotiable.” Voters will support an unlikable man if they agree with his policies, but they have to approve of women. If you need more data on that, well: There’s a big piece of it sitting in the Oval Office right now.

The media augments this problem by focusing on female candidates’ personalities and disproportionately publicizing their errors, to the point of eclipsing their actual politics. One study found that the New York Times devoted more front-page stories to Hillary Clinton’s email scandal in six days than it did to her policies in 69 days — and that’s not counting all the dustups over haircut prices and hot sauce that came to dominate her coverage. All in all, Clinton’s “controversies” comprised 19 percent of her coverage (and were mentioned 16 times as often as her most widely covered policy position), whereas Trump’s scandals comprised only 15 percent of his press — even though his centered around sexual assault and possible treason.

When it was just Clinton, you could argue that the press had it out for Clinton. But with more women in the race, the pattern is repeating. Elizabeth Warren’s first campaign coverage was about her “likability.” There have been three major reported stories about Amy Klobuchar mistreating her aides and just one about Bernie Sanders retaining sexual harassers on staff and paying female campaign workers less than men. And just a few weeks into the 2020 primary, we’ve already seen countless hot-sauce moments: “Scandals” over how Kirsten Gillibrand eats chicken, whether Kamala Harris likes Tupac, and if Elizabeth Warren actually enjoys drinking beer.

No matter how many advances women make in the political arena, they will always be working at a disadvantage as long as men are allowed to determine how the public perceives them.

For much of American history, media bias against women didn’t really interfere with campaign coverage, because the people serving in Congress or the White House were nearly all white men, and the reporters covering Capitol Hill or the White House were also white men. There was no question of whether the reporters and the candidates were drawing from the same base of experience. Nor was it surprising that many “political” reporters had a sub-rudimentary understanding of feminism; they didn’t cover powerful women often enough to bother learning.

But that dynamic is finally breaking down. A record number of women are now serving in Congress, including an increasing number of young women of color, such as Ayanna Pressley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Ilhan Omar. There’s a real chance that a woman takes the White House in 2020. Yet the makeup of the press has not changed. As a result of this delayed adjustment, we appear to be on the verge of entering an election that hinges, to an unprecedented degree, on women’s political engagement and “women’s issues” — be it Roe v. Wade, universal childcare, family leave, the continued legacy of #MeToo, or just the political value of getting a woman in the White House — with a press corps that is still largely male.

And these men are not, generally speaking, the best equipped to cover these issues. The toxic way we cover female candidates is only half the problem; the male-dominated political press also has a persistent tendency to underplay or neglect feminist policies. In 2016, for example, debates over childcare, family leave, and overturning the Hyde Amendment (which were all on the table) took a back seat to discussions of campaign finance reform or Trump’s wall — and in an election that was all but certain to determine the fate of Roe v. Wade, it took until late October for a televised debate moderator to ask about the candidates’ views on abortion. Women running on these issues are therefore working at a loss; it doesn’t matter how great their ideas are if no one will report on them.

Consider Kirsten Gillibrand. She has the most thorough and wide-ranging feminist résumé of any candidate, having been in the forefront of Congress on everything from paid family leave to justice for sexual assault survivors to the black maternal mortality crisis, and she’s made every effort, according to the New York Times, to “ride a wave of women’s political energy right into the White House.” Yet Gillibrand’s press coverage has focused on whether she was too unkind to Al Franken. The issue has dogged her so much that she’s had to release a series of campaign ads defending her call for his resignation — even though several of the other Democrats in the race also called on him to step down — and, like the emails of yore, stands to overshadow any discussion of her actual policy platform. Gillibrand’s feminism is not relevant in how it benefits women, but only in how it stands to disadvantage a man, which is what happens when women’s issues are framed primarily through a male lens.

But the women Gillibrand is seeking to lift up are the whole point — or they deserve to be, anyway. Every candidate in 2020, male or female, should be working to center women, not least because female voters comprised up to 58 percent of the votes in the 2016 Democratic primary and are expected to show up in even greater numbers this time around. We’ve grown so used to seeing politics presented as a man’s business that we forget this particular contest comes down to who women want to see in power — and we see politics that way because men have been doing nearly all the presenting.

If women dominated political coverage the way they are coming to dominate the Democratic primary field, we might finally judge female candidates first and foremost by their policies. We might focus more on Kamala Harris’ own legislation to combat black maternal mortality rates, or the debate over whether her proposed reparations policy goes far enough, and less on whether she actually likes chicken and waffles. Women could see ourselves at the center of the debate — as the authorities analyzing and interpreting the candidates, the politicians seeking power, and, most important, as the voters responsible for determining who deserves to lead the country.

Author of “Trainwreck” (Melville House, ‘16) and “Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers” (Melville House, ‘19). Columns published far and wide across the Internet.

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