Communication Currents

Press Coverage of Hillary Clinton: Fair or Foul?

June 1, 2008
Mass Communication, Political Communication

In January of 2007, Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both declared their intention to seek the Democratic presidential nomination. Both were sitting Senators with Ivy League resumes, but at the time, Clinton had a commanding lead in national polls (33% to Obama's 20%). Despite this, Clinton argued that press messages about the Clinton and Obama campaigns were not fair. “Saturday Night Live” took up the idea that communication about the race was skewed toward Obama. In one parody a reporter introduced the debate moderators this way:

“Like nearly everyone in the news media the three of us are totally in the tank for Senator Obama . . . We will make every effort tonight to keep this bias hidden, but should it become obvious, please remember, we are only human.”

Humor aside, there was good reason to think that the press messages were biased. Studies of press coverage of the campaigns of women who had previously sought the presidency had shown that in fact the press does communicate differently about men and women, often giving women the short end of the stick.

Since 1872 when the first woman sought the Oval Office the press has not sent the same messages about women candidates as it has about men. Generally speaking, when careful comparisons were made between women and equivalent men who run in the same races, women get less coverage overall, have less printed about their issue positions, and their bodies and appearance are more likely to be mentioned. In keeping with this trend, the coverage of Senator Hillary Clinton, while not as biased as that of most previous women, is still not the same as that of a typical (white) man.

There are many races available for such an analysis. Looking back through history, quite a few women have sought the presidency of the United States and many of them received substantive press coverage. The first two women to run did so before universal women's suffrage (Victoria Woodhull in 1872 and Belva Lockwood in 1884). They were followed by (among others) Senator Margaret Chase Smith in 1964, Representative Shirley Chisholm in 1972, Representative Pat Schroeder in 1988, Elizabeth Dole in 2000, and Ambassador Carol Mosley Braun in 2004.

These women are not political nobodies, but their candidacies are far from common knowledge. Press neglect is a principal reason so little is known about women who have sought the Oval Office. When press coverage of eight women who ran for president was compared with that of eight men who ran in the same races and who polled about the same, the men, on average, had twice as many articles written about them as did the women. The pattern was similar but not quite as stark in the Clinton-Obama race. In January and February of 2007, the top six circulating newspapers in the U.S. ran 191 stories with Obama in the headline compared to 132 with Clinton. This is all the more surprising considering that at that time Clinton was leading Obama in the polls. This disparity has continued through April 2008 with Obama still leading in number of stories that headlined with his name (2,218) compared with Clinton (1,864). That represents an 18% advantage for Obama. So in this regard the press would appear to remain biased against women who run.

There is good news for advocates of gender equality, though. Despite the disadvantage in overall coverage, Clinton actually had more of her public policy positions reported in the press than Obama at least at the first month of the campaign. This represents a break with past coverage trends. In the past elections on average 27% of paragraphs in stories about men covered the public policy positions of the candidate while only 16% of the paragraphs about women did so. Yet in the January of 2007, the first month of the Clinton-Obama campaign, 22% of the paragraphs written about Clinton were predominantly about issues whereas just 5% of those about Obama were. In other words, Clinton received more substantive coverage than the women who preceded her while Obama got less substantive coverage than his historical predecessors. However, it is noteworthy that since in general the press covers men's public policy positions in 27% of paragraphs, Clinton has still been less successful in getting her public policy messages into the press than previous men.

A similar trend was true of coverage of Clinton's physical appearance. In the races of eight women who ran before Clinton, on average women were described by how they looked in 41% of articles, while only 14% of articles mentioned the appearance of men. Contrast this to the first month of the Clinton campaign, in which 29% of articles contained some physical description of Clinton. This is well below the percentage for women who proceeded her but also well above the average for men. As interesting was the fact that 40% of articles about Obama included some physical description of him; virtually all of these were about his skin color. This may suggest that as a woman Clinton was more subject to physical descriptions than a white man would have been, but also that Obama's skin color was more salient to reporters than was Clinton's gender.

Clinton may have been right that she was not treated fairly by the press, but the situation is more complicated than that. The fact that she got less coverage than Obama despite a commanding lead in the national polls may have been because she was a woman. Her gender also may have resulted in less coverage of her policy positions and more coverage of her appearance than would have been the case if she were male. However, she did get more issue coverage and less appearance coverage than previous women who ran. Further, at least in the first month of the campaign, Clinton was more successful than Obama in getting messages about her policy positions covered, and she was less subjected to irrelevant coverage of her appearance than he was.

Of course none of this means that press bias was the reason that Hillary Clinton appears as though she will lose the nomination for the Democratic Party, though clearly less press coverage could have put her at a disadvantage, and focus on her appearance may make her appear like a less serious as a candidate. These results do suggest, however, that traditional gender roles and attitudes about race are still a significant part of our culture and these attitudes get reflected and even amplified in press coverage about women candidates. It also suggests that women who run need to come up with a press strategy to compensate for any minimization of coverage they may get. Voters should also be aware that the presentation of candidates by the media is affected by our culture and not a pure and fully fair representation of them.