Is the press treating women candidates unfairly?
Democratic men ran the table on cable news last week, with three presidential candidates generating the most coverage and raising fresh fears that they’re benefiting from built-in social and media advantages over women in this cycle. Last week’s tabulation comes after men enjoyed the biggest gains in campaign kick-off coverage, too. “We found that Bernie Sanders and Beto O’Rourke saw dramatic, mountainous peaks in mentions immediately following their announcements, and in some cases still days after,” FiveThirtyEight reported last month. “Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren saw more modest bumps.”
The welcome flood of women candidates this presidential cycle creates a whole new area of media analysis in terms of how a historic Democratic field filled with women is covered by the press, and whether gender-based double standards are at play. The vocal concerns to date revolve around the tone of coverage and the amount of coverage: Are women getting less attention than they deserve compared to their male counterparts, and is the coverage they’re receiving significantly different from the type men are accumulating?
The fears are especially ripe coming in the wake of 2016, when Hillary Clinton’s nomination and campaign were marred by wildly sexist coverage, as much of the press held her to entirely different standards than her Republican counterpart. Indeed, this issue has long been a problem for female candidates, even outside of the presidential arena. Previous research confirmed that women running for U.S. Senate and for governor in the 1980s received less—and more negative—coverage than male candidates.
For Clinton, generating press attention was obviously not a problem, but that attention was plagued by missteps. Was it coincidence that the campaign press essentially walked away from policy coverage in 2016—the same year that the first woman nominee, steeped in policy initiatives, was trying to make White House history while running against a sexist, substance-free opponent? (Clinton’s campaign website posted more than 112,000 words detailing her policy positions; Trump’s website posted less than 10,000 words.) And is it a coincidence that once again, it’s women candidates who seem to be in the vanguard of policy discussions this campaign season, yet critics claim the press is overlooking those important initiatives?
“Elizabeth Warren is setting the policy agenda for the Democratic primary. You wouldn’t know from most of the coverage,” Refinery29 recently noted. Additionally, have women candidates focused so heavily on policy over the last two presidential cycles because they feel that’s what it takes to be taken “seriously,” only to have their hard work largely ignored by the media?