Johns Hopkins University

Spring 2008
Vol. 5, No.2


A Eulogy to FUSE

Pooling Expertise to Combat Pollution

Student Research: From the Field

High-Tech Access for a Centuries-Old Poem

>For Female Would-Be Presidents, Press is Hard to Get

Fractured Origins

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For Female Would-Be Presidents, Press is Hard to Get

Illustration by Wally Niebart

In the final months leading up to the 2008 Democratic National Convention, major newspapers have been filled with stories about Hilary Clinton and her quest to become the first female Democratic nominee for U.S. president. The articles chronicle her husband's role in her campaign, her chats with voters in the diners of small-town America, her latest verbal skirmishes with Barack Obama, and more.

But if history is any measure, just because Clinton is in the papers doesn't mean she's receiving the same amount--or depth--of coverage as her male competitor. And that hurts her quest for the presidency, according to Erika Falk, author of Women for President: Media Bias in Eight Campaigns (University of Illinois Press, 2008).

"In a presidential election, most people don't meet the candidates in person," says Falk, the associate program chair of the master's degree program in communication in the school's Advanced Academic Programs. "Most of what people know about the candidates they get from press coverage." And that press coverage is far from equal, she says.

In her book, Falk compares media coverage in major daily newspapers of male and female presidential candidates in eight races from 1872 through 2004. The candidacies include those of Belva Lockwood (1884), Margaret Chase Smith (1964), and Carol Moseley Braun (2004). Comparing these women's campaigns and those of five others to those of losing male candidates with similar credentials, she found that male candidates received twice as much press coverage as women and the news stories about them were 7 percent longer.

Moreover, "women were less likely to have their issues covered," says Falk. Some 27 percent of the paragraphs in newspaper stories about male candidates were about issues, compared to16 percent for female candidates. In addition, Falk found that women were four times likelier than men to have their physical appearance described in news stories, that women's professional titles were dropped more often than the titles of male candidates, and that women were less likely than men to have their political viability assessed in news stories than men, even if they polled similarly.

Falk became interested in the topic nearly a decade ago when someone gave her a list of 10 women who had run for president over the last 150 years. Even though she had a bachelor's degree in political science, the names were unfamiliar. "How could there be 10 women who had run for president?'" she remembers thinking. Intrigued, she started looking into the press coverage of their campaigns and its contents.

Perhaps the most surprising thing Falk discovered while researching the book was that the disparity in coverage hasn't improved over time. "I thought I would see dramatic differences in the early period and no differences in our modern egalitarian society," Falk says. After all, in 1872, when Victoria Woodhull became the first woman to run for U.S. president, women didn't have the right to vote, there were no female elected representatives, and there were few women reporters or editors or newspaper owners. Those things changed over time, and yet, "there were disparities in coverage just as large in the 1900s as there were in the 1800s," she says.

Case in point: Falk compared coverage of Clinton and Obama in January 2007 in the top six circulating newspapers in the country. Clinton, then the front-runner in the polls, had just announced her intention to run for president. There were 59 stories that mentioned Obama in the headline, and 36 that mentioned Clinton.

Despite the disparity in media coverage for female candidates, Falk believes women can overcome the barriers and win. "When women run in lower races, like for the Senate, women win," she says. "The reason women presidential candidates get different coverage is that they are still treated as a novelty and a risk. When lots of women run, the press coverage will eventually even out. The way to make this change is for more women to run for office."