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News coverage of female politicians focuses more on character traits

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Female New York Senator Kirsten GillibrandIf you think the media treats female politicians differently than male politicians, you’re right.

Research published online July 3 in Political Research Quarterly has found that news coverage of female politicians focuses more on character traits and less on their policy arguments than it does for their male counterparts.

“There is clear variation across [political]races in terms of the focus of news stories,” stated study authors Johanna Dunaway, Regina G. Lawrence, Melody Rose, and Christopher R. Weber. “In line with the previous literature and our own expectations, on the whole, races with female candidates are more likely to feature trait stories than male versus male races.”

For their study, Dunaway and her colleagues collected data from approximately 10,000 newspaper articles covering statewide elections in the 2006 and 2008 elections across the United States.

They found that for male-only election coverage, the stories focused on character traits 6 percent of the time and the issues 55.5 percent of the time. For male-female races, the articles focused on traits 10.8 percent of the time and the issues 53.1 percent of the time. For female-only elections, the stories focused on character traits 9.4 percent of the time and on the issues 51.7 percent of the time.

“Depending on the level and type of office, races with a female candidate may yield qualitatively different stories relative to races with only male candidates,” the researchers concluded in their study. “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.”

Dunaway and her colleagues also found evidence that gubernatorial elections generated more trait coverage in general compared to Senate elections.

Though the type of coverage changes when female candidates run for office, that is not necessarily a bad thing for women. Previous research has found that female politicians are stereotyped as being compassionate consensus-builders, while their male counterparts are seen as more divisive. Focusing on personality traits could be beneficial “if coverage emphasizes traits the public associates favorably with their gender and the office they seek,” the researchers explained.

“By the same token, coverage of issues is not necessarily ‘good’ for a female candidate’s chances if the issues covered are associated in the public’s mind with stereotypical male competencies—or are not seen as crucial issues to be handled by the office sought.”

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