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Dianne Bystrom, director of ISU's Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics, has been following media coverage of women candidates since the 1980s. Photo by Dave Gieseke, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
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Clinton's media coverage is 'far less positive' than for Obama, says ISU's Bystrom
AMES, Iowa -- The media continue to scrutinize Hillary Clinton as her presidential campaign works to woo the "must-win" states of Texas and Ohio on Tuesday. But the media being hard on Hillary is nothing new, says Dianne Bystrom, director of Iowa State University's Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics.
Bystrom cites studies of campaign media coverage by the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) at George Mason University, and the Project for Excellence in Journalism. The most recent study by the CMPA found that Obama's coverage on four major television networks was 84 percent positive, compared to 51 percent positive coverage for Clinton.
The same study shows that Republican John McCain, the GOP's likely nominee, also has been treated well by the major networks. McCain's media coverage has been 73 percent positive, compared with just 57 percent for rival Mike Huckabee.
While Clinton's negative coverage has contributed to her faltering campaign, Bystrom sees it reflecting a bigger bias.
"Women have made some inroads in winning elected office, but they still have a long way to go," said Bystrom, who has contributed to 11 books on politics, including "Gender and Elections" (2006) and "Anticipating Madam President" (2003).
"Women are doing best in running for the state legislature, where they have about 24 percent representation across the country Women now comprise 16 percent of the U.S. Congress and hold eight of 50 governorships," she said. "Having a woman compete strongly for the nation's top executive office seems to have brought out some of those old gender stereotypes we hold as a society through the media."
The history of women candidates and the media
According to Bystrom, previous research on the media coverage of women political candidates running for office in the 1980s through the late 1990s found that they received unequal coverage to their male opponents -- both in terms of quantity and quality. Women candidates during that time period suffered from gender stereotypes, receiving less substantive issues coverage and more coverage on personal topics such as appearance, personality and family.
Bystrom says coverage for women candidates started to become more equitable in the late 1990s with one big exception -- Elizabeth Dole's failed bid for the GOP presidential nomination in 1999. Bystrom has documented how Dole received significantly less coverage than eventual nominee George W. Bush, and also less coverage than Steve Forbes and John McCain, who were behind her in the polls at the time of the coverage. She also received less issue coverage than her three male opponents, but more on the personal front -- especially her personality.
The ISU researcher sees many similarities in the current campaign coverage, which is why she says it has less to do with the candidate and more to do with her gender.
"Although some argue that Hillary Clinton's more negative media coverage is due to the Clintons' long, and often tumultuous, relationship with the media, it's clear that she is being covered in stereotypical ways that have more to do with her gender. If Hillary was a man, there would be different coverage," Bystrom said.
"The way she's getting covered now is very similar to the biased coverage we saw with the women who were running in the 1980s and early '90s, with numerous references to her hair, her dress, her family and her personality," she said. "The same thing happened with Dole. So the last two women who have made serious runs for the presidency have both gotten negative coverage. Unlike Dole, however, Clinton's not going to have a problem with the amount of coverage."
Documenting evidence in forthcoming book
Bystrom's complete analysis is included in a chapter, "Confronting Stereotypes and Double Standards in Campaign Communication," in the forthcoming book, "Legislative Women: Getting Elected, Getting Ahead."
Bystrom's research has found that Clinton also received considerable negative coverage while she was in the White House as an "unconventional" First Lady. She received her most positive media coverage while she was running for the U.S. Senate.
"So it's not just Hillary, because Hillary Clinton is capable of getting positive news coverage," Bystrom said. "She gets negative news coverage when she violates our gendered expectations of how a First Lady should act and which gender should be president of the United States."
While Clinton has lost in 11 straight primaries to Obama, Bystrom still sees her being very much a contender for the nomination -- particularly if she wins Ohio and Texas on Tuesday. And because of the way the Democratic Party proportions its delegates in each state, Bystrom projects that neither candidate may have enough delegates to lock up the nomination before the Democratic convention this summer -- if both stay in the race.
Dianne Bystrom, director of ISU's Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics, has analyzed research thus far in the presidential campaign and found Hillary Clinton to have the least positive coverage among the top remaining candidates. Bystrom's has documented her findings in a chapter, "Confronting Stereotypes and Double Standards in Campaign Communication," for the forthcoming book, "Legislative Women: Getting Elected, Getting Ahead."
"Although some argue that Hillary Clinton's more negative media coverage is due to the Clintons' long, and often tumultuous, relationship with the media, it's clear that she is being covered in stereotypical ways that have more to do with her gender. If Hillary was a man, there would be different coverage."