Striking balance: Covering female politicians

wendy_coverThree things are undeniable when it comes to women in politics: they are the minority, they are relatively new in the playing field, and they will play a big role in the upcoming midterm and presidential elections.

For all candidates, media coverage can make or break campaigns; but for women, undue negative impact can come as a result of gendered coverage.

This was the focus of the “Pitfalls and Possibilities of Covering Female Candidates” discussion Tuesday hosted by Women, Action and the Media in Washington, D.C.

With the buzz — or ringing, rather — surrounding Hillary Clinton’s possible presidential run, the panel tackled some of the complications of covering female candidates, what research shows about the media’s impact on their campaigns, and frankly, how not to ruin it for Clinton in 2016.

Wearing a fitted black dress

 Erin Cutraro is the recently-named executive director of She Should Run, a think-tank dedicated to increasing the number of women in public leadership. During the discussion, Cutraro cited research that shows that talking about a woman’s physical appearance — regardless of the tone — is detrimental to the candidate’s voter approval.

“We know unequivocally that … appearance coverage damages women in their campaigns,” Cutraro said.

She is referring to news items that highlight female politicians’ appearance, particularly in a way that is typically not done for men.

In case you need a refresher, let’s remember the recent New York Times Magazine’s “Can Wendy Davis Have it All?” profile on the Democratic Texas senator, where in the first four paragraphs the author manages to squeeze in her emblematic pink running shoes, her “fitted black dress and high heels” and her marriage, twice.

Or Newsweek’s article on Sarah Palin, which describes her “dressed in a button-down shirt, fitted jeans, and a beaded belt with a big red buckle.”

Then there is also what political commentators have said on air during news programing on Hillary ClintonChristine O’Donnell, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi and others.

Cutraro said part of the reason why attention to physical appearance can be detrimental is because women have to work harder to prove they have the required qualifications.

“Women are coming to the table, when they are running for office, already facing a higher hill to climb,” Cutraro said. “Women are held to a higher standard, a higher need to tilt their qualifications in a way that men don’t, and they need to lead with their qualifications. Pair these two things together and it’s another barrier women are facing to advancing.”

What is fair game?   

The panelists also discussed the media’s at times unbalanced attention to the personal lives of female politicians.

Pelosi, a former speaker of the House, said she was repeatedly questioned about who would take care of her children — the youngest a teenager then — when she stepped up to the speaker role.

Democrat Jennifer Boysko, who ran unsuccessfully for the 86th district seat in the Virginia House of Delegates, and also a panelist, talked about what is often called “the mommy trap.”

“Women who don’t have children are deemed as soulless, and they don’t care about children; but darn it if you’re a mom then it’s why aren’t you at home taking care of your kids?” Boysko said, who is a mother of two. “You’re damned if you do and dammed if you don’t.”

Boysko said that being a mother gives her a perspective “that is different than a 70 year old man.” But Cutraro said that when it comes to covering this aspect of a politician’s life, it’s about striking a careful balance and making clear that “that isn’t the story alone.”

But when is it okay to draw attention to a female politician’s appearance and personal life? The panel overwhelmingly agreed on what the Women’s Media Center calls the “rule of reversibility.”

“Don’t mention her young children unless you would also mention his, or describe her clothes unless you would describe his, or say she’s shrill or attractive unless the same adjectives would be applied to a man. Don’t say she’s had facial surgery unless you say he dyes his hair or has hair plugs,” WMC co-founder Gloria Steinem said in a statement.

The panelists also talked about the difference between talking about Chris Christie’s weight, and the physical appearance of a female candidate.

“It’s not simply a superficial matter, it’s about health,” Huffington Post politics reporter Sabrina Siddiqui said.

There are very few women, if any, that are — frankly — as overweight as the New Jersey governor and have tried to run for high-level office. The panelist didn’t take this item on further, but I would like to note that if you think the attention to Christie’s weight is cruel, just image a 300 pound female trying to run for a place in the national spotlight. I can already hear the cowbells. That is why right now, few would even try.

Moderator of the panel and associate editor at Talking Points Memo Kay Steiger said she often sees the difficulties for journalists in deciding what details to include or leave out.

“As a reporter and a writer, these details can make… a story sing,” Steiger said.

Saddiqui said that while writing about female politicians, her time to use these details hasn’t come yet.

“I personally haven’t found an appropriate time to talk about what she was wearing,” Siddiqui said. “Unless you find an appropriate place, I tend to steer on the side of “it’s not relevant.’”

In the end, for members of the media, the lesson is to ask ourselves what the news value is on anything we report. The lives and appearance of female politicians on or off the campaign trail is no exception.

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