The upcoming midterm election has received notably more media attention than previous midterms. Not only is it a crucial point for Democrats, who have the potential to take control of Congress, there is also a record number of women running for office.
According to Bloomberg, 524 women ran for congress in 2018 and 256 won their primaries. This record-breaking group of women is forcing one of media’s longstanding challenges back to the forefront of our minds: covering female candidates accurately and fairly. The media often focuses more on the appearances, personalities, marital status and domestic life of female candidates. They tend to be subjected to a different, less substantial kind of coverage than their male counterparts.
During the 2008 and 2016 elections Hillary Clinton faced many challenges that her male opponent were not subject to. The media raised questions about her health and has focused on her state as a mother and grandmother.
In 2014, USA Today insinuated that Chelsea Clinton’s pregnancy could possibly deter Hillary from running for President: “It’s unclear how Chelsea’s pregnancy will affect Hillary Clinton, who is considering a race for president in 2016.” USA Today suggested that she would have to choose to be a grandmother or president. In fact, Mitt Romney welcomed two grandkids on the campaign trail, but it was never brought into question whether he would leave the campaign to be a grandfather.
Has this year’s uptick in female candidates changed the way the media covers women? Has the drastic change in the political climate changed the way the media covers government?
Female candidates still suffer a similar kind of treatment by the media as they did prior to 2016 and the subsequent surge of female candidates, but there are fewer incidents of blatant sexism.
Leading up to the Massachusetts primaries in September, the Boston Globe came under fire for posting a picture of candidate Brianna Wu in casual attire with a silly face between two pictures of her male opponents in suits.
I have dressed professionally every day for 2 years to present myself as a serious candidate. Hair done professionally, down and straight. Natural color. Heels.
I have four versions of the same dress, I wear it so much.
It was 95 degrees today and I wore that canvassing.
— Brianna Wu (@Spacekatgal) August 29, 2018
I am so disappointed in the @BostonGlobe for this. You have a responsibility to represent me accurately to voters. Picking a pic from when I ran an indie game studio is not fair journalism.
— Brianna Wu (@Spacekatgal) August 29, 2018
However, there has been a recent shift toward coverage of policy and qualifications for office regardless of gender. For example, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s political ideology is receiving more attention than her appearance in her campaign for NY-14. Joseph Crowley held that seat for 19 years, making the victory of a young, female socialist candidate an unexpected upset. The New York Times labeled her the “Democratic Giant Slayer.”
From The New York Times to Fox News, the media has been discussing Cortez’s policy and her promises to voters across the political spectrum, rather than the fact that she is a woman running for office.
This shift from bias against women to bias against ideology is arguably a shift that occured post-2016. In 2016 the U.S. saw its first female Democratic nominee on the campaign trail towards the presidency. Today the media is more likely to cover women based on their political ideology. This is partly due to the polarization that plagues today’s political climate.
2016 also saw a dramatic shift in the battle between the media and “fake news.” In the era of “fake news” the media’s roles as fact checker and and watchdog have only become more important. This can be see in the way the media keeps track of sexism in the government.
As sexism and gender bias have become more visible as the media has taken on the role of checking politicians and others in positions of power on their sexist remarks. This summer, Florida Representative Ron DeSantis made comments about Ocasio-Cortez: “You look at this girl Ocasio-Cortez or whatever she is, I mean, she’s in a totally different universe. It’s basically socialism wrapped in ignorance.”
Representative DeSantis’ attempt to dismiss and diminish Ocasio-Cortez by calling her a “girl” did not go unnoticed. NBC, The Washington Post, Huffington Post, CNN and Politico were all quick to report on the incident. Ocasio-Cortez responded herself as well:
Rep DeSantis, it seems you‘re confused as to “whatever I am.”
I am a Puerto Rican woman. It‘s strange you don’t know what that is, given that ~75,000 Puerto Ricans have relocated to Florida in the 10 mos since María.
But I’m sure these new FL voters appreciate your comments! https://t.co/xJlroSe5Hs
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@Ocasio2018) July 23, 2018
Much has changed since the 2016 elections. Female candidates are running in record numbers, the country is more polarized than ever and the media is forced to adjust to the new political climate. Today female candidates themselves are using social media to speak out about the sexism they are faced with from “unfair journalism” and other candidates alike. There are still incidents of sexism in the media, but as media become more polarized and the role of women in government becomes more normalized, there has been a shift towards coverage based on ideology, instead of the gender of the candidate.