Invisible, Mysterious, and Inconsequential: The Absence of Women in 2004 Presidential Campaign Coverage
Lueck, Therese L., Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table
Discussions of leadership and its inherent qualities surface in the United States most visibly every four years during the presidential election. In defining the terms, tone, and parameters, the news media set the public's agenda in these discussions as they do most other issues and events of salience. Mainstream U.S. newspaper coverage during the latter stages of the 2004 presidential election modeled the campaign machismo of the two major political candidates, Republican incumbent George W. Bush and Democratic challenger John F. Kerry.
The national electorate was nearly evenly divided between the two candidates, lending importance to states that could "swing" the election either way, in particular, the state of Ohio. A close examination of two Ohio newspapers that were in step with the dominant framing of the national discussion on leadership reveals a marked absence of women. From depicting the essential qualification of leadership as masculinity to translating women's issues to fit a male-defined agenda, the news excluded women from meaningful discussion of leadership.
U.S. newspapers defined qualities of national leadership as they helped readers, a.k.a. potential voters, sort through the issues of a contentious presidential election in the fall of 2004. The political season featured presidential debates, but only between the top contenders of the two major political parties, effectively squelching voices of third-party opposition. This two-party dominance was reflected in the news framing of the campaign as a two-man debate, effectively silencing women's voices. Yet, with the polls showing an evenly divided electorate, the two campaigns were targeting key blocs of voters, including women.
Nowhere was coverage of the national election more important than in the Midwestern state of Ohio. The populous state's ability to pivot, or "swing," an election held the nation's focus, including that of the Republican and Democratic campaigns. The candidates repeatedly visited the state, which kept election coverage on Ohio's front pages. Late-term issues that arose in Ohio, particularly with regard to new voter registration and voter challenges, took on prominence in light of their potential impact on the national process.
Paying particular attention to the portrayal of women in the unfolding election story, this analysis investigates how the latter stages of the national campaigns were framed in newspaper coverage for readers in Northeast Ohio, a region of heavy newspaper penetration and home to over one-third of Ohio's voters. The question this analysis sought to answer was, With regard to women's roles and representation, how was national leadership framed?
A Review of the Literature
The literature of framing scholarship points to the fact that how media cover stories is as important as what stories they cover. Journalists construct the representations that news consumers use to make sense of events and issues. Robert Entman noted that a framing process was inherent in the selection and emphasis of some aspects over others, (1) which are the practices journalists routinely employ to express the newsworthiness of events and the salience of issues.
One manner through which news media bring credibility to their portrayal of events is by including opinion of expert sources in their stories. A study of the coverage of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., that compared print and broadcast news found a consistency among how the newspapers framed the events. Yet that study also found that the newspapers used more diverse sources in their stories than did broadcast media in the coverage of the national crises. (2) Another examination of expert sources found a preponderance of male sources in news stories. It also found that having a female reporter in a byline was a predictor of finding female sources in the story. (3) Recent research in cognitive processing has explored how the use of sources in news stories can cue gender stereotyping in readers. (4) In another study, Kathleen Endres found a close connection between a newspaper trade magazine and the values of the industry it covered, particularly in its reliance on "the close knit--primarily male--newspaper community. In the few instances where another perspective was offered, the comments and/or perspectives of women (outsiders to the industry) were trivialized and used as evidence to delegitimize" (5) the issue of Civil Rights.
Contemporary studies have built on the early feminist observations of Gaye Tuchman to develop a body of research that discusses how women and women's issues are framed in news coverage. (6) Karen Ross, in furthering her research on women, politics, and media, suggested that the practice of neutrality that news media use to frame female politicians and women's views is the newsroom rendition of society's patriarchal practice, replicating the hierarchy of power in much the same manner as the larger culture. (7) Ongoing research has examined working journalists, with Marie Hardin and Stacie Shain uncovering a symbolic annihilation of female sports writers. (8) Nevertheless, in a 30-year overview, Carolyn Byerly observed that women--through their work in the news industry, feminist movements, and alternative media--have brought change to the newsroom. (9)
Lana F. Rakow and Kimberlie Kranich argued that since women were so seldom covered in news, their rare appearance functioned as a "sign" for "woman," and that the meaning of the sign carried an assumption of whiteness. (10) When women are covered in mainstream news, it is often as victims. In a narrative analysis of how news stories covered domestic violence, Marian Meyers found that the male aggressor was portrayed as a victim--of society or his own instincts--and that the coverage represented the actual victim, by virtue of her gender, as deserving of the violence. (11) "Women, Men and Media" studies gauged women's representation on the front pages of U.S. newspapers through bylines, photographs, and story references in the final decade of the twentieth century. The studies did not find that women's front-page representation met parity with women in the culture or kept pace with women's increased presence in the newsroom. Spurred by these findings, the researchers established a watchdog group to monitor progress and encouraged other researchers to get involved (12) An international assessment of similar studies prompted Margaret Gallagher to observe that, given the embedded nature of news, to have expected a leap in the percentage of women would have been "naive." (13) Such observations have encouraged researchers to go "beyond the body count." (14)
Cynthia Carter and Linda Steiner noted that feminist research has often relied on the concept of hegemony developed by Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci to explain how the elite build compliance among those holding less power in order to maintain the status quo, and that media are complicit in this maintenance. They determined that, with women's alternative media recasting the representation of women, the reproduction of inequality through narrow definitions of femininity in the mainstream media called for constant renegotiation in order to maintain male dominance. (15)
Alternative news sources, such as the one founded by Rita Henley Jensen, Women's eNews, provide feminist media benchmarking for mainstream newspaper coverage. According to its mission statement, Women's eNews is an independent news service founded in 2000 "to bridge the gender gap in media coverage of issues of particular concern to women." Evidence of such a gender gap can still be charted across mainstream news media coverage. Well in advance of the fall 2004 election, popular literature was already establishing frames for the interpretation of that race. Of particular interest is a cover story that ran in the mass-circulation news magazine, Time, the previous year, which announced that the so-called soccer mom was said to have "morphed" into the security MOM. (16)
To locate the site of its analysis, the current study draws on research that charted the representation of women on the front pages of the two major Northeast Ohio newspapers during the 2004 presidential debate season. Relying on methodology derived from the "Women, Men and Media" studies, the 2005 study noted the presence of women in front-page national election news in bylines, photos, and story references for the weekdays of October 2004, the calendar month prior to the November presidential election. The study found that the majority of the front-page election stories carried male bylines, election photos prominently depicted men, and the election articles relied on …
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Publication information: Article title: Invisible, Mysterious, and Inconsequential: The Absence of Women in 2004 Presidential Campaign Coverage. Contributors: Lueck, Therese L. - Author. Journal title: Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table. Publication date: Fall 2006. Page number: Not available. © 2008 Forum on Public Policy. COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale Group.
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