What's in a Name? Coverage of Senator Hillary Clinton during the 2008 Democratic Primary

Article excerpt


Throughout the 2008 Democratic primary, Senator Hillary Clinton, her supporters and advocates, feminist groups, and commentators accused the media of sexist coverage. Was Hillary Clinton treated differently in the media because of her gender? The authors attempt to answer this question by examining the forms of address that television newspeople use to refer to the Democratic primary candidates. The authors find that newspeople referred to Clinton more informally than her male competitors. This treatment stemmed from the gender of the broadcaster; males show gender bias in how they reference presidential candidates. The authors conclude with suggestions for addressing gender bias in news coverage.


Hillary Clinton, primary election, news, gender bias

It does seem as though the press, at least, is not as bothered by the incredible vitriol that has been engendered by the comments by people who are nothing but misogynists.

Senator Hillary Clinton1

The media took a very sexist approach to Senator Clinton's campaign.

Howard Dean2

Like her or not, one of the great lessons of that campaign is the continued-and accepted-role of sexism in American life, particularly in the media.

Katie Couric3

The troubling question is not whether race is defining this campaign, but whether sex-or to put it bluntly, sexism is.

Susan Estrich4

Throughout the 2008 Democratic primary season, Senator Hillary Clinton, her supporters and advocates, feminist groups, and commentators suggested she received unfair news coverage because of her gender. While media organizations discussed this during the race, the charges of "media misogyny" took hold. Subsequently, scholars found evidence indicating that Clinton was in fact covered differently than her male competitors (e.g., Miller, Peake, and Boulton 2010; Carroll 2009; Carlin and Winfrey 2009). But, was Hillary Clinton covered differently because of her gender? If Clinton was treated in a sexist way, where did this disparity emanate from?

Certainly many comments made during the primary season indicate Hillary Clinton (HRC) was treated harshly because of her gender. Table 1 provides a small sample of nationally aired remarks by well-known television newspeople; these comments suggest overt sexism because they portray HRC as a castrator, first-wife, b-word, psychotic and murderous ex-lover, and she-devil. However, these examples are anecdotal and therefore not sufficient on their own to support claims of gender bias. Simply looking at Table 1, it would be difficult to ascertain if these statements were made because she was Hillary Clinton or because she was a "she." For example, HRC endured a long history of criticism because in the minds of many, she embodies not only a stereotypical (and negative) representation of second wave feminism, partly due to her unconventional approach to the role of first lady, but also because she represents female progress in general (Burden and Mughan 1999; Gardetto 1997; Winfield 1997; M. E. Brown 1997).5 As Candy Crowley of CNN stated in response to accusations of media sexism, "it was hard to know if these attacks were being made because she was a woman or because she was this woman or because, for a long time, she was the frontrunner."6 To determine if HRC's coverage was a backlash against feminism, simply an attack on a major contender, or the resultant of sexist attitudes, we examine a more valid measure of media coverage.

Media coverage can profoundly affect election outcomes. Specifically, gender bias in coverage can disadvantage female candidates (Kittilson and Fridkin 2008; Kahn 1992, 1994b). Historically, female candidates receive 50 percent less coverage than their comparable male counterparts (Falk 2008b; Kahn 1994a, 1996; Kahn and Goldenberg 1991). Also, coverage of females focuses less on the substantive issues and more on physical appearance, clothing, or other traditionally "feminine" narratives (Falk 2008b; Han and Heldman 2007; Heith 2003; Aday and Devitt 2001; Devitt 1999; Kahn 1994a; Kahn and Goldenberg 1991). …


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