Wednesday, August 17, 2016

News coverage of Hillary Clinton often emphasizes gender over competency, study shows

Public Release: 17-Jun-2016
News coverage of Hillary Clinton often emphasizes gender over competency, study shows
University of Texas at Arlington

Though much progress has been made toward gender equality, news coverage of female politicians typically follows gendered lines that often disregards women's competence in political affairs, a University of Texas at Arlington assistant communication professor has found.

Dustin Harp, an expert in gender and media studies, examines the issue in "Hillary Clinton's Benghazi Hearing Coverage: Political Competence, Authenticity, and the Persistence of the Double Bind," which appears online in the June issue of Women's Studies in Communication.


The findings suggest that though this news media coverage shows some improvement in how Clinton was covered compared with previous research regarding representations of female politicians, the conversations still employ stereotypical feminine frames, including questioning Clinton's proficiency as a leader.

"Because of gender stereotypes, women are expected to act in particular ways that often place them in a double bind," Harp said. "The double bind is an either/or situation where a person has one or the other option but where both options penalize the person.

"One of these binds, femininity/competency is particularly tough for women politicians because to be feminine is seen as less powerful, which is clearly not good for a leader. At the same time to be a competent woman is problematic for many people who see that as unfeminine. So in this case the woman is criticized either way."


Harp's study found that Clinton often is presented as a competent political figure, but also that her emotions are referenced in gendered ways. A Los Angeles Times story, for example, explained that at one point "Clinton's voice broke." USA Today highlighted both that she "was near tears as she talked" and that "she erupted in anger." A Washington Post commentary described Clinton as "blowing her lid."

These descriptions are in line with past research findings that show how women's emotions are the focus of much attention, whereas men's emotional displays are scrutinized or mocked only when the reaction is deemed exaggerated or in violation of traditional masculinity, the paper found.

One example of a man showing emotion that was later documented by the media includes former Speaker of the House John Boehner's tearful episodes during important interviews and political events.

However, for women, the study found that being emotional was described as a part of who they are. For men, it is a trait that is demonstrated only sporadically, a peculiarity that is not a part of being male. The two emotions most prominent in news websites' coverage of Clinton during the Benghazi hearing were anger and sadness.

The findings are in line with analysis of previous studies that have shown news coverage of female politicians is often sex stereotypical to the extent that the media function to undermine or even dismiss women politicians.

"We found that when Clinton did show her humanity with an emotional display, either her capability was compromised by a show of weakness or her display was considered part of a calculated ploy," Harp said.


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