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Media Depictions of Female Political Leaders

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Media
Wordcount: 2232 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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It has been almost 100 years since women won suffage. 1920 is an important year that women went out to vote and some of them started to seize their position and become political leaders. Nowadays, women win success at local, state and federal levels elections (Carroll & Fox, 2014). But at the same time, men occupy most of the authoritative positions in politics. In the House of Representatives, women hold 83(19.1%) of the 435 seats and hold 22(22%) of the 100 seats in the Senate (Catalyst, 2018). In 1984, Geraldine Ferraro became the first female nominee for the White House as Democratic vice presidential candidate (Meeks, 2012). Until today, America has not had a women president or vice president. The higher the position, the harder it is for a women to win.

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 Previous research has established the importance of the media coverage of the women’s bids for office and suggested mass media made an influence on the outcome of the elections in general (Dunaway, J., Lawrence, R. G., Rose, M., & Weber, C. R. 2013). From 2008 to 2016, as candidates for vice president and president, Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton received a large amount of media coverage.

News coverage of Sarah Palin focuses 2008 president campaign, as John McCain’s running mate. Before that time, she was the Alaska governor. 

Different from Palin, Hillary Clinton has always been the subject of the media interest since her husband Bill Clinton ran for office in 1992 (Topić & Gilmer,2017). When she ran for president and worked as Secretary of State, it was the news coverage’s high peak. These media coverage from newspaper and online media have changed as Hillary’s political identity changed. But the biases exist and persist in different ways.  

In addition, Nancy Pelosi, Michele Bachmann and Nikki Haley both made contributions in political arena as female political leaders. Nancy was the House Speaker from 2007 to 2011. Michele Bachmann served in the Minnesota Senate and is the first Republican woman to represent the state in Congress then ran for president in 2012. Nikki Haley was the first governor in South Carolina. They all get news coverage but less research studies than Sarah and Hillary.

This research brief explores and concludes how media depicts those women political leaders who run for higher positions and what traits are highlighted in depictions. Communication practitioners can use the results of this research brief to develop further study about women political leaders’ election. [important]

Literature Review

 The brief reviews literature has three parts: media coverage of Sarah Palin and media coverage of Hillary Clinton and media coverage of other women political leaders. Media coverage includes newspaper, magazines, tv and online blogs.

Media coverage of Sarah Palin

 Research indicates that during the 2008 campaign, Sarah Palin received media coverage that disadvantaged her because of her gender. After content-coding and analyzing a sample of 2,500 individual newspaper articles from the top-circulating newspapers in each of thirteen battle-ground states in 2008, Miller and Peake (2013) found though Sarah’s media coverage was more than Biden’s, the coverage of her gender, appearance and family status was disproportionately mentioned. In Newsweek and Time magazines’ news coverage focused on her personal experience and characteristics similarly rather than reporting Palin’s policy stances and frequently mentioned her lack of national political experience (Wasburn & Wasburn, 2011).

In Palin’s media coverage, there were notable differences between newspaper, television and political blogs. Bode and Hennings (2012) chose The New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today, three major networks evening news broadcast from NBC, ABC and CBS and a purposive sampling blogs as analytical samples. They found that in foreign policy area, television news covered more Palin than Biden when Biden was chosen for his foreign policy experience. In family topic, blogs covered more in Biden when newspaper talked more in Palin.

Palin’s media depiction is not only represented but influenced by other media like late-night comedy programs like Saturday Night Live. Sarah Palin’s 2008 interview with Katie Couric and a Saturday Night Live (SNL) became the obvious watershed of her media depiction. Before SNL’s parody mimicking the interview was boardcasted, journalists from the mainstream news media like ABC, NBC and the New York Times tended to overlook the interview or blame it to McCain campaign. After parody, journalists attributed the fault to Palin and questioned her qualification (Abel& Barthel, 2013).

Media coverage of Hillary Clinton

 Research shows media coverage of Hillary Clinton during the time that she worked as the U.S Secretary of State and party nominee running for presidency does not treat her equally and influenced by the stereotype.

Harp, Loke and Bachmann (2016) chose her 2013 congressional testimony about the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya as a crucial moment and went on a qualitative analysis of 93 articles from the top 8 news websites including CNN, MSNBC, New York Times and so on. They found these articles used portrayal of emotions to underline Hillary’s feminine characteristics and questioned her competence as a leader. Furthermore, her emotional displays in hearing either used to question her competence of control or blame her wants to escape blame. Visual covers are lined with the former conclusion. 21 magazine’s covers from 2010 through 2015 including different areas from political to entertainment presents Clinton rather negative and misogynistic, warning readers about her authenticity and ambition (Bachmann, Harp and Loke, 2018).

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In the terrorism area, which is thought more about masculinity, media coverage of Hillary Clinton’s performance in United States’ raid on Osama bin Laden has more direct bias. Analyzing the 201 articles about the Situation Room, a conference room for raid action, from international newswires publishing a week after May,1, 2013, Clinton was depicted as emotional and stressed while her male colleague were not. As a major politician, Clinton was overlooked because press prioritized hegemonic masculinity in terrorism(Staudinger & Ortbals, 2014)

Clinton is blamed as her feminine traits in areas which press used to prefer masculinity. In addition, her feminist identity is attacked too. Gilmer and Topić (2017) chose 20 articles from the Washington Post and the New York Times from September 2015 to September 2016 during the president election to do a qualitative discourse analysis about Clinton’s feminist views. They concluded that the Washington Post endorsed that Hillary is not a feminist and the New York Times endorsed that Hillary should not win because she is a woman. The media produced new discourse that new feminism was needed to undermine Hillary’s feminist’ identity. 

Media coverage of media coverage of other women political leaders

 As the Republican presidential candidate, Michele Bachmann’s television news coverage from ABC,CBS, NBC, CNN, FOX and MSNBC was less than her male competitors in primaries stage of 2012 campaign. She was quoted in only 5% of the coverage and received less issue-related coverage. (Bystrom & Dimitrova,2014).

Dabbous and Ladley (2010) did an in-depth qualitative analysis of Nancy Pelosi’s media coverage including 115 articles from the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle from 1 November 2006 to 29 January 2007. This study confirmed that in the America cultural context, a female must adopt masculine characteristics to prove her competence. Also they indicates that masculine traits are predominant while the feminine characteristics is stereotypical in the media coverage.

South Carolina’s governor Nikki Randhawa Haley received media coverage from South Carolina’s largest media The State during her two election. During the first 100 day of her first term, she was portrayed as trailblazer in South Carolina because of her gender. Most articles emphasized her women characteristics. In the second term, she was depicted more negative and criticized directly (Ejaz, 2017).

A study of a large-scale election including the Senate election in 2006 and gubernatorial contests in 2008 also demonstrates the similar situation of women candidates meet. This study compared media coverage of contests with and without women. The outcome is that if there are female candidates, the media will yield more traits of coverage and it is less likely to generate issue coverage than trait coverage (Dunaway, Lawrence, Rose and Weber, 2013).


 This research brief found for women political leaders, no matter in which level authoritative positions, they both received biased media coverage. Though Sarah and Clinton’s media coverage amount are not following the characteristics that women candidates tend to receive less attention than man competitors (Wasburn & Wasburn, 2011), all of the women are more focused on traits rather than issues. The pattern of media coverage of women is not the same for every one but changes slightly according to the real situation.


  • Abel, A. D., & Barthel, M. (2013). Appropriation of Mainstream News: How Saturday Night Live Changed the Political Discussion. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 30(1), 1–16. https://doi-org.proxy1.library.jhu.edu/10.1080/15295036.2012.701011
  • BODE, L., & HENNINGS, V. M. (2012). Mixed Signals? Gender and the Media’s Coverage of the 2008 Vice Presidential Candidates. Politics & Policy, 40(2), 221–257. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1747-1346.2012.00350.x
  • Bystrom, D., & Dimitrova, D. V. (2013). Migraines, Marriage, and Mascara. American Behavioral Scientist, 58(9), 1169–1182. doi:10.1177/0002764213506221
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  • Catalyst. (2018). Women in Government. Catalyst. Retrieved from
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  • Dunaway, J., Lawrence, R. G., Rose, M., & Weber, C. R. (2013). Traits versus Issues. Political Research Quarterly, 66(3), 715–726. doi:10.1177/1065912913491464
  • Ingrid Bachmann, Dustin Harp & Jamie Loke (2018) Covering Clinton(2010–2015): meaning-making strategies in US magazine covers, Feminist Media Studies, 18:5,793-809, DOI: 10.1080/14680777.2017.1358204
  • Khadija Ejaz (2017): Good manners and high heels: newspaper coverage of South Carolina’s first female governor, Journal of Gender Studies, DOI:10.1080/09589236.2017.1316247
  • Meeks, L. (2012). Is She “Man Enough”? Women Candidates, Executive Political Offices, and News Coverage. Journal of Communication, 62(1), 175–193.
  • Miller, M., Peake, J., & Boulton, B. (2010). Testing the Saturday Night Live Hypothesis: Fairness and Bias in Newspaper Coverage of Hillary Clinton’s Presidential Campaign. Politics & Gender, 6(2), 169-198. doi:10.1017/S1743923X10000036
  • Miller, M. K., & Peake, J. S. (2013). Press Effects, Public Opinion, and Gender: Coverage of Sarah Palin’s Vice-Presidential Campaign. International Journal of Press/Politics, 18(4), 482–507. https://doi.org/10.1177/1940161213495456
  • Poloni-Staudinger, L., & Ortbals, C. (2014). Gendering Abbottabad: Agency and Hegemonic Masculinity in an Age of Global Terrorism. Gender Issues, 31(1), 34–57. doi:10.1007/s12147-014-9117-y
  • Topić, M., & Gilmer, E. C. (2017). Hillary Clinton and the Media: From Expected Roles to the Critique of Feminism. Qualitative Report,22(10), 2533–2543.
  • Wasburn, P. C., & Wasburn, M. H. (2011). Media coverage of women in politics: The curious case of Sarah Palin. Media, Culture & Society, 33(7), 1027–1041. doi:10.1177/0163443711415744


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