10 Questions with Erika Falk

Covering Appearance, Ignoring Substance

Few Americans are aware that more than thirty women have run for the presidency of the United States. Victoria Woodull, a spiritualist turned successful Wall Street broker, was the first, in 1872. Her name did not even make it on the ballot, and it would take another half-century before women won the right to cast their vote in elections.

In Women for President:Media Bias in Eight Campaigns, Erika Falk studied the presidential campaign of Victoria Woodhull and seven other prominent female presidential candidates--Belva Lockwood, Margaret Chase Smith, Shirley Chisholm, Patricia Schroeder, Lenora Fulani, Elizabeth Dole and Carol Moseley Braun. In particular, she looked at the way the U.S. media treated these women in comparison to their male counterparts. To her shock and dismay, her research showed that not much has changed since 1872.

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Great Ideas Podcast, John Hopkins University
In a year when a woman is a leading contender for the Democratic nomination, Erika Falk discusses eight women U.S. presidential candidates and their complicated relationship to the news media.
AP Photo/ Jim Cole
According to Erika Falk, the U.S. media's bias against women candidates still persists. She claims that Hillary Clinton has received much less coverage than her male counterpart, Barak Obama. View Larger >
In your book Women for President: Media Bias in Eight Campaigns, you look at the way the media has portrayed eight U.S. women who have run for president, comparing their coverage to that of their male counterparts. Have things changed much over time?

This is the most surprising result of this research. I looked at eight campaigns that dated between 1872 and 2004. The data spanned three centuries; however, there were almost no indications of change over time. The disparities that were present in 1800 were also evident in recent campaigns!

Can you share some major trends you found?

The most striking finding is that women get less coverage than equivalent men who run in the same races. On average, men get twice as many articles as women and the articles are 7 percent longer. Men also get more substantive coverage. About 27 percent of paragraphs written about men are about issues, while just 16 percent of those about women are about issues.

Do stereotypes factor into the coverage of women candidates?

There was ample evidence that traditional sex roles and stereotypes played a role in the coverage. Women were more likely to have their accomplishments diminished by having honorary titles such as "Senator" and "Representative" dropped than were men. In comparison to men, women were more likely to be described as emotional, described physically, and have their family mentioned.

Your book was published prior to Senator Clinton's campaign in the 2008 Presidential elections, but can you tell us what you are seeing with the coverage of her campaign right now, especially in comparison to coverage of Senator Obama?

I did a pilot study of Clinton and Obama campaigns that looked at press coverage in January of 2007, when both declared their intention to run. The results were mixed. On one hand, Clinton got less coverage than Obama--consistent with past patterns. Clinton also had her more prestigious title (Senator) dropped in favor of the less prestigious "Mrs." or "Ms." It happened much less frequently that Obama's Senator title was dropped in favor of "Mr."

On the other hand, there were ways in which Clinton was treated better than historical women (though not as well as typical men). For example, historically, the appearance of women is mentioned in about 40 percent of articles about them. For men the percent is much lower (14 percent), but Clinton had her appearance mentioned 29 percent of time.

Do you think it's more important for women candidates to worry about their appearance than for male candidates? Would you offer any advice to candidates regarding appearance?

My research indicates that women are described physically four times as often as equivalent men who run in the same race. The press gives a lot of attention to what women candidates wear, their hair, and their beauty. The more time the press spends focusing on how women look, the less space there is available for information that might help voters make up their minds.

The focus on appearance may also be a subtle way to cue voters that the candidate is not a serious one. My suggestion: women candidates should come up with a fashion strategy that is designed to minimize comment. Dress conservatively with as little change as possible so as to minimize focus.

According to a February 2006 poll by CBS News and The New York Times, 92 percent of Americans say they would vote in a presidential election for a qualified female candidate. When asked if America is ready for a woman president, 55 percent of those surveyed said "yes." Do you think there is still a difference between what people perceive and what they actually do at the polls?

Part of the problem with polling about a woman president is that the questions ask about an un-named woman, which encourages people to rely on stereotypes. In a real election, people may have sexist attitudes, but they are put together with party preference, the issue positions of real candidates, and the characters of the people running. Research I conducted with a colleague indicates that party preference is a much stronger force than sexism. During the last election we asked Democrats who said they would NOT vote for "a woman" president, for whom they would vote if Senator Hillary Clinton ran against President Bush. The majority of those saying they would not vote for "a woman" preferred Clinton to Bush in a real head to head match-up.

One of the patterns you talk about in your book is the "novelty frame." What is that and why should we be worried about it?

This year, The New York Times noted that Senator Clinton was the "first woman with a real shot at the presidency." However, if you look back, the same was said about Elizabeth Dole in 2000. In that year, the New York Times described Dole as "the first woman to become a really serious candidate for President of the United States." Of course, back in 1972 the Seattle Times penned, "Representative Shirley Chisholm today became the first black woman to begin a serious bid for the presidency of the United States." The truth is that each woman who has run for the presidency has been framed as though her campaign was a first.

The problem with framing all women who run as "firsts" is that it suggests that women are perpetual anomalies in the political sphere. This makes women appear more risky as candidates, less likely to win, and less natural in the world of politics. It feeds the stereotype that somehow women candidates are operating outside their normal place.

Is what you are seeing unique to the United States or does it happen elsewhere as well?

My work only looks at women candidates in the United States, but one study compared the press coverage of international women presidents and prime ministers to the coverage of their immediate (male) predecessors or successors, the women heads of state received less coverage than did the men. This makes me think the kind of patterns I found are not unique to the United States.

What might be some of the potential effects of unequal coverage?

The obvious concern is that, if the press does not treat men and women equally, women will have less access to power. Such a trend flies in the face of the American ideal of a fair and democratic process. However, this is not my greatest concern. Studies at lower level races show similar patterns in terms of biased coverage, yet other studies show that at lower level races, women win just as often as men do. What is clear from this is that women are capable of compensating for biased coverage. What worries me is that the way the press covers (and ignores) women presidential candidates may deter women from running. Press bias is important, but the single biggest factor in women's low representation in higher office is that they rarely run. My concern is that the way the press covers women may suppress women's political ambitions.

What do you think can be done to improve coverage the women candidates receive?

Women themselves can do a lot. Women can devise a campaign strategy that takes into account the kinds of bias they are likely to encounter. They can emphasize issues, traditional masculine characteristics associated with leadership, and rationality. They can reframe attempts to cast their campaigns as symbolic or novel. They can set up media monitors to call and write letters when coverage is unfair. The most important thing women can do is run for office in greater numbers. I suspect that when women start running in equal numbers as men, the press will become less biased.


Masum Momaya, Curator
Masum Momaya, Curator
United States

Professor Falk's findings, that media bias has basically remained in tact since 1872, are disheartening and appalling! Do you think that as more women enter the highest levels of journalism this bias will be eliminated?

Stephanie Smith
United States

When reading this article I kept assuming that it was men who would not want a woman as president, but I remember reading a study about how women have just as little confidence in women in high positions as men do. For instance in the study the majority of women preferred a male boss. I don't know how true it actually is, but I find this strange. I wonder why women feel this way as well as men? I found it particularly interesting that every women candidate is looked upon as the first and how this makes it seem out of the norm. All of the negative stereotypes and media coverages talked about in this article make it seem like this will never change especially since it has gone on for so long. It's a little discouraging, but realistic.

Mary DeLorenzo
United States

This comment is in regard to the "10 Questions with Erica Falk" interview. The article really resonates with me when she speaks of the dangers of referring to female political candidates as "firsts." This makes the possibility of women candidates (as well as people of color) seem even more far away and out of reach. If we stop worrying about "firsts" and wondering if our country is "ready for this," people may stop recognizing these titles. This rings true with most situations in the political sphere. If we continue to refer to things as if they were "always this way," it will keep getting in the way of reform and revolution - MD

Omar Alcala
United States

I think what's most interesting is that Falk says that Women, over a span of three CENTURIES, get the same results when it comes to media coverage when running against males. Though she does note that intent of Hillary and Obama, she says that Hillary has gotten more media coverage than previous women have in the past.

Aisha Canfield
United States

10 Questions with Erika Falk: I was shocked to learn how many women have ran for President, many of whom have been labeled the "first" at having a real shot. It seems like while women are running for the presidency, they are also running for "airtime" or media representation as well.

donya disperati
United States

10 questions with Erica Falk- it is a sad truth that the way women are seen when running for any major political role has not changed in any dramatic way since 1872. For a country with so much power and technology, it is hard to realize that we have put women's roles in politics in the back seat for so long. When will the change ever come if it ever will?

Veronica Castellanos
United States

What i thought was interesting was the question regarding the factor of stereotypes and how they play a role in campaign coverage. What was interesting was the fact that same issues came up in her response as we have discussed in class, for example the mentioning of family. It does not come as surprise that women have less coverage than their male counterparts...many factors come into play resulting in that discrepancy between equal coverage between a male and a female candidate for instance a financial gap (women most of the time have less money to spend than men). While equal coverage opportunities are enforced and practiced it doesn't include fees and cost incorporated to make such media coverage possible, ie Benedita gives us a great example of that.

Brenna Murphy
United States

It mentions that the first woman to run for presidency was in 1872! Why don't we learn about THAT in history?!

Soleil Ilagan
United States

I found it interesting how a woman's appearance: hair, clothes, and beauty is given a lot of attention. True, it's always nice to look at someone who's gorgeous, but I would choose brains over beauty any day!

There is no doubt the media is bias. I don't buy the argument of women writing in or creating a media outlet to complain about the one sided media attention in which men recieve. The only way Americans could be accustomed to a woman president in the future, (that is if Hillary doesn't win)is to see more women run for political office.

Deleted User

Regarding 10 questions I find it so shocking and also very troubling that over more than 100 years the way that women running for president were covered in the media has not changed

Ashley Fischer
United States

10 Questions with Erika Falk - I found Falk's comment about how party preference "is a much stronger force" than sexism, and that people who otherwise did not desire to have a female president would vote for a female candidate simply because she was a candidate in the party of their choice. What does this really say about U.S. politics/political ideologies?

Jennifer Serna
United States

10 Questions with Erika Falk was eye opening on how women receive little attention in the media when they run for office. It's unfortunate how women must not draw attention to their appearances as the media scrutinizes that more than their male counterparts.

Cara Cameron
United States

Erika Falk: The media has the control to focus viewers attention unto fashion, like subtle changes in a female candidates appearance. The public needs to push the media to stay focused on the issues, and leave the hairstyles to the tabloids.

United States

i was shocked to learn that there has been more than 30 women that have run for presidency, and what is even more absurd is that i havent heard anything about this in the media, books, internet and so forth

donya disperati
United States

regarding 10 questions... it is an interesting article, but i feel like this year's election has thrown all these rules out the window, as very few are relevant now.

Meghan Johnson
United States

Erica Falk: After reading the 10 questions with Erica Falk, I thought it was really interesting that she found that the force of party politics was usually stronger than that of sexism. For example, when people were asked directly if they could ever vote for a woman for president and they responded "no," they were the same people who would rather have voted for Clinton than Bush when they were given the choice between two specific candidates. I also thought it was amazing on how much a role a woman's appearance played during an election. Falk even suggested that a woman dress conservatively as to not start more comment or discussion on her appearance rather than her politics.

Melissa Perry
United States

women have always received less screen time/media coverage/representation...why would it be any different in political campaign? I don't agree with it but I am certainly not the least bit surprised.

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