Opinion-Policy Nexus

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Dr. Elizabeth Goodyear-Grant (Ph.D. McGill) is an associate professor of political studies at Queen’s University. Concentrating on gender and politics, her current research is comprised of several ongoing projects that deal with gendered aspects of political behaviour, representation, and news media and elections, respectively. Goodyear-Grant has also published work on attitudes toward democracy and political representation, attitudes toward the use of referenda, and so on, all part of a larger research agenda that concentrates on representation and political behaviour.

Recently, she published a book entitled Gendered News: Media Coverage and Electoral Politics in Canada. (Vancouver: UBC Press), which was shortlisted for this year’s Donald Smiley Prize. According to the jury report:

“Goodyear-Grant’s book offers a rare but important look at the relationship between media coverage and women’s representation in Canada.  In particular it “…asks whether the new media contribute to the supply- and demand-size barriers to women’s political representation.”  The answer is: yes, it does. Drawing on a considerable body of content-analytic data, alongside opinion data from the Canadian Election Studies, Goodyear-Grant offers an impressively detailed analysis of the nature and magnitude of gendered media coverage in Canada.  Goodyear-Grant makes a strong case for the importance of mass media in citizens’ ideas about politics and politicians.  She then outlines important differences in the visibility and treatment of female politicians. The book exposes the heavily biased climate in which female politicians much operate; and offers one possible explanation for ongoing gender gaps in political interest and participation.”

Below is an interview I conducted with Dr. Goodyear-Grant about her new book via email during the early summer months of 2014.

Alcantara: Why did you decide to write a book on this topic?

Goodyear-Grant: Two reasons are particularly important. First, while becoming more common, analyses of media’s effects on the electoral success and political representation of the full diversity of Canadians is under-analyzed. I wrote this book, in part, to fill a gap. Unlike parties, the campaign finance regime, and other important institutions structuring candidacy and office-holding, I didn’t think we had an adequate understanding of how media affects electoral outcomes, as well as the supply of female candidates. Second, this book is also very much an evaluation of news media’s performance. News media serve multiple roles in a political system, and one of these is to act as the information provider. When news coverage is unbalanced or biased, that creates ripples in the system. Some of these may be positive, and some may be negative. I present evidence in the book that certain patterns of coverage can harm female candidates’ electoral prospects, contributing then to under-representation. In this sense, the book is an accounting of how well media live up to their primary task in a democracy. Generally, news media are doing a good job, but there is also systematic evidence of gender imbalance in coverage.

Alcantara: So what kinds of patterns of coverage did you find? And how pervasive were these patterns across media types (e.g. radio, tv, internet, etc.) and media outlets (e.g. “left-wing” vs. “right-wing” outlets)?

Goodyear-Grant: In terms of the patterns of coverage, I’ll give you the broad strokes. We tend to think about news coverage in terms of two broad categories: visibility and quality. Visibility refers to how much a person is shown or discussed, as well as how prominent in a newspaper or news broadcast their coverage is placed. On this measure, there is little systematic evidence that women are perennially disadvantaged. On certain indicators of visibility, women lag behind men, but on others, women and men are equal, or women actually outpace men. This last point is important. Some women are very prominent in news, such as former MP and cabinet minister, Belinda Stronach, as well as former NDP MP (and now mayoral candidate for the city of Toronto) Olivia Chow. Yet, this focus on women, or fixation in some cases, is often gendered. Women candidates sometimes receive a lot of news attention because of their novelty value, because they do not fit the bill of the traditional politician, or because of their connection to some powerful man, as in the case of Chow, whose marriage to the former NDP leader Jack Layton is mentioned in every one of her print news stories in my analyses of coverage of the 2006 Canadian federal election. While such coverage sets women apart as “different” because of their gender, likely contributing to enduring stereotypes that view men as the norm in political office, it is not clear that it would be an immediate electoral disadvantage for women. In fact, greater coverage can be beneficial for candidates, depending on the quality of the coverage.

On the more important issue of how men and women are covered in political news, the story is different. Systematic evidence is provided in Gendered News that women tend to be covered differently than their male counterparts because of their gender. Coverage of female candidates often fits into one of roles or stereotypes, sex object, mother, pet, and iron maiden, each of which poses dangers for women’s equal representation in politics, as well as societal gender equality more generally. Indeed, to the extent that news coverage perpetuates well-entrenched, but tired stereotypes about men’s and women’s roles, abilities, and aspirations, media contribute to broader dysfunctions in how the genders see themselves and each other.

The sex object was how Belinda Stronach was consistently portrayed, with news coverage that emphasized her appearance, personal life, and glamour over all else, but also her relationship to her powerful father, the automotive parts magnate, Frank Stronach, suggesting she was not to be taken seriously as a political figure. The iron maiden is another popular frame, and it fits with my discovery in the book that women candidates’ aggressive behaviour is exaggerated in news, while at the same time female “toughness” is implicitly criticized as “unfeminine”. This may be part of the reason for the book’s finding that news depictions of female politicians’ aggressive behaviour are actually detrimental to voters’ evaluations. When a woman goes on the offensive, voters rate her news stories more negatively, a result that was not produced for the male comparators in this portion of the study. This direct link between news coverage and public attitudes puts news media directly in the cross-hairs in assessing why women are politically under-represented.

Alcantara: And what did you find in terms of differences across media types and outlets?

Goodyear-Grant: In terms of patterns across media types and outlets, there are clear differences. The contrasts in print and broadcast coverage are due largely to the format differences. Broadcast news has very lean content. A 60-minute television newscast, leaving out time for commercials, has much less actual news than a newspaper. As such, lengthy descriptions are often absent from television news. This seems to benefit female candidates sometimes, because it is in all the descriptive material where commentary on appearances, personal lives, and the like creeps in. My analyses demonstrate that mentions of candidates’ appearances, clothes, and personal lives are much rarer in television news than in print news. Another major difference is the huge emphasis on party leaders in televised news compared to print news. Non-leader candidates are largely absent from national televised news programs. This means that without female party leaders, women are marginal in depictions of campaigns in national televised news. National papers have much more coverage of non-leader candidates, because they have more space. There are other differences, but these are some of the big ones.

In terms of outlets and whether those thought to be “left” or “right” in ideological orientation provide different coverage, not really. There aren’t actually systematic differences along these lines in hard news content (as opposed to editorial content, which I have not analyzed extensively in the book). One might expect more gender-balanced or gender-neutral coverage from outlets thought to lean “left”, but this is not borne out in the data in any systematic way. This finding is consistent with the literature on stereotypes, which says that their activation and use is largely implicit, not the result of explicit bias or prejudice.

Alcantara: Does the party to which a women politician belongs matter for your findings? Or any other individual characteristics, like ethnicity, age, or the like?

Goodyear-Grant: These are complicated questions. Separating the effects of gender on news coverage, on the one hand, from those of party, ethnicity, age, and other characteristics is tough. Starting with the question of party – the most critical consideration guiding the vote, and a powerful influence on news coverage as well – my book proposes that party does matter a great deal. One of the important points here is that gender and party stereotypes interact in important ways. To give an example, women in left-wing parties may be portrayed as more “soft”, compassionate, and liberal than they really are, in part because stereotypes about women and left-leaning parties encourage this. In contrast, where stereotypes collide, such as women in right-leaning parties, the outcome may be different. News stories may depict right-wing women as tougher, more aggressive – as possessing more masculine traits, essentially – because of party. Simply put, party moderates the impact of gender on news coverage.

Other individual characteristics can matter too for how gender influences media coverage. Ethnicity and age are obvious factors. Part of the difficulty in sorting out how they matter is that there have been comparatively few visible minority women and young women office holders to study. I cannot offer systematic evidence, but the analyses in the book suggest that minority and young women may get more coverage on account of their relative novelty, but their coverage may be problematic in what it says or implies about them. For example, my analyses suggest that visible minority women are often presented as exotic.

Alcantara: What kinds of advice might you offer female politicians as they navigate the news media? How about journalists?

Goodyear-Grant: These questions find me on shakier ground! I cannot claim to have much advice for female politicians about how to avoid gendered news, and I say this for several reasons. First, much of the gendering is beyond candidates’ control. There isn’t a whole lot many of them can do about their coverage. Even if they could, it would require hiding or de-emphasizing aspects of their personal lives or who they are – such as de-emphasizing the fact that they have children – and I’m not sure this is a good thing. I interviewed former Prime Minister Kim Campbell for this research, and one of the things she said about going into politics is that you cannot any longer be your authentic self, a fact she found unfortunate. I suppose this is true for both men and women, but to then take it one step further for women and strip them of all the things that make them different from men or that remind the electorate that they’re mothers or wives or daughters is ridiculous. The sacrifice is too great. It also does nothing to push newsmakers, and all of us, away from the idea that politics is a male preserve. Finally, the idea that gendered news is best avoided is not universally true, and especially not in the eyes of candidates on the campaign trail. While I make the case in the book that gendered news, broadly, ultimately harms women’s political representation, at the individual level it is not difficult to identify instances where gendered news has created opportunities for female candidates, either as a result of the practices that produce it or the way it’s received by audiences. Some of the female MPs I interviewed for the book felt, for example, that their gender garnered attention, and they welcomed the “leg up”, so to speak. Gendered news can present both opportunities and obstacles, is what I’m saying.

Journalists generally do a decent job of providing gender-balanced coverage, an important finding in the book. My advice to newsmakers would be to exercise caution and vigilance. Simple. Much of the gendered news coverage that is produced is the result of gender-based stereotypes, which get cued implicitly, without motive or conscious action. In other words, we are susceptible to gendered thinking about candidates because that is the schema with which we look at men and women in the world, all of us, and in many situations. Newsmakers need to be more cautious in the words they choose to describe female candidates and the topics in their stories about female candidates.

Alcantara: Now that this book is done, what’s your next major project?

Goodyear-Grant: I have a few projects active at the moment. I’m working on several papers assessing gender and race affinities in candidate preferences with Erin Tolley, my colleague at University of Toronto, using data collected from web-based survey experiments conducted over the past year. I’m also embarking on a new 5-year SSHRC-funded project with Amanda Bittner, my colleague at Memorial University, whereby we intend to identify better gender measures for use in survey research, with a focus on election and public opinion surveys. The challenge with this work is that we need to identify the politically-relevant aspects of gender identity, test various operationalizations of these, and then further test how these can be combined in an economical way for widespread use in standard public opinion and election surveys. This is an exciting project, to be sure, and one that is both methodologically and substantively innovative in its outcomes.