Study: N.Y. Times 2008 Clinton Coverage “Decidedly Stereotypical”

The New York Times coverage of the 2008 presidential race was “decidedly stereotypical,” according to a new study, whose author fears a similar “gendered agenda” may occur in the 2016 race.

“At the aggregate level, what I found was that Clinton's gender was mentioned much more so than her male competitors and that she also received less issue coverage than her male competitors,” said Lindsey Meeks, whose study appears in the September 2013 issue of the Journalism and Mass Communications Quarterly.

Meeks is a researcher and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Washington's Department of Communications whose area of specialty includes how the news media covers the gender of political candidates.

For the peer-reviewed study, Meeks performed a content analysis of a random sampling of New York Times coverage of Hillary Clinton from her official candidate announcement in January 2007 to her formal withdrawal in June 2008, as well as a random sampling of the Times' coverage of Sarah Palin from the announcement of her nomination for the vice presidency through Election Day.

Articles were coded for whether they used gender labels like “husband” or “mother” to describe Clinton, Palin, or their male opponents; whether the articles mentioned their positions on so-called “feminine” issues such as health care, education, women's rights, reproductive rights, and social welfare and “masculine” issues that included military/defense, crime, economy, and foreign policy; and whether the Times applied to each candidate character traits that are seen as “feminine,” such as compassion, emotionality, honesty, altruism, and congeniality, or “masculine,” such as strength, independence, aggressiveness, and confidence.

The University of Washington study discovered that the Times applied gender labels 6.5 percent more often to Clinton than to male candidates. It also said Clinton received significantly more gender label coverage than Barack Obama and John McCain. “Notably, the Times provided similar volumes of gender coverage for Clinton and Palin, 17.5% and 18.8%, respectively,” the report said. “Thus, despite running for different offices, their gender was emphasized similarly.”

Meeks concluded from the data that the Times was “upholding the news norm of focusing on how women are deviant in politics” and that while the emphasis “could be interpreted positively... news coverage of women's gender often sets a more negative tone and communicates to readers that women simply do not fit.”

The report noted that the Times emphasized “masculine” issue coverage anywhere from two-and-a-half to five times more than “feminine” issue coverage. It added that “the most dramatic shift was for masculine issue coverage: from the first month to the rest of the election, Times masculine issue coverage of Clinton dropped in half, from approximately 58% to 28%.”

Meeks writes that the focus on “masculine” issue coverage overall may have disadvantaged Clinton, stating that “the lower coverage of feminine content could have detrimental effects on women politicians' chances.” She also points out that “skewing toward masculinity in news, coupled with the gender stereotypes found in society, can create a stereotyping cycle” that strengthens gender barriers for women.

The study also found that while Clinton and Palinreceived often contrasting tonal coverage, they received similar amounts of “masculine” and “feminine” trait coverage:

Clinton and Palin were very different. Clinton was seen as cold, calculating, and overly ambitious, whereas Palin was perceived as a concerned “hockey mom,” known for her down-home, folksy mannerisms. Yet the Times gave these women virtually the same amount of feminine and masculine trait coverage. This suggests that no matter how different two women may be or how hard they try to portray themselves as distinctive, the press will most likely cast them in a similar mold.

Meeks said such sexist coverage spanned the entire paper, from Page One to the Op Ed page, and in her interview with Media Matters pointed to Maureen Dowd's columns in particular for stereotypical labeling.

“When I was reading through The New York Times coverage, certainly when I was looking at some of the Maureen Dowd pieces, where either she was cold and calculating and a robot or of course when she supposedly welled up while speaking then she was overly emotional,” Meeks said. “Maureen Dowd had this whole long section where she talked about Hillary Clinton being schizophrenic, bouncing from emotion to emotion from character to character so much so that we can never really know who she is, so it painted her in the light that she can only be this extreme or that extreme and I don't feel like I saw that kind of coverage being applied to men. I want to see a little but more of that in between.”

Meeks is hardly the first to hone in on Dowd's ugly, gender-driven Clinton commentary. In June 2008, then-Times public editor Clark Hoyt highlighted the “relentless nature” of Dowd's “gender-laden assault on Clinton,” writing that her columns about the Clinton campaign “loaded with language painting her as a 50-foot woman with a suffocating embrace, a conniving film noir dame and a victim dependent on her husband,” Hoyt detailed.

Meeks has little hope that The Grey Lady's Clinton coverage will improve if the former Secretary of State attempts a 2016 presidential run.

“I wouldn't say that I think there's going to be a ton of change,” Meeks said. “I think that perhaps you are going to see that same kind of thing, things starting off positive. I feel like in a lot of ways we are just reliving 2008 ... I feel like you are getting that same hype, that same ramp-up which is probably still going to include a lot of fairly positive coverage of what she's doing. But once somebody else starts looking like they are going to be running as well, that's when it is probably going to start getting negative again. It feels like a lot of the same types of things I was seeing in 2008.”