Going through old newspaper articles, Rebecca B. West noticed a distinct shift in the way the media covered Utah’s first and only female governor, Olene Walker.
When Walker transitioned from lieutenant governor to take over for Mike Leavitt in 2003, she experienced a “honeymoon phase” with high approval ratings in polls and was considered a “media darling,” West said.
“The entire tone switched,” though, when it came time for reelection, according to West. Walker’s role as a grandmother — which was initially seen as a positive, with people saying, “Wow, look at all she’s doing at her age” — shifted. The discussion being covered by the media became, “I don’t know if she can handle this. I mean, think about how old she’ll be at the end of this next term.”
Utah’s media have moved the needle in their coverage of women in political campaigns since Walker served, West said, but there’s still “definitely room for improvement.”
West and other researchers analyzed 383 articles, opinion pieces by columnists and commentary from contributors published between 1995 and 2020 in The Salt Lake Tribune, Deseret News, Standard-Examiner and Daily Herald to see how the newspapers covered female candidates in Utah who have run for Congress, governor, lieutenant governor, the state Senate and House, and mayor.
The most frequent topic mentioned in the stories and commentary was a candidate’s background, according to the report, followed in descending order by viability, general tone, mention of gender, leadership traits, masculine versus feminine issues, family life, masculine versus feminine traits, physical appearance, personality traits, sexist comments and level of government.
How female candidates are covered in media can affect whether women are elected, or if they even decide to enter the political realm in the first place, the authors wrote.
Walking the line
A third (33.4%) of the articles called out a candidate’s gender, the report states, while nearly a quarter (24.5%) of gender references “highlighted the historic nature of a female candidate running or holding office in Utah’s male-dominated politics.”
“The decision to repeatedly point out gender underscores the perceived rarity of female politicians in Utah while potentially minimizing their capabilities, experience and knowledge,” the report states.
During her time serving in the Utah Senate and, now, as lieutenant governor, Deidre Henderson said she feels like she’s generally been covered fairly by the media. She doesn’t notice some of the overt stereotypes that may have been included in reporting years ago, she said, such as focusing on a woman’s physical appearance or questioning whether she’s up for the job.
“But what I have experienced is this kind of more subtle, either just kind of ignoring women, myself included, like not covering what they do, or only covering certain types of topics,” she said.
For instance, when the media quote politicians on “substantive issues,” it’s often men, she said.
“That could just be the fact that there are a lot more men in Utah politics than there are women,” she said. But generally, women are “just not asked.”
“And we do have experience. We’ve sat on committees. We’ve dealt with legislation. We dealt with issues,” Henderson said, pointing out that she served and chaired the revenue and taxation committee for years.
Henderson doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with human interest stories about female politicians, she said. She’s had articles about how she’s going back to finish her degree and her recovery from being sick with COVID-19.
“I personally talk about my story and my family and my nontraditional path to being lieutenant governor … all the time. And so it’s obvious and fair game that people would report on that or would discuss it,” she said.
“But, as a woman in Utah politics, especially, I think there is this line that we feel like we have to walk,” Henderson said. “We have to be traditional while being nontraditional. We have to be tough while being soft. …. And we have to demonstrate leadership without being too aggressive.
“These are things that we’re told and that we experience and that we internalize,” Henderson said. “And so I think that’s part of the reporting, is just a reflection of us externalizing what we’ve had to internalize.”
Real Women Run — YWCA Utah’s training program designed to help women run for public office — helps female participants navigate this issue, teaching them how to communicate with voters and the media through free consulting sessions with experts, said Yándary Chatwin, chair of the organization.
Whether a woman is running for Congress or a school board, Chatwin said, they still have to know how to convey their message concisely and answer tough questions on the fly.
“It will be great to get to a day” when gender isn’t an issue that can affect a candidate’s election, she said. “But for now, we will help them be prepared.”
Other findings and tips on how to improve
If a candidate ran a negative campaign, “the media focused more on her negativity,” the report states. “Likewise, a positive campaign resulted in a more positive focus.”
Researchers also found that issues considered to be more feminine — such as education, health care and child care — “were reported more than twice as frequently as masculine issues” — including finances, the economy and natural resources — with women running for office.
That difference is kind of like the “chicken or the egg” scenario, West said. It could be that the media tie female candidates to social issues, she said, or that “women are naturally drawn to people-centered issues.” Alternatively, it may be that “a lot of women in politics are Democrats, and feminine issues coincide very closely with Democratic issues right now, as well,” she said, so it’s tough to discern.
“When a candidate demonstrated emotionality, the Utah media called it out, often in a way that suggested women need to ‘bottle’ their emotions and ‘bury’ themselves in their work to be ‘tough’ enough,” the report states, citing a 2003 example.
West said she found that between 1995 and about 2005, “there seemed to be much more in the media in terms of sexist comments,” with reporters and commentary focused on personality traits rather than leadership traits. While there was less of that in recent years, it still lingered into 2020, she said.
“Many media folks now are watching that a little bit more,” said Susan Madsen, founder and director of the Utah Women and Leadership Project. But there’s still “unconscious bias,” she said, which “all of us have.” For instance, we might say a woman is “competent” for a position, when that word wouldn’t be used to describe a man, she said.
“Do we ever report on the physical appearance of a man? I mean, do we talk about what color tie he had on, or if he had patterns in his socks?” West said.
“It’s not a thing,” she said.
According to the report, “the amount of gender bias and types of media coverage received by female politicians is an important topic, particularly in our current political climate, when voters rely on media as their primary source of political information.”
To have “more equitable and representational media coverage” of female politicians, the authors suggest that the press increase reporting to help “normalize women holding political office,” steer away from writing about a candidate’s appearance, be more aware of sexist language, focus on candidates’ positions, qualifications and contributions rather than their personal and family lives and nonpolitical backgrounds, and highlight a woman’s leadership traits in a way that acknowledges her leadership capabilities.
“I would love,” West said, “to see the media portray the individual as the individual.”
Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.