Avoiding Sexism In Election Coverage

If You Wouldn’t Report Something About a Man – Don’t Report It About A Woman – a/k/a Avoiding Sexism In Election Coverage

Last week, I read two articles about Kamala Harris – one in Politico with a headline using the term “ruthless” and the other in the New York Times with the headline “tough progressive”.

Both articles referenced what sounds like an unremarkable incident had it been about a male candidate from almost 20 years ago involving a police union rep (who supported the death penalty which she did not), whom she asked to support her campaign while pointing her finger at him.

This brought home to me the fact that headlines and articles can do big damage to candidates. Think of how the media pilloried Hillary on her “likability”.

Already the 2020 election has 4 women running for the democratic nomination and there may be more.

Given past media sexism, it’s time to set some ground rules. So, for better or worse, here is a non-journalist’s stab at doing just that.

Appearance – Avoid comment unless appearance is germane to the story.

  • Hair – color, cut and style and changes thereto are irrelevant . . . except maybe baldness due to illness.
  • Clothing – pants suits, dresses, skirts, jeans, gowns, designer or thrift store choices are irrelevant except perhaps a “wardrobe malfunction” or clothing with a message such as Melania’s “I really don’t care, do u?” jacket.
  • Shoes – Jimmy Choo, Nike, or CFM Pumps, who cares?
  • Makeup – red lips, smoky eyes, or lots of lashes, who cares?
  • Weight – too much, too little or just right is none of our business and irrelevant unless so extreme it affect health or trying out for “My 600 pound life”.
  • Height – too tall, too short or just right makes no never mind.
  • Face – unless necessary for facial recognition or used in the context of being demonstrably two-faced, forget it.
  • Plastic Surgery – just ask Jane Fonda about this!

Motherhood, grand motherhood or not – Avoid comment except for general coverage of family status

  • Work-life balance – since this has traditionally been covered as a woman’s issue and not a man’s (since the “little wife” has always been seen to pick up the household slack for the male candidates) avoid this like the plague!
  • Supportive spouse – an extension of “work-life balance” – this assumes the woman is expected to do the housework and she is lucky to have a spouse who helps out.
  • Having children, grand children, stepchildren, adopted or IVF children or having none of the above is irrelevant. Men show off their families as a sign of stability and good character – whereas women’s families are seen as a distraction and interfering with elected office.
  • Abortion – one in four women have them so it’s common and very private.
  • Miscarriage – no one’s business.

Personality – avoid the following loaded and judgmental adjectives (in no particular order and probably wholly incomplete but you get the idea).

  • Aggressive – seen to be good in a man and bad in a woman
  • Argumentative – seen as bordering on “bitchy”
  • Emotional – seen as hormonal and weak
  • Harsh – falls into “likability”
  • Pushy – considered not feminine
  • Perky – diminishes substance
  • Demanding – another word for “bitchy”
  • Bitchy – another word for “demanding”
  • Loud – uncouth and ill bred
  • Sweet – nice but a lightweight
  • Cheerful – not serious enough
  • Ruthless – kind of evil
  • Unlikeable – not a beer drinking buddy
  • Abrasive – nails on a chalkboard
  • Shrill – diminishes the message
  • Bossy – except in Tina Fey’s take back of the term

Age – here again, women can’t win – they are either too old (Hillary) or too young (AOC). Young men are considered up and comers whereas young women are considered lightweights. Older men are given the benefit of the doubt about their age related health whereas older women are not.

Background – who really cares what silly or sophomoric things she did in school unless perhaps drunken sexual assault as in our recent SCOTUS appointment. BTW, it could backfire anyway (see AOC dance!). Prior romantic relationships and/or marriages should also be off limits unless relevant – like the governor who left his office for a few months to rendezvous with his girlfriend in South American. Moreover, who cares about past family member missteps? Most folks have a drunk uncle or some other ne’re-do-well relative so this is not news and we really don’t care.

Bottom Line – Don’t report on something about a woman that you wouldn’t report about a man. To do so is sexist and unacceptable whether intentional or not.

For a more in depth look at the difference in media coverage take a look at Columbia’s Journalism Review’s subtle sexism in political coverage can have a real impact on candidates.

Let’s work together to recognize sexist language in our coverage of political candidates.

Call out sexist coverage when you see it. Let everyone know in 2020 we expect women to be covered fairly for their qualifications and experience, not their appearance or family status.

We’re #ReadyFor2020, are you?


Anne M. Haule

Anne Haule, writer from boomerfeminist.com
Anne is a writer and currently writes “Musings of a Boomer Feminist”, her goal is to educate and entertain women on what it was like for the baby boomer generation as we tackled women’s issues in the work place and on the home front. She is also a contributor to The San Diego Free Press, The San Diego Reader and The Uptown News. 

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Copyright 2019

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