Why do Election 2020’s male candidates get better coverage than women?

There are 20 Democrats running for 2020 now.
There are 20 Democrats running for 2020 now.
Image: Reuters
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Joe Biden’s long-awaited jump into the 2020 presidential race this past week has been marked by soaring oratory, jabs at Trump, insults from the White House—and hordes of American women asking each other, “Can you believe this %#&)*?”

Why is Biden, 76, being lauded in the US media, they’re all wondering, while multiple female candidates with less baggage and better ideas struggle to get attention at all?

“Joe Biden twice failed to win a bid for the presidency and yet, here we are—third time’s a charm?,” Molly Wink, a Colorado voter I had interviewed earlier, emailed me the day Biden formally announced (April 25), noting she felt “compelled” to write. “Can you imagine what would happen if Hillary had decided to run again? She would have been lambasted,” she added.

Several news outlets immediately dubbed Biden the “grownup” in the race, insulting “the fabulous women and people of color who are also running,” feminist author Leta Hong Fincher said on Twitter.

Biden’s coverage may be explained in part by the poll lead he walked into. The broader Democratic electorate is hankering for a moderate candidate, some polls show, and that, apparently, means a white man who harkens back to a gentler pre-Trump era.

But as the US’s 2020 election plays out, it’s also worth examining who the journalists are who are covering it—and trying to figure out how much of the male candidates’ popularity is a self-fulfilling media prophecy.

According to an annual study by the Women’s Media Center published in January, men had the clear majority of bylines on US elections in 2018, in print and newswires, including the Associated Press and Reuters. In online election coverage, male bylines outnumbered women’s by three-to-one.

In fact, despite prominent American women journalists in the White House press room or on the front lines, the news on any subject that most Americans read is still crafted and delivered mostly by men, the study also found.

The journalists covering the 2020 race are also probably whiter than the voters they’re writing for—American newspapers are overwhelmingly more white than the population of the cities where they are based, the 2018 American Society of News Editors’ survey shows. No one has broken US election coverage down by race of the reporters or editors involved.

The male filter

The male dominance of election coverage has an inevitable effect, gender experts say.

Journalists who cover campaigns act like a “filter” for the information that Americans are getting about candidates, Sian Beilock, the president of Barnard College and a cognitive scientist who studies gender, told Quartz. If this filter doesn’t actually reflect the US population, or the candidates that they’re covering, voters are missing out on insight they need to make a smart political decision about the president.

An analysis by Northeastern University’s School of Journalism of nearly 1,400 articles about the leading presidential candidates published March 29 found that “female candidates running for president are consistently being described in the media more negatively than their male counterparts.”

It’s worth pointing out that these negative articles aren’t always written by men, and that female journalists have also penned some pro-Biden coverage that has raised eyebrows:

Male candidates dominate coverage

Before Biden, there was Bernie Sanders, Beto O’Rourke, and Pete Buttigieg.

Sanders and O’Rourke got the most mentions on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC just after they launched their campaign, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis in March, overshadowing Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, and [Elizabeth] Warren.

Men have also raised the most money in the first 24 hours after their announcement:

One way the journalist “filter” seems to work is a lack of focus on women’s policy positions. For example, Elizabeth Warren first announced her exploratory committee in December of 2018 and has been rolling out researched and vetted (by respected economists) policy plans on everything from student debt to affordable housing over the past few months.

Just this week male national political reporters for both the Washington Post and the New York Times notified their followers on Twitter that she seems to have a whole lot of… ideas. Until recently, their attention may have been elsewhere—combined, the two reporters have had bylines on 25 articles with “Biden” in the headline since Dec. 31, but just four with “Warren.”

The enigma that is Mayor Pete

The unexpected rise of Pete Buttigieg, the South Bend, Indiana, mayor who has no stated policy platforms, is also worth some study. It may have been sparked in part by his willingness to say yes to nearly any media invite, both Vox and New York magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi have pointed out.

Once they learned his name, however, America’s male political journalists can’t stop writing columns like “Why you love Mayor Pete” (paywall).

The answer, according to David Brooks, the New York Times columnist who wrote that piece, is because he “detaches progressive policy from the culture war,” which seems to mean he won’t challenge white, male voters to reexamine their privilege. Voters “don’t want to fight white identity politics, with another kind of identity politics” Brooks writes, they just want their potholes filled.

Buttigieg has “the potential to deliver us from a scandal-plagued presidency and, by doing so, transform the relationship between gay and straight America for the better,” writes James Kirchick in the Atlantic.

Reflecting on the rise of Mayor Pete, Daily Show host Trevor Noah pointed out: “Running for president as a man is so much more fun, because as a woman, you have to bring extra homework. But a dude can just come and be like, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna wing it.'”

That’s… kinda how it works, Barnard’s Beilock confirms. One way female candidates can overcome the natural biases against them in the media, and among voters is “to use really specific examples of their success, and really pull from the data and frame it for people,” she said. Women candidates should be explaining, “Here are the things that I have done, and here’s why what I’ve done is the right way to do it,” she said.

Can a woman ever win?

The whole thing is starting to feel a bit like 2016 deja vu, when negative coverage of Hillary Clinton overshadowed negative coverage of Donald Trump, as a Harvard study and numerous others found. Accounts of her email “scandals” alone in the mainstream print media “accounted for more sentences than all of Trump’s scandals combined (65,000 vs. 40,000) and more than twice as many as were devoted to all of her policy positions,” the Columbia Journalism Review found.

As Devorah Blachor wrote in a bitterly funny parody column on McSweeney’s, the current message from even “liberal” male-dominated corners seems to be: “I don’t hate women candidates—I just hated Hillary and coincidentally I’m starting to hate Elizabeth Warren.”

Watching this all play out leaves us with a dark worry: Will the Baby Boomer generation of women, who pioneered women’s acceptance in the workplace, and secured their own sex’s right to have a bank account and dictate their own reproductive choices, even live to see a woman elected president in their lifetimes? The jury is out.

“We’re on the way in terms of Congress, the door is open,” Beilock said. “How long it takes to get to the White House is another question.”