The Impact of the Media


The media choose what they want to discuss. This agenda setting creates a reality for voters and politicians that affects the way people think, act, and vote. Even if the crime rate is going down, for instance, citizens accustomed to reading stories about assault and other offenses still perceive crime to be an issue.Ally Fogg, “Crime Is Falling. Now Let’s Reduce Fear of Crime,” Guardian, 24 April 24 2013. Studies have also found that the media’s portrayal of race is flawed, especially in coverage of crime and poverty. One study revealed that local news shows were more likely to show pictures of criminals when they were African American, so they overrepresented blacks as perpetrators and whites as victims.Travis L. Dixon. 2008. “Crime News and Racialized Beliefs: Understanding the Relationship between Local News Viewing and Perceptions of African Americans and Crime,” Journal of Communication 58, No. 1: 106–125. A second study found a similar pattern in which Latinos were underrepresented as victims of crime and as police officers, while whites were overrepresented as both.Travis Dixon. 2015. “Good Guys Are Still Always in White? Positive Change and Continued Misrepresentation of Race and Crime on Local Television News,” Communication Research, doi:10.1177/0093650215579223. Voters were thus more likely to assume that most criminals are black and most victims and police officers are white, even though the numbers do not support those assumptions.

Network news similarly misrepresents the victims of poverty by using more images of blacks than whites in its segments. Viewers in a study were left believing African Americans were the majority of the unemployed and poor, rather than seeing the problem as one faced by many races.Travis L. Dixon. 2008. “Network News and Racial Beliefs: Exploring the Connection between National Television News Exposure and Stereotypical Perceptions of African Americans,” Journal of Communication 58, No. 2: 321–337. The misrepresentation of race is not limited to news coverage, however. A study of images printed in national magazines, like Time and Newsweek, found they also misrepresented race and poverty. The magazines were more likely to show images of young African Americans when discussing poverty and excluded the elderly and the young, as well as whites and Latinos, which is the true picture of poverty.Martin Gilens. 1996. “Race and Poverty in America: Public Misperceptions and the American News Media,” Public Opinion Quarterly 60, No. 4: 515–541.

Racial framing, even if unintentional, affects perceptions and policies. If viewers are continually presented with images of African Americans as criminals, there is an increased chance they will perceive members of this group as violent or aggressive.Dixon. “Crime News and Racialized Beliefs.” The perception that most recipients of welfare are working-age African Americans may have led some citizens to vote for candidates who promised to reduce welfare benefits.Gilens. “Race and Poverty in America.” When survey respondents were shown a story of a white unemployed individual, 71 percent listed unemployment as one of the top three problems facing the United States, while only 53 percent did so if the story was about an unemployed African American.Shanto Iyengar and Donald R. Kinder. 1987. News That Matters. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Word choice may also have a priming effect. News organizations like the Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press no longer use the phrase “illegal immigrant” to describe undocumented residents. This may be due to the desire to create a “sympathetic” frame for the immigration situation rather than a “threat” frame.Daniel C. Hallin. 2015. “The Dynamics of Immigration Coverage in Comparative Perspective,” American Behavioral Scientist 59, No. 7: 876–885.

Media coverage of women has been similarly biased. Most journalists in the early 1900s were male, and women’s issues were not part of the newsroom discussion. As journalist Kay Mills put it, the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s was about raising awareness of the problems of equality, but writing about rallies “was like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.”Kay Mills. 1996. “What Difference Do Women Journalists Make?” In Women, the Media and Politics, ed. Pippa Norris. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 43. Most politicians, business leaders, and other authority figures were male, and editors’ reactions to the stories were lukewarm. The lack of women in the newsroom, politics, and corporate leadership encouraged silence.Kim Fridkin Kahn and Edie N. Goldenberg. 1997. “The Media: Obstacle or Ally of Feminists?” In Do the Media Govern? eds. Shanto Iyengar and Richard Reeves. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

In 1976, journalist Barbara Walters became the first female coanchor on a network news show, The ABC Evening News. She was met with great hostility from her coanchor Harry Reasoner and received critical coverage from the press.Barbara Walters, “Ms. Walters Reflects,” Vanity Fair, 31 May 2008, On newspaper staffs, women reported having to fight for assignments to well-published beats, or to be assigned areas or topics, such as the economy or politics, that were normally reserved for male journalists. Once female journalists held these assignments, they feared writing about women’s issues. Would it make them appear weak? Would they be taken from their coveted beats?Mills. “What Difference Do Women Journalists Make?” This apprehension allowed poor coverage of women and the women’s movement to continue until women were better represented as journalists and as editors. Strength of numbers allowed them to be confident when covering issues like health care, childcare, and education.Mills. “What Difference Do Women Journalists Make?”

Link to learning graphic

The Center for American Women in Politics researches the treatment women receive from both government and the media, and they share the data with the public.

The media’s historically uneven coverage of women continues in its treatment of female candidates. Early coverage was sparse. The stories that did appear often discussed the candidate’s viability, or ability to win, rather than her stand on the issues.Kahn and Goldenberg, “The Media: Obstacle or Ally of Feminists?” Women were seen as a novelty rather than as serious contenders who needed to be vetted and discussed. Modern media coverage has changed slightly. One study found that female candidates receive more favorable coverage than in prior generations, especially if they are incumbents.Kim Fridkin Kahn. 1994. “Does Gender Make a Difference? An Experimental Examination of Sex Stereotypes and Press Patterns in Statewide Campaigns,” American Journal of Political Science 38, No. 1: 162–195. Yet a different study found that while there was increased coverage for female candidates, it was often negative.John David Rausch, Mark Rozell, and Harry L. Wilson. 1999. “When Women Lose: A Study of Media Coverage of Two Gubernatorial Campaigns,” Women & Politics 20, No. 4: 1–22. And it did not include Latina candidates.Sarah Allen Gershon. 2013. “Media Coverage of Minority Congresswomen and Voter Evaluations: Evidence from an Online Experimental Study,” Political Research Quarterly 66, No. 3: 702–714. Without coverage, they are less likely to win.

The historically negative media coverage of female candidates has had another concrete effect: Women are less likely than men to run for office. One common reason is the effect negative media coverage has on families.Jennifer Lawless and Richard Logan Fox. 2005. It Takes a Candidate: Why Women Don’t Run for Office. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Many women do not wish to expose their children or spouses to criticism.Brittany L. Stalsburg, “Running with Strollers: The Impact of Family Life on Political Ambition,” Eagleton Institute of Politics, Spring 2012, Unpublished Paper, (August 28, 2015). In 2008, the nomination of Sarah Palin as Republican candidate John McCain’s running mate validated this concern (Figure). Some articles focused on her qualifications to be a potential future president or her record on the issues. But others questioned whether she had the right to run for office, given she had young children, one of whom has developmental disabilities.Christina Walker, “Is Sarah Palin Being Held to an Unfair Standard?” CNN, 8 September 2008. Her daughter, Bristol, was criticized for becoming pregnant while unmarried.Dana Bash, “Palin’s Teen Daughter is Pregnant,” CNN, 1 September 2008. Her husband was called cheap for failing to buy her a high-priced wedding ring.Jimmy Orr, “Palin Wardrobe Controversy Heightens - Todd is a Cheapo!” Christian Science Monitor, 26 October 2008. Even when candidates ask that children and families be off-limits, the press rarely honors the requests. So women with young children may wait until their children are grown before running for office, if they choose to run at all.

An image of Sarah Palin on a stage with John McCain and several other people.
When Sarah Palin found herself on the national stage at the Republican Convention in September 2008, media coverage about her selection as John McCain’s running mate included numerous questions about her ability to serve based on personal family history. Attacks on candidates’ families lead many women to postpone or avoid running for office. (credit: Carol Highsmith)