Clinton coverage a teaching moment on enduring news media sexism

  on August 02, 2016

Kripa Koshy and Saba Mirsalari

“When there are no ceilings, the sky is the limit”, Hillary Rodham Clinton commented in her speech to accept the Democratic Party nomination for President of the United States of America. This was the first time in U.S. history that a major political party had nominated a woman. While the ceiling may have cracked for women’s ascent to the highest political office, news coverage of this iconic event offers lessons on media sexism - how it rears its head, the excuses media make and the power audiences have to challenge it.

Worldwide trends suggest that the problem is systemic. The world’s youngest newsrooms and the long-established ones are similar in their treatment of women politicians. In South Sudan, Lily Nelson of the Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP) team observed how the front page is foreclosed to women in public office. “My three-month survey of our daily and weekly newspapers showed that women are denied access to the front page despite the presence of female ministers in the state and national governments”.

Following the July 26, 2016 nomination, an analysis of the front pages of American newspapers revealed more photos of the presidential nominee’s spouse Bill Clinton and her former competitor Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, than of the nominee herself. Examples of front pages included those of the Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, The Buffalo News, Wisconsin State Journal and the Wall Street Journal (that later changed the cover image). The patterns were apparent to online commentators, many of whom took to social media to point out, what Twitter user Anne Helen Petersen characterized as, ‘simple proof of enduring sexism’. Newseum, a news museum in Washington D.C. revealed that only 19 of 50 featured American newspapers had an image of the Democratic Party’s Presidential nominee on their front pages.

Examples of gender-aware image selection and headlines are few and far between. They range from papers that featured a still of the nominee from her video address such as the Orange County Register, The Sun and Newsday. Some like the New York Times selected images of women present at the convention. Interestingly, sixty percent of the front pages reviewed showed an increase in the proportion of female reporters in stories about the nomination acceptance speech, compared to stories appearing earlier about the nomination announcement. 

Various editorial teams responded to criticism about the sexist coverage by blaming tight deadlines and poor image quality. For instance, Brian Connolly, managing editor of The Buffalo News told Newseum that Bill Clinton’s speech was ‘the news of the night’ and given that ‘timing was a factor’ and the need for the ‘best stories and the best photos in the paper’ they chose not to include a file photo or by extension, a photo of Hillary Clinton’s video address, an explanation echoed by The Washington Post. The coverage controversy saw noncommittal arguments emerge, such as one published in The Guardian that editors “faced a tough choice” between featuring a nominee who was not physically present, or her spouse “who gave a heartfelt and personal speech about his wife”.

Headlines: Newspapers including The Chicago Tribune, The Buffalo News, and the Wisconsin State Journal carried headlines that did not refer to the Democratic Party nominee directly or use her given name. Using only the nominee’s last name Clinton paired with an image of another Clinton is likely to be misleading to readers and results in a headline that does not successfully serve its purpose.

Hillary Clinton took to the stage on July 28 at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia to accept the nomination. Perhaps motivated in part by the swift and severe backlash from readers, many American newsrooms had no trouble identifying the Clinton of the hour. The front pages of the Friday editions of previously critiqued The Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, The Buffalo News, the Wisconsin State Journal and the Wall Street Journal (in their first try) now featured images of a beaming Hillary Clinton.

Moreover, the change in images was accompanied by a change in front page headlines in many news reports of the nomination acceptance night. Coverage by the Chicago Tribune, The Buffalo News and the Wall Street Journal  had either the nominee’s own words, used her given name or a gender-specific pronoun.

News Online: A noteworthy report on published following the nomination centered squarely on Hillary Clinton and included a slideshow of images of significant women in the history of American politics such as Shirley Chisholm, Elizabeth Stanton, and Dee Dee Myers. Such an angle is important in locating the story within the longer trajectory of women’s participation in American political life.

Following Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech, online news by Al Jazeera, The Guardian, ABC News, The New York Times and CNN emphasized her platform, her success as a woman in politics, and her critique of the Republic Party Presidential nominee Donald Trump. Images of male politicians and speakers did not overwhelm the stories, mirroring the patterns in print news coverage.  

Several major online outlets however failed to highlight the landmark nomination on their home pages, the Asia News Network being one such example. Other news agencies such as the BBC News, while featuring the nomination on their home pages, did not list the story as a prominent item at the top of their page.


Audience feedback is important to challenge news media sexism. In the Clinton coverage case, the reactions raised public awareness of the gender bias and may have contributed to a “correction”, however momentary, of the reporting.

Sexism mars the news media’s ability to produce content that accurately reflects reality. News media tendencies on gender portrayal betray obliviousness, perhaps resistance, to shifts towards gender equality in the real world. While women do continue to face sexism and stereotypes that frequently undermine their authority, experience, and skills, there have been positive changes, if the historic nomination of a woman as U.S. President by a major political party is any indicator.

On the eve of the nomination, Canada’s women Premiers of the provinces of Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta in an illuminating panel interview titled “The meaning of Hillary” spoke about their experiences. Their comments easily converged on stories about the workplace sexism and misogyny they endured despite holding the most powerful political positions in Canada. British Columbia Premier Christy Clark told the anchor: “If it's happening to me, it is happening to millions of women in your newsroom, in law offices, in workplaces all over this country…Not all men are doing it, but all women are experiencing it somewhere, some days."

So, while celebration is necessary, the road towards ending sexism in the political arena remains long, and even longer in the news media industry.

 Image: Newspaper archives from and @goldietaylor Twitter feed

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August 02, 2016
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The most important contribution that the Beijing Platform for Action has made to advancing gender equality in and through the media is:

Setting global standards to which governments and the media can be held accountable
Bringing coherence to and greater understanding of civil society initiatives on gender, women and media
Raising the profile of work on 'women and media' as important for addressing gender inequalities in women's lived experiences.

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