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Campaign Coverage Ignores Women's Concerns

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Campaign coverage is largely ignoring the issues that matter most to women. To correct that, Sheila Gibbons offers reporters a look at what women want from a president and advice on chasing down the story between now and Election Day.

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Campaign coverage is largely ignoring the issues that matter most to women. To correct that, Sheila Gibbons offers reporters a look at what women want from a president and advice on chasing down the story between now and Election Day.
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(WOMENSENEWS)--Between now and the November presidential election, U.S. journalists could and should do a better job helping women understand how the messages emanating from the campaigns line up with their political concerns.

Thus far, journalists have delivered lots of campaign play-by-play commentary and scorekeeping, stories about the candidates' styles and personalities.

I know this because--to see how well or how poorly issues that matter to women were covered by campaign reporters
--I pored over three Sunday editions (the largest readership day of the week) of four U.S. daily newspapers published between mid-August and mid-September: The Baltimore Sun, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Los Angeles Times.

What I found was a lot of tit-for-tat accusations about the candidates' military service and who can best manage the war in Iraq.

This did not fit with the findings of the Sept. 1 survey by the Washington-based Business and Professional Women's Foundation. It found that when a sample of 7,000 working women was asked, "Which issues will influence your vote the most?" 79 percent chose "domestic issues such as joblessness and education" and only 21 percent chose "international issues such as terrorism and trade." Health care was their top concern.

My review even produced an interesting piece in the Journal-Constitution that speculated about whether Osama bin Laden would favor Bush or Kerry. While I appreciate the device--the president who is best for Osama is likely the worst for the rest of us--the focus on the political concerns of a non-voting public enemy rubbed in the neglectful treatment of millions of women who do vote and whose top concerns are getting bypassed.

Roster of Issues

In burrowing for coverage of issues that matter most to women I was well-guided by the National Council of Women's Organizations, which has produced a roster of so-called women's issues: punching through the glass ceiling in business and the military, attaining pay equity, having access to quality child care and paid family leave, eliminating all forms of discrimination and violence against women, obtaining health care for themselves and their families, protecting reproductive rights and being assured of Social Security benefits.

But while all four papers devoted generous space to the presidential race, very little of it dealt with issues delineated by the National Council of Women's Organizations or the Business and Professional Women's Foundation.

Reporters might argue that "If the candidates aren't talking about it, don't blame us for not covering it." But the traditional job of political correspondents is to produce precision from the intentionally vague pronouncements of candidates casting their vote-catching nets as widely as possible.

Reading the Domestic Coverage

If the political reporters for the four newspapers would just look at what their newsroom colleagues were reporting about domestic issues and the economy, they would have had plenty of help sorting out how John Kerry's and George Bush's proposals would affect women.

To illustrate: A front-page story in the Aug. 22 Atlanta Journal-Constitution on new rules for overtime pay used as an example a female McDonald's team leader earning $28,000 annually who would lose her overtime pay because she can hire and fire, and contrasted her with a carpenter earning $125,000 a year who can still earn overtime because he doesn't supervise anyone. Note to politics reporter across the room: Why not ask the campaigns what they'll do about that?

An article in the same edition, on the metro page, profiled a couple who have been foster parents of 39 children, and now take in only those who are medically fragile. A good day for them begins at 6 a.m. and ends at 2 a.m. For this they earn about $4 an hour ($2 apiece) per child. Why not ask the campaigns where the family values are in that scenario?

A week later, a mention of a lack of family-friendly policies for working women is noted in a story about a female mayor of Athens, Greece. Hey, how about the lack of supportive policies for working women soon to vote for president of the United States?

This is not to pick on political writers at the Atlanta paper, because the other three newspapers did no better in telling their readers what specific policies and programs the candidates would propose to respond to the concerns put forward by major women's organizations.

Recommendations

Between now and Election Day there's still time for journalists to close this information gap. Some recommendations:

     

  • Seek out the women who head women's membership organizations as well as the many women distinguishing themselves at universities and think tanks to help pin down candidates' stance on issues.
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  • Dig into what campaign pronouncements actually will mean for women. When President Bush says that taxes, health insurance pension plans and job training were "created for the world of yesterday . . . we're going to transform these systems" (Los Angeles Times, Sept. 12), find out how his transformation will affect women.
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  • When Senator Kerry tells the Congressional Black Caucus, "Your voices matter" (Los Angeles Times, Sept. 12), find out how he plans to hear the voices of women as well.
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  • Cross-pollinate in the newsroom. Have reporters working on domestic issues (such as those who wrote the important stories on overtime pay and foster parenting for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution) partner with reporters covering candidates to bring readers a full understanding of current programs, their successes and failures, and how (or if) the party platforms offer remedies.
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As for a deadline: anytime between now and Nov. 2, and the sooner the better.

Sheila Gibbons is editor of Media Report to Women, a quarterly news journal of news, research and commentary about women and media. She is also co-author of "Taking Their Place: A Documentary History of Women and Journalism," Strata Publishing, Inc., which in 2004 received the "Texty" Textbook Excellence Award from the Text and Academic Authors Association, and of "Exploring Mass Media for A Changing World," Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

 

 

For more information:

National Council of Women's Organizations--
The ABCs of Women's Issues:
http://www.womensorganizations.org/

Business and Professional Women/USA --
Survey of 7,000 Working Women Define Key Voter Bloc:
http://www.bpwusa.org/template.cfm?NavMenuID=170