Sheila Gibbons

(WOMENSENEWS)–The general election hasn’t even begun yet but already we’re getting early snippets of retrospection on the campaign coverage so far.

In a look at the public’s news interests over the past year the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that while women and men might not be on different planets, there’s still plenty of statistical daylight between them.

Women consistently express more interest in stories about weather, health and safety, natural disasters, crime and celebrity news. Men tend to be more interested in international affairs, Washington news and sports.

However, men and women often express comparable levels of interest in the top news stories of the day, the study found.

The presidential campaign, for instance, has attracted only modestly greater interest among men than among women.

In five weekly news interest surveys in 2008, 37 percent of men and 32 percent of women say they have followed campaign news very closely.

Interest Grows in World Events

While women continue to show more interest in local and community news–where they comprise 58 percent of the audience–plenty are also focused on global events. The assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto attracted nearly identical levels of interest from men and women, according to the Pew survey.

It’s likely that women’s interest in the U.S. elections and the Pakistan assassination was heightened by the key figures in these events who were also women. This is consistent with the finding described in "The Private Roots of Public Action" (Harvard University Press, 2001) that in states with no female senators or candidates, only 51 percent of women can name a senator, compared to 79 percent of women in states that have a female senator or candidate.

Then come the blogs, which offer reporters a font of story ideas and sense of buzz and attract a good number of female readers.

More than half (56 percent) of Americans say they never read blogs that discuss politics, according to a Harris Poll released March 10. However, nearly a quarter of men (24 percent) and nearly 1 in 5 women (19 percent) say they do read political blogs regularly.

Within that group, women have a high level of interest: 35 percent of the women and 25 percent of the men read at least one blog a week; 17 percent of women and 18 percent of men read five to nine blogs a week. Women and men post comments to blogs in similar proportions.

Eye-Catching Influence

"Although all blogs are not political commentary, it is their influence, exemplified by InstaPundit’s 100,000 readers per day (equivalent to a medium-sized city daily newspaper or cable news show) that caught the eye of the mainstream media," says the University of Washington’s Kathy Gill in her analysis of the blogosphere.

Many mainstream journalists are now blogging themselves, expanding the publishing cycle to meet the needs of news consumers expecting fresh material 24/7.

Women–journalists and citizens–are a growing part of the political blogging world.

Catherine Morgan–a nurse and writer who blogs on politics and health–keeps a running list of women blogging on politics. Her tally exceeds 300 bloggers of all political stripes. Morgan is the founder of Informed Voters which she describes as "a blog dedicated to giving women political bloggers a voice."

"In many ways the blogosphere is a place–maybe the only place–where a woman’s voice is equal to a man’s," Morgan says. "A Google search doesn’t discriminate between a blog by Catherine or a blog by Joe.

"Where woman are really making a difference in the political conversation isn’t simply by participating in it, it’s by shaping it," Morgan adds. "You can bet that women’s issues will not be slipping through the cracks of this presidential election."

Media Affects Aspiration

Male-dominated decision-making about mainstream media content, particularly politics, has probably depressed women’s interest in traditional political news coverage and discouraged them from aspiring and running for office.

Barbara Palmer, who teaches courses on gender and politics at American University in Washington, D.C., confirms that women have generally expressed less interest in politics and don’t run for office as often as men do. But that’s not the whole story.

"This has actually presented us with a paradox," she says. "There is a high correlation between levels of education and political literacy and interest in politics. And women have outnumbered men as college students for quite a while. In addition, women are more likely to be political science majors than men. And finally, we know that women are more likely to vote than men. There is some kind of disconnect here; there is a gap in our understanding of women and political engagement."

Perhaps a way to close this gap is for women to continue expanding their media choices themselves, beyond their traditional attachment to network TV programming. This is a key idea behind the founding of Women’s eNews more than seven years ago and an ongoing explanation for the growth of female-focused sites for news, policy, opinion and chat.

Morgan’s extensive list of female political bloggers offers another bright light. The independent and interactive features of the Internet–versus the passive model of news consumption offered by television and newspapers that still tend to reflect more of a man’s world–would enrich women’s political knowledge and whet their appetite for political involvement.

I see a promising media environment increasingly supportive of women and their interests, with the potential to create communities that can bring about large-scale change. There’s time; the election is still seven months away.

Carpe diem.

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, which 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:

Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, "Where Men and Women Differ in Following the News

Catherine Morgan, "List of 375+ Women Political Bloggers":

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