NPR’s Ombudsman Asks For Guidelines How to Describe Women Politicians

What words are used to describe Senator

NPR’s Ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos recently responded to criticism of a May 16 “Morning Edition” story about New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. Schumacher-Matos discussed the criticism with reporter Ailsa Chang, whose original story described Gillibrand as having a “soft, girlie voice” and said she was “petite, blond and perky.”

Schumacher-Matos puts aside the issue that after the story was changed “Morning Edition” did not add an editor’s note explaining why. I think he should not have been so quick to gloss over the issue because the lack of an explanation behind the change omits an understanding of the thought process behind it. Even if “Morning Edition”’s editorial team did not feel that the changes merited a full editor’s note accompanying the original story, it is a shame they did not publicly explain their decision to Name It. Change It. when we asked them directly about it, or even to Schumacher-Matos more than two months later.

Schumacher-Matos writes that it is “valid” to criticize use of subjective terms like “perky” and “girlie” as applied to women, but that he wouldn’t make a hard rule against their use. He writes that “we should understand what the reporter meant in using them”—which is why it would be interesting to know what “Morning Edition” thought when they revised the story.

So it is worth examining more fully Ailsa Chang’s process in putting together the original story as she tells it to Schumacher-Matos.

“The vast majority of people I spoke to brought up her looks and femininity without my prompting them on the subject,” Chang wrote to me. “Even her college squash coach at Dartmouth.”

In some ways, this made me wonder how such mentions came about. Was it the first thing people said in response to “What do you think of Kirsten Gillibrand?” Was it part of a long string of traits they mentioned about her? I don’t doubt Chang’s report that people mentioned these traits, but in what context were people bringing them up? I wish we could have heard these interviews and gotten a sense of how the interview subjects made the comments and what the rest of the conversation was like. Not because I think Chang led her interview subjects to unconsciously talk about Gillibrand’s looks, but because I want to know how much her looks were discussed by those subjects and in what context of her other traits. It would be an interesting phenomenon to examine in voters.

But another way to examine such frequent mentions of a female senator’s “beauty” and “femininity” is to examine whether that perception of her overwhelms or takes greater precedent over other perceptions of her. My guess would be that no ambitious politician, male or female, wants to be thought of as “beautiful” first and a “strong leader” second. Men and women—yes, even politicians—probably do like to be thought of as attractive, but not at the expense of voters assuming they aren’t competent or intelligent.

While perceptions of attractiveness aren’t limited to one gender, the conception of “femininity” is a female-related term. “Feminine” is not a negative word, but is not usually a trait considered alongside “leadership.” In some ways, this recalls a recent study that asked a group of students (and it is somewhat of a stretch to assume college students’ reactions would be a fair representation of the views of everyone, and of every age group) to describe the traits they associate with women, including female politicians.

In this survey, only 39 percent of participants described female politicians using the term “leader,” but 92 percent described a male politician with that term. Chang felt that she heard people describe Gillibrand as “feminine” and beautiful and saw that as a contrast with the work Gillibrand was doing to fix the issue of sexual assault in the armed forces. That seems to be the problem that women senators face. They are leaders, but they aren’t always perceived as the version of what a leader is. This would seem to be a cultural perception—which can be reinforced by media portrayals, both fiction and nonfiction. The fault is not with the people to whom Chang spoke—both they and she operate in the same cultural sphere in which the contrast seems to exist based on the preconceived notions of what makes someone a leader. This is why Name It. Change It.—and the Women’s Media Center and She Should Run, the organizations behind the project—spends a lot of time talking about how these cultural perceptions of women as politicians have an impact. This is why we suggest in our Media Guide that reporters step back and examine if the stories (or the words) they use to talk about female politicians would be something they would write about men. Reporters should try to examine their own implicit cultural biases—not just about women politicians, but about all subjects.

However, I do want to take issue with the defense that since Kirsten Gillibrand didn’t seem to object to the question (or the story), that means it’s not objectionable.

“Then I raised the issue with Gillibrand herself. I informed her that the following words kept coming up during my interviews with people who knew her: ‘attractive,’ ‘hot,’ ‘telegenic,’ and ‘pretty.’ I asked her, does it bother her that people can’t seem to talk about her without commenting on her physical appearance?

“Gillibrand said she did not take offense. She laughed and said she was at least thankful the comments veered towards how attractive she was, rather than the opposite.”

As Schumacher-Matos notes: Many people took offense to the story, even if Gillibrand told the reporter that she herself didn’t. But as Pollster Celinda Lake has told me, many female politicians, when faced with a question like this, will quickly decide that it’s best not to seem upset about it, particularly when everyone else might think the question is a softball. When women politicians do raise objections to some questions, they can be seen as defensive or unnecessarily sensitive. The point is: This may be why Gillibrand would just laugh off a question that was more layered than perhaps Chang realized. It’s easy to understand why she might not have been interested in having an even longer discussion about perceptions of her beauty.

That said, I think the senator’s response to Chang’s follow-up with her after the story ran is just about right

She also noted that such fixation on appearance is human nature, especially when the subject is a female politician, and she’s come to accept that reality. She mentioned she’s as guilty as anyone else. For example, Gillibrand said, she’ll notice right away if one of her female Senate colleagues changes her hairdo.

But she said sometimes the focus on looks can go too far. It saddened her when someone as accomplished as Hillary Clinton was the target of critical remarks about her appearance.

It’s perfectly human to notice people’s appearance. But there is a difference between an interaction with a person—or even an innate thought—and a story about it. Media stories can amplify, if not cause, such perceptions. We noted that last month with the detail about Wendy Davis’ shoes. It was an interesting detail to include, but the description and placement in the AP article—the first sentence, and in the tweet—overemphasized the detail’s importance in the whole story. Readers didn’t independently decide that “pink shoes” were an important detail to the story; the AP did. That’s what the media does: It decides and frames what is “news.” (This is not meant as a negative, simply a descriptive.)

Schumacher-Matos seemed concerned with the argument that “outlawing” all physical descriptions “is to ignore reality.” We’ve heard that strawman(-woman) argument before—as if political coverage that isn’t framed by the subject’s gender is akin to telling the media not to report when the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes. The point isn’t whether there will be any mention of appearance ever—we’re pretty sure that will always exist—but that it is not a scrutiny given only to women—or even differently to women. That such scrutiny may happen to a handful of high-profile male politicians—one of whom happens to be the president a unique role in American politics—should not necessarily give all media free range to assume that the men are now being objectified in the same capacity as women.

But this article was not just about the boundaries of appearance-coverage but also about the adjectives used to describe women politicians. Schumacher-Matos closes his piece by asking what rules media should use in describing women leaders. We’ve suggested the Rule of Reversibility: Don’t ask questions of women leaders that wouldn’t be asked of men. Don’t use terms that only apply to women—like “girlie” or “feminine”—that wouldn’t be written about men. But in the larger sense, perhaps all members of the media should keep in mind the cultural biases that are constantly at play, both within reporters themselves and the subjects whom they interview.


Published by Kate McCarthy on 07/10/2013

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