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July 17, 2023, 11:15 a.m.
Reporting & Production

What women political candidates think of their local media coverage

Plus: Newsroom sexual harassment and journalists’ job satisfaction, journalists’ skills wishlist, and paying for public media.

Editor’s note: Longtime Nieman Lab readers know the bylines of Mark Coddington and Seth Lewis. Mark wrote the weekly This Week in Review column for us from 2010 to 2014; Seth’s written for us off and on since 2010. Together they’ve launched a monthly newsletter on recent academic research around journalism. It’s called RQ1 and we’re happy to bring each issue to you here at Nieman Lab. This month, Nick Mathews, assistant professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, is filling in for Seth.

“Minimal” and “biased” local campaign coverage

The question of how news media cover women running for political office has long been one that’s fascinated media scholars, with scores of studies — some of which we’ve written about over the past couple of years — examining media coverage over virtually every feasible dimension. (This 2020 study has an excellent analysis of 90 studies on the issue.)

One element that’s been largely overlooked among all those studies, though, is the perspectives of the women running for office themselves. After all, we can determine biases and stereotypes by studying the media content itself, but perceptions of those qualities are important, too, because they can dissuade candidates from running in the first place.

That’s the argument made by Andrea Lorenz, a University of North Carolina researcher who interviewed 37 women who ran for office in the U.S. between 2016 and 2020 for a recently published study in The International Journal of Press/Politics. Her main findings are right there in the study’s title: “‘Minimal’ and ‘biased’: An intersectional analysis of female candidates’ perceptions of their local news coverage.”

Before the “biased” part even came into play, the “minimal” nature of local news coverage was the most salient observation. Even in local races such as these, candidates described local legacy media coverage — especially newspapers, which often remain the most consistent purveyor of local campaign coverage — as skeletal and largely perfunctory.

Notably, what they longed for from local media was not raising public awareness of their candidacy (they knew how to reach voters through social media and the traditional ground game), but accountability journalism. They consistently saw misinformation and confusion in digital arenas like social media and listservs, and they wanted to see local journalists untangle it. Lorenz noted how striking it was to see “acknowledgment of the importance of watchdog journalism to local communities by leaders who could be targets of this kind of reporting” and called for accountability to be made a priority in local campaign coverage beyond listing basic candidate biographical information and policy positions.

When they were covered, candidates saw gender bias in particular as it intersected with other identities. Black candidates especially voiced a feeling of being overlooked in campaign coverage, and candidates with blue-collar backgrounds (like one who worked in retail) were more likely to express dissatisfaction with how they were portrayed.

Some coverage was positive, but even that seemed to single the women out as being exceptional, with the types of focuses on appearance and family life that other research has often found as well. “My work experience and accomplishments become secondary to the fact that I was a mom,” one candidate said. “Every single story, they would say, ‘She’s a mom who does blah blah,’ like always.”

Despite this perceived bias, candidates generally said they didn’t think stereotyped media coverage negatively affected their campaigns, as they developed a variety of workarounds. They made connections in women-led social media or political communities and sought out coverage in more ideologically diverse local news startups in addition to classic grassroots organizing techniques. And despite their critiques, many reported stronger connections and greater understanding from women journalists in local media, leading Lorenz to renew the call for greater diversity in local newsrooms as political candidates continue to become more diverse.

Research roundup

“The impact of sexual harassment on job satisfaction in newsrooms.” By Lindsey E. Blumell, Dinfin Mulupi, and Rana Arafat, in Journalism Practice. Research on the connection between workplace sexual harassment and job satisfaction in the news industry is alarmingly lacking, considering the widespread nature of this problem. While it may appear obvious that experiencing sexual harassment would have a detrimental impact on job satisfaction, the authors rightly argue for a comprehensive exploration of the complex experiences faced by journalists. This is especially critical given the prevalence of such incidents, which are all too often unreported or dismissed by news organizations, and the alarming trend of journalists voluntarily leaving the industry.

Blumell and her co-authors conducted a robust online survey of 1,583 news personnel across 16 countries and one state in Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and the Arab region. This study stands out by venturing into often overlooked regions of journalism. By investigating both verbal and physical sexual harassment, the research illuminates the diverse impacts of different forms of harassment on job satisfaction. The study also delves into the participants’ perceptions of gender equality within newsrooms, revealing that men reported higher levels of job satisfaction and perceived gender equality compared to women and gender non-conforming individuals.

The findings reveal disparities across regions, with Southeast Asia exhibiting the highest job satisfaction, perceptions of newsroom gender equality and the lowest average of experienced sexual harassment, while Sub-Saharan Africa displays the lowest job satisfaction, lowest perceptions of gender equality and the highest average of experienced harassment.

Importantly, the research underscores that sexual harassment significantly and negatively impacts job satisfaction universally. The authors’ findings highlight the pervasiveness of physical sexual harassment targeting women and emphasize the common occurrence of verbal sexual harassment, both of which notably have a significant impact on job satisfaction. The authors argue news organizations must acknowledge that verbal harassment constitutes an abuse of power, dispelling the misconception of it being a mere consequence of misguided flirtation. Such recognition is imperative to dismantle the enabling environment that fosters the persistence of harassment in newsrooms.

“Unprepared for reality: Early-career journalists ill-equipped for hostility in the field.” By Kelsey R. Mesmer, in Journalism & Mass Communication Educator. In this timely and impactful study, early-career journalists from across the United States offer firsthand accounts of their experiences with hostility, exposing an urgent need for enhanced preparedness among journalism students entering the industry. The significance of this study is magnified by the tumultuous backdrop of highly polarized events — including the Jan. 6, 2021 U.S. Capitol riots, the pandemic and racial protests — and the unprecedented levels of hostility toward the media. Through interviews with 28 early-career journalists, defined as journalists within their first five years post-graduation, the study highlights the challenges within journalism education. By examining their experiences with hostility, the study offers recommendations to better equip students to navigate those adversities.

The findings show a disturbing lack of preparedness among journalists when it comes to handling hostility, even at the most fundamental level of fielding angry phone calls. What’s more concerning is that female journalists demonstrate hesitancy in even seeking support from their editors to address these challenges effectively. One female journalist’s experience illuminates many difficulties with this issue. “My editors were making me call the person who had just threatened me for comment,” she said. “I didn’t feel comfortable with that. And they were like, ‘Well, you have to. You can’t just not call him for comment.’ And then I asked a male reporter to call instead. And he said, ‘Well you can’t let them see that you’re afraid. You can’t show fear.'”

This study’s powerful data is a compelling call to action for journalism educators. Mesmer underscores the importance of addressing hostility in journalism classrooms, dismantling any notion that these vital topics should remain taboo within the newsroom. Educators must balance preparing students for the profession’s realities while prioritizing their safety and well-being. By fostering support through open discussions, they can empower students to confront such inevitable challenges with resilience.

“The journalistic wishlist: Exploring reporters’ desired skills using Delphi Method.” By Oded Jackman & Zvi Reich, in International Journal of Communication. This thought-provoking research boldly challenges the prevailing currents within the news industry, as perceptions of news reporters’ skills desired defy recent shifts in the industry. Despite transformative digital changes in the news environment, there remains an emphasis on mastering traditional skills like interviewing, researching and fact identification. This study disrupts the narrative of evolving skill sets, underscoring the enduring importance of the foundational abilities in journalism’s ever-changing landscape.

This study employs the Delphi Method, rarely used in journalism studies, to gain insights from practitioners and scholars from Israel. Jackman and Reich conducted three rounds of surveys to delve deeply into the rankings of identified skills, aiming to determine whether reporters are expected to prioritize new digital-era skills — such as database reporting — or traditional skills — including beat knowledge, swiftness and accuracy. The analysis highlights the prominence of old-school skills.

Jackman and Reich provide insight into the reasons behind this phenomenon, drawing parallels with prior research. They observe that the resistance to adopting new skills is not unique to journalism but is commonly observed across various professions. When organizations encounter uncertainty, such as the current state of news organizations worldwide, practitioners tend to resist change, particularly when it involves disruptive technologies. And in the context of journalism, the integration of new skills occurs at a slower and more cautious pace. Ultimately, the authors’ analysis of the panelists’ perspectives reveals that thriving in a dynamic news ecosystem does not hinge on hurriedly adopting new skills but rather on rediscovering and amplifying the traditional and foundational core of news reporting.

“Consumers’ paying intent for public service media in Spain: The effect of RTVE service quality, citizens’ expenditure, and the moderating role of age.” By Gergő Háló, Marcela Campos Rueda, and Manuel Goyanes, in Journalism Studies. Citizens’ willingness to pay for public service media is a strong indicator of their commitment to sustaining it in a media environment with a multitude of options. But the concepts of paying intent and willingness to pay have received limited academic attention in relation to public service media, likely due to the funding systems rarely relying on direct and optional payments. Háló and his co-authors assert that public service media should be accessible to all — regardless of their financial capability or willingness to pay. However, the commercial media landscape pushes public service media to the periphery. The authors argue that a thorough assessment of financial indicators, such as paying intent and willingness to pay, is needed to grasp the social value of public service media.

The authors conducted an online survey of 1,717 residents, representative of the Spanish population, to gain insight into perception about Spain’s public television service (RTVE). They analyzed expenditure on news and entertainment services (Neflix, Spotify, etc.) and public service quality as two potential predictors of paying intent for public service media. They also examined the moderation effect of age. The findings identified that consumers who spent more on news and entertainment services demonstrated lower intentions to financially support public service media, highlighting the competition for potential funding. Meanwhile, the residents who had favorable perception of RTVE’s services were more inclined to show a higher willingness to pay.

Additionally, young consumers with high RTVE service quality perceptions were the most likely to pay, while paying intent for public service media among older generations remains generally low, regardless of their perceptions of quality. Through their analysis, the authors argue that the findings demonstrate a “goodwill” of younger citizens toward public service media, indicating their positive perception of its essential social role and necessity. The results further highlight the importance of public service media to prioritize exceptional quality standards and distinguish itself from commercial alternatives. When citizens believe public service media meets their quality expectations, they are prepared to sustain them to the point of directly paying for their services.

“From public reason to public health: Professional implications of the ‘debunking turn’ in the global fact-checking field.” By Lucas Graves, Valérie Bélair-Gagnon, and Rebekah Larsen, in Digital Journalism. Since 2016, the global realm of fact-checking has witnessed a profound pivot, from scrutinizing statements of politicians and public figures to combatting viral misinformation on social networks. “Debunking,” once a peripheral pursuit, now dominates fact-checking worldwide. It was the alarms of “fake news” that sounded the call for fact-checkers to shift their focus to dismantling viral hoxes, fabrications and conspiracy theories.

To explore this transformative shift among fact-checkers, Graves and his colleagues conducted qualitative interviews with 39 people in the field and highlighted the insights of 19 participants whose perspectives exemplify the prevailing discourse regarding this notable “debunking turn.” Additionally, the researchers undertook an analysis of metajournalistic discourse, examining published accounts and observing archived virtual sessions for the Global Fact conference in 2020 and 2021.

The findings reveal that practitioners assign a diminished status to debunking work, despite the inherent similarities across the different forms of fact-checking. This perception arises from the association of debunking with sensational, outrageous and frivolous content. The authors argue that the discourse surrounding these perceptions reflect apprehensions about the field’s autonomy from external stakeholders such as governments and major tech firms. Finally, they state the case that the notable shift away from political fact-checking toward a focus on debunking signifies a heightened emphasis on harm reduction, casting the audience as potential victims of misinformation rather than active agents.

Photo of “I Voted” stickers at Langley High School in McLean, Virginia, by Megan Lee of VCU Capital News Service used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     July 17, 2023, 11:15 a.m.
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