MU study examines portrayal of first ladies

Monday, May 10, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:37 a.m. CDT, Sunday, June 29, 2008

An MU study has found that election coverage is increasingly focused on the wives of presidential and vice-presidential candidates and what they can bring to their husbands’ campaigns.

Journalism professor Betty Winfield and journalism doctoral student Barbara Friedman examined the 2000 election coverage of Laura Bush, Tipper Gore, Lynne Cheney and Hadassah Lieberman. They found that the women presented a challenge to the media because they represented backgrounds different from those of traditional presidential and vice-presidential wives.

The media coverage was examined through four established news frames used when covering the candidates’ wives: in a protocol role, in a noblesse oblige role, as an escort and as a policy adviser.

The study — published in the fall 2003 issue of Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly — focuses on the coverage of Tipper Gore and Laura Bush on ABC, CNN, CBS and NBC and in The New York Times, the Washington Post and USA Today. The researchers found that the coverage was less focused on physical appearance and style and more on critical roles the women played in their husbands’ campaigns.

The study found that the news media still use the traditional frames of coverage — shown first as escorts to their husbands, then in their noblesse oblige role that showcases their charitable interests and significant issues they would champion if their husbands were elected.

“We found that there wasn’t much of a change and that the media persisted in framing in the traditional ways,” Friedman said.

Winfield and Friedman found some differences in coverage of the women in the various roles. Women shown in their escort roles were “indispensable,” adding an essential component to the campaigns, the report said.

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