Journalists often treat women and racialized politicians differently than they treat white men. A single set of standards should apply.
In the days after Jody Wilson-Raybould’s resignation from federal cabinet, reports suggested she was difficult, not a team player, and even “mean.” Supporters denounced this framing and pointed to its gendered and racialized undertones, a criticism with which the prime minister eventually agreed. Even so, media coverage came complete with editorial cartoons depicting Wilson-Raybould bound, gagged and beaten. Although the cartoons were largely condemned, some commentators derided the critics as overly sensitive, while of one of the cartoonists blamed faux-outrage and virtue-signalling.
As the days wore on, a caucus colleague suggested that Wilson-Raybould couldn’t handle the pressure of her cabinet position. Others argued that the evident cabinet discord is a predictable outcome of the government’s focus on “identity politics,” with one columnist saying the prime minister had “been hoisted by his own petard.”
The media and political institutions have both edged toward more inclusivity, but women and racialized minorities remain, as former journalist Vivian Smith has put it, “outsiders still.” This outsider status partly reflects basic demographics: Parliament, newsrooms and the parliamentary press gallery are still mostly made up of white men. But it is also indicative of the ways that race and gender structure politics.
I have researched news coverage and found systemic differences in the ways white and racialized politicians are covered by journalists. Similar patterns exist in media coverage of women in politics. As I point out in my 2016 book, Framed: Media and the Coverage of Race in Canadian Politics, these patterns are longstanding, so as the 2019 federal election campaign kicks into high gear, we are likely to see more of the same.
Racialized candidates’ coverage is as plentiful but more negative than that of white candidates. Their coverage focuses less on politically salient issues and is more likely to mention aspects of the candidate’s background like their race, immigration status or religion than is the case for white candidates. Racialized candidates are less likely to be quoted and more likely to be featured in stories that are buried on the inside pages of print editions. These patterns give racialized candidates less visibility and credibility.
Race influences how journalists decide to frame and portray their subjects. This type of coverage cues voters to apply racial considerations to their evaluations of politicians. It is grounded in assumptions about the meaning, importance and consequences of race. One aspect of this process is to assume that race is only relevant to subjects with minority racial backgrounds. Because of this, stories will often advance racial explanations in the coverage of racialized subjects but not in those about white subjects.
So, for example, when the news media do shine a light on racialized politicians, that coverage often frames them as a product of their demography. After the US midterm elections in 2018, which saw a record number of women candidates and several “historic firsts,” much of the coverage focused on the candidates who “broke race and gender barriers” and would be heading to Congress. There’s nothing wrong with covering these trailblazers, but the focus on their socio-demographic backgrounds conceals the other qualifications that they bring with them, including their professional credentials, community organizing and political acumen. The focus on socio-demographics has the effect of suggesting electoral success was a function of these candidates’ race or gender and that the backgrounds of white or male politicians did not factor into their victories.
Racialized women break the political mould in two ways: once on account of their gender and again on account of their race. Their media coverage bears the marker of their intersecting identities.
In my work, I have documented the portrayal of racialized women serving as members of Parliament in Canadian print news coverage since 1993. In addition to highlighting the novelty of racialized women politicians, there is a tendency to exoticize them.
In a 2008 Toronto Star news story, then-Bloc Québécois MP Vivian Barbot was described as having a “captivating smoky voice.” In a 2009 column in the Globe and Mail, Ruby Dhalla was referred to as “a young drop-dead gorgeous, Indo-Canadian woman,” while a list of “10 things you should know about Ruby Dhalla” that appeared in the same paper said the Liberal MP is “like something out of a Bollywood movie.”
Some argue that media framing is simply a reflection of a candidate’s self-presentation. For example, in speeches and interviews, Olivia Chow, a longtime Toronto city councilor, MP and one-time mayoral candidate often referenced her background as an immigrant and woman of colour. Her background helps to explain her political activism, but Chow herself suggests it is also a response to the racism and sexism she endured on the campaign trail. Her treatment included an editorial cartoon that depicted her with exaggerated slanted eyes, dressed as a Maoist communist, and riding on her late husband’s coattails. The race and gender of white male politicians is rarely mentioned: they are portrayed as the neutral standard. Chow tried to counteract this tendency by framing her own narrative rather than leaving it up to the media.
The ways in which the media cover political candidates partly comes down to what news outlets think will interest their viewers and readers. Journalists consider timeliness, relevance and novelty when deciding what stories to cover, what angle to adopt and who to quote.
The Canadian Press Stylebook, a reference for print journalists, provides some guidelines. In its section on race and ethnicity, journalists are counseled to “identify a person by race, colour, national origin or immigration status only when it is truly pertinent.” However, it goes on to say that “race is pertinent in reporting an accomplishment unusual in a particular race: for example, if a Canadian of Chinese origin is named to the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.”
The standard of a racially unusual accomplishment is not echoed in the section on sexism, which instead instructs journalists to “Treat the sexes equally and without stereotyping. . . . The test always is: Would this information be used if the subject were a man?” By contrast, there is no mention of this kind of reverse test in the section on race and ethnicity. There, journalists are not counseled to ask, “Would this information be used if the subject were white?” In other words, when determining what is relevant, the standard that journalists are advised to apply is different for race than it is for gender.
Although those in the media and those in politics might each be loath to admit it, these institutions share a common lineage, resting on foundations that are both racialized and gendered. In the political realm, for example, racist restrictions barred some Canadians from voting, sometimes until well into the 20th century. In other words, politicians and the news media are navigating institutions marked by racialized assumptions, not to mention prejudice, patriarchy and classism.
In this context, racialized women candidates stand out, and their atypicality provides journalists with what seems like a novel hook for a story.
The way for journalists to improve the fairness of their coverage is not to ignore race and gender altogether, but instead to use the same standard when deciding on the hook for stories, the way they will be framed, and which details they will focus on when they are covering white men and racialized women. Race and gender are as much factors in the political trajectories of successful white men as they are in the stories of racialized women who have triumphed. News coverage should reflect this.
This article is part of the Changing the way we talk about women in politics special feature.
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