An Original Analysis from Be Clear.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton became the first woman to secure a major party Presidential nomination and won more general election votes than any man in history not named Barack Obama. In the 2018 midterm elections, more women were elected to Congress than ever before. Now, a record six women are running for president. This historic progress has propelled a vital conversation about treatment of female candidates in the national news and on social media.
Less attention, however, has been paid to a news source that may have the biggest impact on elections: local news. Despite a dip in television news viewership, it remains Americans’ preferred information source by a wide margin, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted late last year. And among different types of TV news, local news outstrips both cable and national network news in popularity. Local TV also enjoys voters’ trust. A 2018 Poynter Media Trust Survey “found 76 percent of Americans across the political spectrum have ‘a great deal’ or ‘a fair amount’ of trust in their local television news… That contrasts with 55 percent trust in national network news…”
So, we wanted to know: who is on television telling us what to think about these candidates? Who is commentating on their electability, their policy ideas, their perceived likability, and how the races are going?
In short, are the political talkers and pundits on our local TV stations reflecting the changing reality of our elections?
To answer that question, we tracked over 400 guest appearances on local political TV shows for 3 months in 2019. We considered 14 politically important markets, described in more detail below.
The findings were jarring, if not surprising. No matter how we sliced it, the data produced the same results again and again: when viewers turn on a local TV political show, they’re twice as likely to hear a man's views as they are a woman's views. That massive gender gap has obvious implications for how female candidates are covered compared to their male counterparts.
What We Looked At
With this report, we set out to understand whether women are equally represented on local television political programs in key states that will affect the 2020 elections. To answer that question, we analyzed data collected from three months of the most-watched Sunday political programs in the largest media market of the following states:
Florida (Miami-Fort Lauderdale)
Iowa (Des Moines)
Minnesota (Minneapolis-St. Paul)
Nevada (Las Vegas)
New Hampshire (Manchester)
New York (New York)
North Carolina (Charlotte)
South Carolina (Columbia)
These states comprise the 4 first-voting states in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, the 10 closest-margin states in the 2016 Presidential election, and the locations of the 2020 Democratic and Republican national conventions. Also included is hotly contested 2020 Senate battleground Colorado. Our data tracked over 400 appearances in 3 months in these 14 diverse and varied politically important markets to build a representative sample of political show guests.
Older and Whiter
An important note: This analysis focused on gender disparities, in part because self-reported data about age and race was not readily available. However, without making specific numerical claims, it was still clear that guests (unsurprisingly) tended to be older and whiter than the electorate. Young people, women, people of color, and, especially, women of color are increasingly driving progressive change, and progressive leaders must prioritize diversity of age and race in addition to striving for gender balance in the media.
On age: When possible, we estimated age based on the individual’s first year of undergraduate education. Not all of the 313 guests in our study listed undergraduate data on their LinkedIn pages. Of those who did, though, just six entered undergrad after 2007 (meaning they are, roughly, under 30). Not a single guest reported starting undergrad later than 2010.
On race: The vast majority of guests, understandably, do not self-identify their race in TV appearances. As such, we declined to make definitive statements on racial diversity. However, based on watching more than 400 appearances, it was obvious that people of color remain dramatically underrepresented on these shows.
Both of these areas deserve further study. We would be eager to share our data and work with partners who are interested in delving further into these topics.
The data set produced included one television show from each of the above states. In each case, we selected the state’s largest media market by population and checked the most-watched news network (by Nielsen rating) for a Sunday political analysis or roundtable discussion show.
In cases where the network did not have such a program, or networks featured competing programs, we chose the most-watched program by Nielsen rating on any channel. Guests were tracked on each program for 12 weeks of airtime, from March 17 to June 2, 2019.
What We Found
Out of 431 appearances on the local Sunday shows, just 138—or slightly less than one-third—were by women. Men accounted for 293—or roughly 68 percent—of appearances.
Interestingly, we cut the data a few different ways in an effort to understand whether there were any underlying dynamics that needed to be taken into account: what if we eliminate all appearances by Presidential candidates themselves; or by all elected officials? Would that narrow the gap? No. However we sliced it, the breakdown was depressingly similar: women make up roughly a third of the local TV punditry.
That means when viewers in these key states turn on a local TV political show, they're two times more likely to see a man talking than a woman.
What We Can Do About It
When women run for office, they are just as likely to win. Yet, women candidates still face disproportionate questions about whether they are electable enough or likable enough. Meanwhile, a recent survey found that 20 percent of Democratic and independent men who responded agreed with the sentiment that women are “less effective in politics.”
While erasing gender disparities in politics will take myriad changes, this report points to a clear and actionable step: let’s get more women on TV talking about the candidates who are running for office. While changing the makeup of Congress takes time, changing the makeup of the political panels on upcoming Sunday shows just takes a few phone calls with new and different voices—and some encouragement from the rest of us.
We propose the following next steps:
Local TV stations with political shows should actively work to achieve gender parity with the pundits they bring on their panels. Make a commitment to broaden out from the usual suspects, who appear week after week, to invite on some new and diverse voices. Not only will this likely lead to better conversations, it may even draw in some new viewers.
Local political parties should increase their outreach to pitch women to TV shows. Let the local networks know the names and areas of expertise of additional women pundits available to appear on their shows.
Local organizations should cultivate a diverse group of women with the expertise to serve as political pundits and provide the support they need. At least anecdotally, in our media training and strategic communications work, we have seen time-and-again that men are more willing to jump on television while highly-qualified women question whether they are an expert or truly prepared. Local advocacy and political organizations can play an important role in providing support such as media training, research, and pitching.
A Few Notes About Our Assumptions and Data Collection
In order to apply a consistent standard when recording guest appearances, the following exclusions and caveats were applied:
People who appeared to promote a non-political book or project
People who appeared in reference to non-political local news
People who were quoted in a news or feature story, but did not appear as a guest
People who appeared in a full interview outside the studio
People who appeared multiple times due to their segment being re-aired (this was very rare)
People who discussed an issue with political implications but who did not explicitly reference partisan politics
Reporters from the network who appeared as guests to analyze a political story
For additional questions or information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Be Clear
Be Clear is a progressive communications and strategy firm. We are a team of Obama administration alumni whose experience spans state and federal government, national and local politics, philanthropy, nonprofits, journalism, and the private sector. We have served in the White House, two federal agencies, and a Governor’s office and also advised startups and established players in education, clean energy, technology, sustainable food, and the sharing economy. We believe in the power of storytelling and communications to build a better, more progressive future. Learn more at www.letmebeclear.com.
Special thanks to Austin Adams for his stellar research support on this project.