Female bloggers are making campaign history, too
By Sheila Gibbons
The general election hasnt even begun yet but already were getting early snippets of retrospection on the campaign coverage so far.
In a look at the publics news interests over the past year the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that while women and men might not be on different planets, theres still plenty of statistical daylight between them.
Women consistently express more interest in stories about weather, health and safety, natural disasters, crime and celebrity news. Men tend to be more interested in international affairs, Washington news and sports.
However, men and women often express comparable levels of interest in the top news stories of the day, the study found.
The presidential campaign, for instance, has attracted only modestly greater interest among men than among women.
In five weekly news interest surveys in 2008, 37 percent of men and 32 percent of women say they have followed campaign news very closely.
While women continue to show more interest in local and community news where they comprise 58 percent of the audience plenty are also focused on global events. The assassination of former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto attracted nearly identical levels of interest from men and women, according to the Pew survey.
Its likely that womens interest in the U.S. elections and the Pakistan assassination was heightened by the key figures in these events who were also women. This is consistent with the finding described in The Private Roots of Public Action (Harvard University Press, 2001) that in states with no female senators or candidates, only 51 percent of women can name a senator, compared to 79 percent of women in states that have a female senator or candidate.
Then come the blogs, which offer reporters a font of story ideas and sense of buzz and attract a good number of female readers.
More than half (56 percent) of Americans say they never read blogs that discuss politics, according to a Harris Poll released March 10. However, nearly a quarter of men (24 percent) and nearly one in five women (19 percent) say they do read political blogs regularly.
Within that group, women have a high level of interest: 35 percent of the women and 25 percent of the men read at least one blog a week; 17 percent of women and 18 percent of men read five to nine blogs a week. Women and men post comments to blogs in similar proportions.
Although all blogs are not political commentary, it is their influence, exemplified by InstaPundits 100,000 readers per day (equivalent to a medium-sized city daily newspaper or cable news show) that caught the eye of the mainstream media, says the University of Washingtons Kathy Gill in her analysis of the blogosphere.
Many mainstream journalists are now blogging themselves, expanding the publishing cycle to meet the needs of news consumers expecting fresh material 24/7.
Women journalists and citizens are a growing part of the political blogging world.
Catherine Morgan a nurse and writer who blogs on politics and health keeps a running list of women blogging on politics. Her tally exceeds 300 bloggers of all political stripes. Morgan is the founder of Informed Voters, which she describes as a blog dedicated to giving women political bloggers a voice.
In many ways the blogosphere is a place maybe the only place where a womans voice is equal to a mans, Morgan says. A Google search doesnt discriminate between a blog by Catherine or a blog by Joe.
Where women are really making a difference in the political conversation isnt simply by participating in it, its by shaping it, Morgan adds. You can bet that womens issues will not be slipping through the cracks of this presidential election.
Male-dominated decision-making about mainstream media content, particularly politics, has probably depressed womens interest in traditional political news coverage and discouraged them from aspiring and running for office.
Barbara Palmer, who teaches courses on gender and politics at American University in Washington, D.C., confirms that women have generally expressed less interest in politics and dont run for office as often as men do. But thats not the whole story.
This has actually presented us with a paradox, Palmer says. There is a high correlation between levels of education and political literacy and interest in politics. And women have outnumbered men as college students for quite a while. In addition, women are more likely to be political science majors than men. And finally, we know that women are more likely to vote than men. There is some kind of disconnect here; there is a gap in our understanding of women and political engagement.
Perhaps a way to close this gap is for women to continue expanding their media choices themselves, beyond their traditional attachment to network TV programming. This offers an explanation for the growth of female-focused sites for news, policy, opinion and chat.
Morgans extensive list of female political bloggers offers another bright light. The independent and interactive features of the Internet versus the passive model of news consumption offered by television and newspapers that still tend to reflect more of a mans world would enrich womens political knowledge and whet their appetite for political involvement.
I see a promising media environment increasingly supportive of women and their interests, with the potential to create communities that can bring about large-scale change.
Gibbons is editor of Media Report to Women, a quarterly news journal of news, research and commentary about women and media, and co-author of Taking Their Place: A Documentary History of Women and Journalism (Strata Publishing, Inc.).