Monday, October 21, 2013

How Does Media Bias Affect People's Perceptions?

In December 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was meeting with the press in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. She had just spoken about the challenges of being female in legal practice, where women are often judged on more critical and superficial standards than are men.

A few minutes later, the moderator asked, with no irony, “so which [clothing] designers do you prefer?” The Secretary responded, “Would you ever ask a man that question?” before moving to the next question.

Media coverage of female politicians---with a focus on appearance, on “women’s issues” like education rather than economics, on communal rather than individual qualities---is clearly different than that of men. This week’s WAPPP Seminar speaker, Exploring Viewer Reactions to Media Coverage of Female Politicians, Joanna Everitt, a Dean at the University of New Brunswick and current WAPPP Visiting Fellow, explored the effects of that coverage on voter perceptions.

She starts with the assumption that, in many cases, media simply reflects cultural biases and stereotypes---rather than actually creating them. One of these is that politics is what men do; for women, playing that ‘power game’ is out of the ordinary.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm (2003–2011) speaking at 2012 DNC.

Professor Everitt and her colleagues broke down even visual cues into those that represent decisiveness and individual power---like up-and-down vertical hand motions---and those that represent communal inclusiveness---like horizontal hand gestures. (I bet you’re moving your hands right now; if not, try it. You’ll see what she means---plus it’s been confirmed by repeated social psychological tests).

The media even more subtly reflects some of these biases in how they present female candidates in short clips. Professor Everitt’s study played short videos of different politicians using ‘agentic’ versus ‘inclusive’ poses in front of 100 human lab rats (students that took part in surveys).

The result? There were no differences in whether the participants liked the candidates overall. But those male politicians that were shown using the up and down hand gesture were seen as more impressive, while those going side to side were less so. Female politicians were seen as more impressive and likable when they didn’t use expansive gestures and were actually less liked when they used the up and down hand gestures.

So what does that say about us as people? Sometimes women and men (of different races) succeed by ‘mastering’ and using some of the benefits of their own stereotypes. But is that good? Should we understand and master what is accepted---in a sort of social jiu-jitsu to get our work done? Or should we fight to effectively change what’s accepted? If so, how?

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