Passerini Maria Vittoria, 12240907 Master’s Thesis
Graduate School of Communication
Master’s Programme Communication Science Marie Garnier Ortiz
01-07-2022 8242 words
More than a good-looking doll: How women politicians react to negative media coverage during their election
Women politicians face constant backlash from media organisations and there is a clear difference in coverage compared to their male counterparts. For this reason, an analysis of eight interviews conducted with women politicians and fellow campaign strategists is performed to find how they respond to negative media coverage. This work also takes into consideration how the emotional reactions of politicians affect strategy as well as whether they employ image restoration strategies to rehabilitate their image. Finally, their discourses are analysed to find whether their gender performativity reinforces consolidated power structures within the field. This study is motivated by the lack of research on how women politicians react to media coverage hoping to provide practitioners with some
recommendations and improve the representation of women both in the media and inside institutions. The analysis found that women politicians often feel very anxious about negative media coverage, which leads to three different strategies to respond to the press: ironic
answers, direct confrontation with the journalist and ignoring the attack. Since interviewees did not recognize the gendered aspect of these attacks, they did not consider the press’s reactions to their campaigns, avoiding the use of rehabilitation strategies. Based on the discourse analysis, such behaviour results in a reinforcement of patriarchal power structures.
The supervisor allowed for an extension of the word count (+ 750 words) since this work is qualitative research.
Gender inequality within politics 3
Negative media coverage 4
Emotional reactions 5
Campaign strategies 6
Image restoration 7
Gender performativity in politics 8
Method of analysis 10
The impact of negative media coverage on politicians 13
How negative media coverage impacts the campaign 16
Image restoration 18
Gender performativity and the reinforcement of power structures 19
DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSION 22
Appendix A – Rationale for choice of case study 33
Appendix B – Interview guides 33
Appendix C – Codebook 35
Appendix D – Example of a memo 36
“Crooked Hillary” is probably the most recurrent epitome that Hillary Clinton was given during the 2016 election campaign. Her opponent, Donald J. Trump, coined this nickname, an insult that was later used by most journalists when covering her and her campaign (Bean, 2019).
Throughout the primaries out of 330 stories about her, 300 were in negative tone (Bean, 2019).
Similarly, when she became the Democratic nominee, she had to face double standards compared to her opponent Donald Trump, who was able to say almost anything without facing consequences (Bean, 2019).
Routinely, women politicians face a constant undermining of their abilities by the media. Politicians in general have a strained relationship with media outlets, often believing there is outright hostility towards them (Soontjens, Van Remoortere & Walgrave, 2021).
However, women politicians receive a different kind of coverage from their counterparts, which delegitimises them and damages their reputation (Kahn, 1994). Negative media coverage consists of that coverage that is purposefully made to damage a person, from blatant attacks to more subtle forms like lack of coverage (Kahn, 1994). The media cover women in a misogynistic way: women are undermined as too emotional, they are insulted because beauty is not associated with intelligence and taking care of oneself is denigrated as vanity (Mohsin &
Syed, 2021). Yet, when a woman favours a more masculine appearance, less “vain”, they are still criticised as shabby and careless or as cruel and cold (Sorrentino & Augoustinos, 2016).
Further, women receive less coverage than their male counterparts during election campaigns (Kahn, 1994; Vidal-Correa, 2020). The low visibility of women ranks among the main reasons why they are still underrepresented within institutions (Khan, 1994; Hayek &
Russman, 2022). Women tend to receive less coverage during election campaigns because of a perceived incongruity between their gender and a political career (Samuel-Azran & Yarchi, 2020; Zulli, 2019; Hayek & Russman, 2022). When they are covered by the media, women
tend to get punished when employing typically male strategies and rewarded when doing the opposite (Samuel-Azran & Yarchi, 2020; (Herrnson, Lay & Stokes, 2003). Finally, negative coverage also impacts voters’ perceptions of women candidates, making them less likeable (Bligh, Casad, Schlehofer & Gaffney, 2012).
Additionally, this negativity takes a toll on women politicians. They feel high levels of stress and anxiety after being heavily targeted by the media, to the point where they experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms (Karlssen and Duckert, 2018; Maercker & Mehr, 2006). Although these feelings are shared by politicians of all genders, the emotionalization of politics is a gendered phenomenon (Yates, 2019; Harmer, Savigny & Ward, 2016). Some emotions such as anger and aggression are positively associated with masculinity, negatively impacting women politicians (Harmer, Savigny & Ward, 2016). This phenomenon contributes to the reinforcement of current imbalances of power as women politicians must balance between being too empathetic and not empathetic enough.
Yet, this research identified a knowledge gap within campaign communication. There are virtually no insights on how media coverage influences campaign strategies, both for male and women candidates. This study aims at filling this gap by putting women politicians at the centre of the analysis and exploring how they react to such coverage and what they make of it during periods of intense media coverage like election campaigns. Furthermore, this research will focus on the Italian context, a society that has strong gender traditions which are very difficult to eradicate (For further explanation see Appendix A). Consequently, this work will answer the following:
RQ: How do Italian women politicians respond to negative media coverage during their campaigns?
This research aims to investigate the ways in which women politicians deal with negative media coverage and how they respond to it through their election campaign strategies. This
study provides valuable information for candidates that may be intimidated by the general negative depiction of women in the media. Similarly, campaign strategists can also earn valuable information from this research. When they expect certain consequences to their actions, they can easily draft the most suitable strategy to avoid negative coverage and even transform it into positive comments. More broadly, the insights gained from this work can be used to educate voters when reading news about a candidate, to avoid reinforcing harmful stereotypes. Lastly, this information can also be used to improve the representation of women within institutions, but some parallels might be drawn also to improve the representation of other minorities.
Gender inequality within politics
Gender inequality concerns the legal, social, and cultural situation in which sex and/or gender determines different rights for the different genders, reflected in the unequal access and enjoyment of such rights (European Commission, 2004). Western society is undoubtedly patriarchal, men have been dominating the rest of the population for centuries and women have now been fighting such an unjust system in favour of a more equal society (Zerilli, 2016).
Within the political realm, there are just a handful of women in charge. Only 63 countries have had a woman executive since 1960, with the first ever woman Prime Minister being elected in 1959 (Statista, 2022). Media coverage has been linked to the unequal representation of women in politics as lower visibility prevents women from being recognized by voters and getting elected (Vidal-Correa, 2020; Bligh, Casad, Schlehofer & Gaffney, 2012). Further, the way women are covered in the media is also due to capitalistic motives that drive objectifying coverage because it brings more profit over a balanced and neutral coverage (Zerilli, 2016).
Many scholars have suggested how and why few women are able to reach the highest levels of authority (O’Brien, 2015; Corowder-Meyer, 2020; Folke & Rikne, 2016). They are more likely to be appointed party leaders by struggling parties, but they are also more likely to be removed from their position as soon as the party loses ground again (O’Brien, 2015). Other factors also play a role: women politicians avoid candidacy when the context is not perceived to be fit for them (Nguyen, 2018). Ordinary women citizens’ political ambition strongly depends on gender expectations and the balancing of caregiving, work and political engagement, rather than the experience and resources possessed by elite women (Corowder- Meyer, 2020). Most importantly, being supported by both personal and political sources strongly shapes a woman’s ambition and her desire to run for office, while male citizens do not need as much external support (Corowder-Meyer, 2020).
Negative media coverage
Negative media coverage is all the media coverage about a candidate that is either delivered with a negative tone or that portrays the candidate negatively (Kahn, 1994). Its main goal is to delegitimise a candidate by damaging their public image or by undermining their abilities (Schlehofer et al, 2011). Negativity has been proven to be extremely useful, to the point where politicians consistently attack each other via the press (Cassese & Holman, 2018). Negative media coverage effects are mainly visible on voters, who are easily influenced by the way the media portrays a political candidate (Samuel-Azran & Yarchi, 2020; Bligh, Casad, Schlehofer
& Gaffney, 2012).
Women tend to receive more negative media coverage mostly because of traditional gender roles. Politics has been traditionally attributed to a male career and the presence of women in elections creates an incongruity between their gender role and the career they are choosing to pursue (Samuel-Azran & Yarchi, 2020). As Zulli (2019) found, the media tend to
switch their narrative depending on whether a woman fits within the stereotype of a take home wife. For example, when Clinton decided to start her own political career, she was heavily criticised and often compared to her husband (Zulli, 2019).
Women politicians at both state elections and at the presidential level receive a significant increase in negative coverage compared to women candidates running for municipal elections (Vidal-Correa, 2020). On the contrary, male runners for the Presidency receive more favourable coverage, while for the woman contender it is only highlighted her being behind in the polls (Vidal-Correa, 2020). Similarly, those women running for a Senate seat receive more negative coverage than those who run for Governor (Kahn, 1994).
The literature mostly covers the way voters, or more in general the audience, are impacted by media coverage, yet there is a lack of exploration concerning the feelings of those that endure negative media coverage. Emotions are not a simple phenomenon, they are a conscious experience that drives neural processes, and which are visibly observable through patterns of behaviour (Izard, 1977). By conceptualising women politicians as victims of media attacks in the political realm, some parallels can be made with victims of negative media coverage in other fields. Crime victims have been reported to respond negatively to media coverage about them, especially when writing inaccurate information, to the point where victims of these crimes experienced severe PTSD symptoms (Maercker & Mehr, 2006). Similarly, multiple Norwegian politicians have claimed to have experienced depression and trauma related symptoms due to conspicuous amounts of negative coverage (Karlssen & Duckert, 2018). Until recently, emotions in politics were often overlooked or delegitimised by scholars (Hall, 2009).
Now, a different approach has brought emotionality to the centre stage, shifting the
understanding of emotions as collectively and socially produced constructs, rather than private experiences (Boler & Zembylas, 2016; Yates, 2019).
Being election campaigns stressful for politicians because of the pressures related to being constantly scrutinised by the press, it is essential to study candidates’ emotions to understand how they are affected by negative media coverage (Karlssen & Duckert, 2018).
Further, emotions drive cognitive responses, leading to a change in behaviour (Izard, 1977).
Therefore, these feelings affect the actions taken during campaigns. Knowing that political figures tend to feel negatively toward bad press about them and knowing that these emotions might drive a change in campaign behaviour, this research will also investigate the emotional reactions of women politicians to negative media coverage by answering the following Sub- question 1: How do women politicians emotionally react to negative media coverage about themselves?
Campaign strategies can be of different types, and they concern different elements of an election campaign. Strategies concern the choices made with regards to where, what, and how one communicates a message (Samuel-Azran and Yarchi, 2020; Tsichla et al, 2021). A strategy usually can have two goals, either increase vote likelihood for a candidate or decrease vote likelihood for the opposing candidate (Tsichla et al, 2021). Further, they can have different results depending, among other things, on the candidate employing them. Sometimes they might simply not be credible or coherent with the candidate, while in other instances attributes like gender affect the efficacy of a strategy. For example, the same campaign strategy works differently for female and male candidates (Beltran et al, 2020; Tsichla et al, 2021). In some instances, campaigning according to gender stereotypes does end up being beneficial. Women politicians for example have received more support from voters when addressing
stereotypically feminine issues like education or the environment compared to when their campaigns revolved around “hard” masculine issues such as defence or the economy (Samuel- Azran and Yarchi, 2020). Similarly, when women specifically target women voters in their campaigns, they tend to have greater efficacy compared to when they try to address a more heterogeneous audience (Herrnson, Lay & Stokes, 2003). Insisting on pro-women issues also brought better results for women politicians running for the Presidency in Latin America (Reyes-Householder, 2018). Because the focus of the thesis regards election campaigns, the research will focus on the campaign strategies employed by politicians and their campaign managers in direct (or indirect) response to negative media coverage. Indeed, the research will also answer the following Sub-question 2: Which campaign strategies do women politicians employ when reacting to negative media coverage?
Among the many available campaign strategies that can be employed when organising a political campaign, there is one that is specifically designed to deal with negative media coverage and that is employed because it is essential to restore the public image to the audience when facing negative media coverage (Avraham, 2013). Image restoration theory concerns those strategies employed right after an immediate crisis to restore a positive image of an organisation in the public eye (Avraham, 2013). In the context of public organisations, an image restoration strategy looks like what the United Arab Emirates has been doing for the past decade. The government has hosted different events that promote the cultural heritage of the country, and it has been making use of influencer marketing to promote an image of openness and hospitality, contrasting the association with terrorism and political instability pushed by the Western press (Avraham, 2013). Only one study analyses the concept of image restoration within the political context. Hillary Clinton had to navigate between her husband’s sex scandals
and some personal failures and was able to elicit a positive response thanks to the use of the
“Madonna” metaphorical image (Anderson, 2002). Thanks to this persona she was also able to admit denial and guilt in different occasions without compromising her public image (Anderson, 2002). To better explore which strategies women politicians use to restore their public image the research will also answer the following Sub-question 3: How do women politicians employ image restoration strategies after an attack by the media?
Gender performativity in politics
Politics is known to be a game of power in which power relationships strongly affect the role of each player (Zerilli, 2016). These relationships can either be of oppression or of subordination (Zerilli, 2016). Marxist feminists have claimed that when a relationship of subordination denies personal freedom it becomes one of oppression, which is inherently political (Zerilli, 2016). The concept was also picked out by Mohsin & Syed (2021), who explain how the way these women present themselves both in their discourse and in their looks helps them exert power, even though it initially seems like they are simply following along the patriarchal ideal of how a woman should look and behave (Mohsin & Syed, 2021).
The way a woman presents herself can be considered part of her gender identity. Gender identity is an individual’s self-conception as a man or a woman, but one can also identify in a non-binary way somewhere in between these conceptions (Money, 1973). Gender performativity, on the other hand, is the expression of one’s gender identity through their physical presentation, their behaviour, and the ideas they hold (Ehlers, 2016; Butler, 1988). It is not simply considered being part of a certain demographic group, but it consists more of a way to identify with one group, without necessarily living through the same exact experiences (Ehlers, 2016).
Within society, there are certain expectations when it comes to gender roles, which are also shaped by stereotypes. In general, women are associated with communal characteristics, such as being friendly and lovable, while men are associated with agentic characteristics, which refer to goal attainment (Sorrentino & Augoustinos, 2016). When women politicians choose this career path, they try to hold on to their communal characteristics to mitigate the incongruity between gender roles and this career and they hide their agentic characteristics, like being ambitious, to avoid further backlash from voters (Sorrentino & Augoustinos, 2016). Yet, women politicians sometimes try to break away from the stereotypical attributes in their campaigns to make a symbolic stance or to avoid being ridiculed for their femininity (Mohsin
& Syed, 2021). For example, in Japan, many women have consistently tried to reclaim their
“Madonna” public image into a less stereotypical conception of gender roles highlighting the fact that women do not necessarily need to be caregivers (Gaunder, 2017).
It is still debated whether this tactic works beneficially for women politicians as most scholars argue that although women try to change their public image, most women politicians are perceived to be subservient to male party leaders (Gaunder, 2017). Additionally, some women politicians try to not make such contestation explicit, therefore their actions most often fail to bring the desired changes in terms of women’s representation in politics (Sorrentino &
Augoustinos, 2016). Further, it is essential to point out that these are not necessarily conscious choices. Indeed, some politicians may feed into expected gender roles and patriarchal power relationships unconsciously, not as a tactic. Because it is still not clear how and why women make use of their gender identity during election campaigns and when addressing the media, and because such (un)conscious use of it may possibly lead to great social change within the political arena, the following will also be researched: Sub-question 4: How do women politicians use their gender identity to maintain or reverse current relationships of power when addressing negative media coverage?
Methodology Method of analysis
The sample for this research consisted of Italian women politicians and campaign strategists.
Around sixty participants were contacted through purposive sampling via their publicly available email addresses or via LinkedIn. Participants represented the main political parties in power, to gather a balanced array of viewpoints. For politicians, the only selection criteria were their gender and the presence of media coverage about the candidate. Regarding campaign strategists, there were no selection criteria to participate. Only eight participants agreed to be interviewed for this study. Data was collected through semi structured interviews that lasted 30-60 minutes conducted on Zoom between May 6th and May 23rd.
The transcripts of the interviews were firstly analysed to answer the research question through the development of concept indicator models. The analysis of the transcripts
consisted in looking for similar patterns between interviewees’ answers regarding their experience with negative media coverage. Subsequently, discourse analysis was conducted to find the latent meanings of the data collected regarding the undertones of their gender
performativity. The discourse analysis was performed because different elements such as the context can shape the meaning of one’s words (Kendall & Tannen, 2015). Especially when studying gender, discourse analysis can acknowledge the agency of individuals in creating gendered identities, but it also shows the sociocultural constraints that dictate linguistic choices, as well as the impact of these constraints (Kendall & Tannen, 2015).
To ensure the validity of the data collected, participants were asked to read the transcripts to find whether there were any incongruences. Further, a list of standardized questions was asked during interviews, to avoid leading participants through the wording of questions and through the interviewer’s behaviour. To improve the reliability of the analysis a
codebook was created and some memos that guided the creation of the concept indicator models that were later used in the results section (See Appendix C and Appendix D).
This work studies the way women politicians react to negative media coverage. Media outlets tend to cover women politicians more negatively than their counterparts (Khan, 1994). The most obvious form of negative media coverage consists of explicit insults to a politician, but there are also more subtle ways in which media outlets can cover women politicians
negatively. Firstly, lack of coverage. Secondly, negative viability assessments are an example of negative media coverage. Lastly, avoiding issue coverage for women candidates but focusing on irrelevant aspects such as a woman’s private life or her looks. Negative media coverage does not only concern the content though. The tone and wording of seemingly innocent questions are also examples of negative media coverage.
Because this research concerns such a complex and multifaceted issue, multiple synthesising concepts were employed to answer the overarching research question and the subsequent sub-questions. Firstly, the emotional reactions of politicians are analysed. Some politicians feel very negative emotions such as anxiety, stress, sadness, and helplessness when the media attacks them (Karlssen & Duckert, 2018). Others are not heavily bothered by bad press and ignore such attacks, but this is still a noteworthy reaction that impacts the politician’s conduct (Karlssen & Duckert, 2018). Politicians were explicitly asked to recount their experience with the press and how it made them feel, therefore, this research identified emotions when participants stated “I feel …” or “that made me feel…” or by the explicit mention of an emotion such as anxiety.
Secondly, campaign strategies are considered. Any choice can be considered a strategy, the message presented, the medium chosen to deliver this message, the tone, the
related imagery, and the targeted audience. Often politicians, or their campaign managers, do target specific voters during their campaigns to achieve support from certain groups
(Herrnson, Lay & Stokes, 2003). To identify campaign strategies, participants were asked to describe the campaign issues on which they usually focus the most, the language they use to communicate, whether they prefer certain media over others for their communication, and in general what they do during their election campaigns.
Thirdly, image restoration strategies. Such strategies can consist of appealing to noncontroversial values, pushing an amicable narrative to restore public affection or spinning liabilities into assets (Nazione & Perrault, 2019; Anderson, 2002). In the case of this research, this concept has been transposed to political communication to study whether politicians also engage in this practice following instances of negative coverage.
Finally, this research is also concerned with gender performativity. Because gender identity is defined as a performance, different actions like the way one presents themselves in their looks, their mannerism, and their discourse, are all indicators of gender performativity.
Essentially, gender performativity can be measured through how masculine or feminine a person presents themselves. For example, wearing more traditional and modest clothes during parliamentary sessions (Mohsin & Syed, 2021).
Women can either follow this categorisation and reinforce the current patriarchal power structures or try to break away from them. Reinforcement occurs when women politicians do not call out the inequality that is present within the system, but when they simply play along with it. On the contrary, challenging power structures can be identified by those instances of calling into question socialised concepts and challenging the power structures by trying to gain control over the narrative. For example, the validation of one’s work through motherhood can be considered an indicator of the above-mentioned
reinforcement. On the other hand, criticising the binomial beauty-intelligence is an example
of the challenges to power structures within politics. These strategies, along with the discourse used during campaign periods, may be not necessarily reasoned strategies, but rather the result of personal beliefs which may unconsciously influence the result.
The impact of negative media coverage on politicians
Concept Indicator Model on How Politicians Respond to Negative Media Coverage
Based on the conducted interviews, women politicians did notice they received conspicuous amounts of negative media coverage. Although downplayed by most interviewees, many of these attacks were gendered. One evident example concerned an article one interviewee mentioned titled “First she shortens her nose, then she shortens her skirt too”. One former politician, instead, recounted that the press had been alluding that she had reached her position only thanks to sexual favours because she was the first woman to ever take her role in that city.
During the conversations, women politicians also opened up their feelings towards these instances of negative media coverage. The research found two opposite strands of
emotional response, “negative emotions” and “no emotional reaction”. The former concept encapsulates all those negative feelings expressed by candidates concerning anxiety, stress, sadness, and suffering. On the other hand, the latter indicated no explicit and reported signs of negative emotions. The concept was identified through sentences such as “I don’t feel touched”, “I don’t feel hurt” or “I don’t give weight to it”.
Almost all interviewed politicians experienced different levels of anxiety. They were scared to appear on the front pages, as one said: “I used to wake up at 5 in the morning, I switched on my phone being scared to see who knows what they wrote that I could have done today”. Similarly, another participant described the way she experiences her relationship with the press as “with the anxiety of having what I said misinterpreted”. She also said that she suffered a lot from these media attacks because they are not simply critiques, but “it gets re- elaborated, they build a case against you, put it on the front pages and at this point it becomes visible to hundreds of thousands of people”.
On the other hand, two participants claimed that they did not feel hurt by negative media coverage. Neither participant had a close relationship with the press. Because they were not so deeply involved, they did not feel touched by the negativity. Further, they believe it is right for a politician to receive negative coverage, as one interviewee put it: “I do not feel hurt by negative media coverage, it is my job as a politician to be covered by the media and it is impossible to always be portrayed in a positive light”, explaining their passivity.
Although some participants were hurt by negative media coverage and recognized that such coverage was indeed sexist, they still believed they received such attacks for different reasons. Most politicians attributed these attacks to ideology. They knew newspapers have political leanings and that certain newspapers will always express negative judgements in their regard, because “it is the relationship between media and politics, it is necessary, it may be unpleasant, but it is still necessary”.
Like those who felt hurt, these two politicians also claimed that ideology was the basis for such treatment, with one politician quickly brushing it off saying it is normal that a centre- right newspaper will never write a positive article about her, being a centre-left figure. One politician, on the other hand, harshly criticized how the Italian press works. She claimed that they provide shallow coverage and that they do not inform citizens properly. She was very disappointed when she realised that her press releases would get published without any additional information or change, also wondered what would happen if a politician started to provide newspapers with fake news. Her disdain for the press made her quickly realize that it is pointless to feel hurt by lazy journalism because they are simply criticizing her political role and not her as person.
Although participants attributed the negative coverage they received to other motives, they provided three different ways they usually respond to negative media coverage during their campaigns: personal confrontation with the journalist, self-irony and ignoring the attacks.
Candidates mostly responded to bad press by confronting the journalist privately, asking for an opportunity to clarify their position or to correct false statements. Otherwise, some of them responded by using irony or self-irony. Such a strategy was claimed to be effective by both politicians and campaign managers because it lets politicians reclaim the story and it also gives voters the opportunity to see the funny side of their personalities. Finally, one last strategy is to simply ignore negative coverage. Especially with the 24 hours news cycle, there is always something new that distracts readers. Therefore, politicians argued that it is wiser to just wait for the next thing to come and change topic since people will easily forget what happened before.
Similarly, the only strategy employed by those who were not hurt is to simply ignore such attacks. Because of the above-mentioned rationale, they believe it is useless to waste energy on correcting badly written articles that are published simply to gather clicks. One
participant said that she has never responded to negative media coverage during her political career, but if she were to do so, she would do it privately and seek legal advice. Again, such behaviour was explained by the fact that dealing with such situations in public would only give a spotlight to the perpetrator. Therefore, to answer the first sub-question how do women politicians emotionally react to negative media coverage about themselves? It can be said that women politicians either feel a lot of anxiety or they do not feel any emotion toward negative media coverage.
How negative media coverage impacts the campaign
Concept Indicator Model on the Campaign Strategies Employed in Response to Negative Media Coverage
If politicians recognized that they received higher amounts of negative coverage, the same cannot be said for the campaign managers who did not believe that women receive an increased amount of negative coverage compared to their male colleagues. Yet, they still recognized that the kind of negative coverage is very different. All three campaign managers, for example, pointed out how women’s appearance is heavily commented on by the high number of galleries that online newspapers publish on women politicians’ outfits, rather than focusing on matters inherent to politics, such as their parliamentary activities or their electoral campaigns. They
agreed that Italian journalism is not of the greatest quality, but they blamed it on a system that capitalises on views. Participants explained that online newspapers publish photo galleries simply because they know they generate a lot of traffic, especially among men. Similarly, they claimed journalists write clickbait titles, which are often denigratory because they lead to more views. Besides the economic motive, another reason for the negative media coverage women politicians receive is political. As one campaign strategist put it:
“The Italian press tends to be pro-government and it also tends to be particularly upsetting to politicians that are already falling out of favour as well as with outsiders, therefore women tend to be covered more negatively when they are in such position”.
Because the campaign strategists disregard these motives for negative media coverage, they claim they do not take into consideration how the press might react when developing a campaign strategy. For this reason, participants focused on which campaign strategies work best, regardless of the press’s reaction. First and foremost, all three campaign strategists talked about how women can use their gender strategically. When a woman has never won a certain post, it is always advised to play on this novelty factor. Similarly, according to the campaign strategists, women have greater legitimacy to talk about gender issues because they lived these experiences first-hand, therefore, they should focus their campaign on this topic. Furthermore, the campaign strategists talked about the importance for a woman candidate to be authentic.
“Authenticity is fundamental because it gives you credibility, without one you cannot have the other”, one campaign manager claimed. According to this expert, authenticity is incredibly important for women because they are harshly judged by the press and voters, therefore, when lies emerge, it would be unforgivable.
Additionally, they suggested some general strategies that work in any context. Firstly, thanks to the advent of social media, visual storytelling has become more important. One campaign manager talked about how important it is for a candidate to be visible on their social media, to the point where the content of a post has minor relevance compared to a picture of the candidate. Secondly, one member of the Italian Parliament, recounted that those social media posts in which she appeared, even if it was not relevant to the content of the post, performed much better than posts with coherent pictures. Finally, the campaign managers also pointed out the importance of being concise, engaging and using simple language. Lastly, the experts also pointed out that one of the most effective strategies is to connect with people, listen to their concerns and be physically present. This strategy was also heavily used by the politicians interviewed. All of them claimed that their main efforts during campaigns concerned interacting with voters, a few of them even attributed their electoral success to this very strategy.
Therefore, to answer the second sub-question: Which campaign strategies do women politicians employ when reacting to negative media coverage? The analysis demonstrated that campaign managers disregard the press when developing a campaign strategy for their women clients, yet they still provided some strategies that they consider to be effective for women candidates during their election campaigns, regardless of coverage.
Neither the interviewed politicians nor the campaign managers ever felt the need to rehabilitate their public image after a media scandal. One interviewee experienced a small communication crisis due to a mistake she made in the past, which made her lose support, yet she acknowledged that it was simply her mistake, and it did not end up becoming a huge press scandal.
Nonetheless, she apologised publicly for her mistake and worked to regain her voters’ trust.
However, she argued she was not following a strategy, but that she truly felt sorry and did not feel that her image needed rehabilitation. When dealing with a media scandal due to an error made by the politician, the campaign strategists proposed what they believed to be an effective plan to regain voters’ trust. First and foremost, one needs to publicly admit guilt. This does not only show voters that the politician respects them, but it also humbles her. Then, one should try to take some time behind the scenes and restart their political career from the lowest levels.
Starting from scratch avoids conveying the feeling that one is in politics only for the wrong motives. On a similar note, the three campaign strategists also agreed that the worst thing one can do is to deny accusations or lie.
One politician had experienced different fabricated media scandals, but she never felt the need to rehabilitate her image. On the contrary, most of the time she was heavily attacked by the press, she believed it was pointless to argue with journalists because you either give them more visibility or they avoid publishing your response as “it is not newsworthy anymore”.
Because today’s news cycle is incredibly fast, there are always new events for the media to cover. For this reason, the politicians agreed that feeding journalists with more information on news that could damage their reputation only brings negative consequences, rather than clearing up their image.
To conclude, to answer the third sub-question How do women politicians employ image restoration strategies after an attack by the media? The analysis found that women politicians do not employ image rehabilitation strategies, but if they were to do so, they would simply apologise for a mistake and carry on their work, demonstrating their trustworthiness.
Gender performativity and the reinforcement of power structures
Although the interviewed politicians argue that they neither hide nor flaunt their femininity in their presentation, based on the latent meaning of their answers, most of them still accentuate
some elements of it through their behaviour with colleagues. For example, two politicians pointed out multiple times during the interview that they are mothers and how “being a mother should be put on the CV because being a working mother is an incredible burden”. Similarly, another young politician claimed that her maternal side is incredibly important to her, some younger colleagues even amicably call her "mom”. They are proud of this characteristic, indeed, the two above-mentioned politicians made it a central part of the campaign since providing their children with a better future was one of the strongest reasons why they started doing politics.
Other women, instead, stressed that they simply wanted to appear as they are, without highlighting or hiding any aspect of their personality. When asked about her work, one politician recognized that she deals with a typically masculine issue, namely foreign affairs, but that she compensates for the heaviness with her competence.
On the contrary, one politician claimed that inside institutions she tends to appear more serious than how she normally is. However, she justified her behaviour claiming she does so out of respect for the institution. Such behaviour is related to gender performativity as she uses her seriousness to appear more competent and to avoid judgement since women who laugh a lot tend to be regarded as less intelligent. Similarly, one campaign manager did say that her agency advises women candidates to neutralise their femininity as much as possible to avoid giving opponents or the press room for comments. For example, she claims that her clients must follow “the blue rule” for their appearance because blue is a neutral colour, and they are very rigid in expecting clients to be as neutral as possible both in their looks and in their language. Similarly, women candidates must behave in the most neutral way possible. The rationale for such choices derives from the desire to avoid any coverage regarding a candidate’s look, sacrificing coverage on their political work. Indeed, the same campaign manager talked about the phenomenon of “double bind”, which consists in women being criticised for being
too cold when they show their leadership traits, as well as being criticised for being too weak when they do the opposite. Therefore, she works with clients to balance out these aspects because “as soon as you unbalance yourself, there is no in-between. You are either a rabid dog […] or you are too weak, not even suited to bring forward an election campaign. Forget to even be voted for”.
Although not openly discussed, these instances all show that participants do not challenge the current patriarchal system through their campaign activity. All participants somehow fit into different expectations when it comes to gender. The role of motherhood in their political activity is the most glaring example as it was used as a legitimising tool for their aspiration. One politician even pointed out “I’m not saying that a woman without children is not accomplished but a woman who has a family struggles more”, the explicit mentioning of the second part of the sentence contradicts the first half of the quotation, transpiring her beliefs.
The reinforcement of power structures is also demonstrated by the relationship that women politicians have with the press. Every single interviewee described the relationship between the press and women politicians as simply being “as it is” or claiming that “one expects these dynamics and therefore plays accordingly”. It is standard practice for women politicians to find news articles about the bikinis they wore on holiday accompanied by allusive titles.
Similarly, as previously mentioned, women candidates avoid responding to the press when criticized because they are hopeless. They know the press will not change; therefore, they prefer to avoid more drama by laying low.
Based on the above-mentioned analysis, there is essentially no challenge to power dynamics from women politicians, sometimes they even reinforce these disparities through their discourses. For example, multiple women politicians criticised the mandatory gender quotas as being something invalidating. They argued that the constant pointing out of this characteristic only ridicules them and nullifies every other aspect of their character. They also
explained that gender quotas lead to the election of incompetent women, reinforcing the stereotype that women are not suitable leaders. One campaign manager even claimed that women in politics must have the character to put up with the negative coverage and all the sexism from both journalists and colleagues. For example, one politician explained how she felt less supported as soon as she got elected because she was a young, innocent woman who lacked the malice that a political figure should have. Similarly, another politician claimed that there is a lot of mansplaining from colleagues within institutional chambers and a persistent underestimation of a woman’s abilities by the press.
Finally, to answer the last sub-question How do women politicians use their gender identity to maintain or reverse current relationships of power when addressing negative media coverage? They use their gender identity to maintain the current relationships of power by behaving in ways that reinforce the current patriarchal gender roles and by criticizing those efforts that have been made to change the system.
Discussion and Conclusion
This study analysed eight different interviews with both Italian women politicians and with campaign experts looking to explain how Italian women politicians respond to negative media coverage during their campaigns. The analysis focused on different aspects of this phenomenon, namely their emotional reactions, their campaign strategies, the employment of rehabilitation strategies and the performativity of their gender identity in relation to the current power structures within the field of politics. Based on the results, it can be said that women politicians tend to feel bad about negative media coverage, which leads to three different strategies to respond to the press: ironic answers, direct confrontation with the journalist and ignoring the attack. Because all participants attribute negative media coverage mainly to
economic and political motives, leading to a disregard for the press’s reactions to their campaigns, none do not feel the need to rehabilitate their image after an attack. Unfortunately, such behaviour results in a reinforcement of patriarchal power structures, jumping into a vicious cycle that prevents a fairer representation of women both in politics and in the media.
Based on the analysis, it is clear that (un)conscious biases about gender expectations and the performativity of gender identity affect the way politicians react to negative media coverage. Those politicians that did admit feeling hurt by negative media coverage about them, all stressed that, nonetheless, they never even thought to quit their roles. The lack of reported impact on politicians fully contradicts Karlssen & Duckert (2018) who argued that politicians tend to experience high levels of stress, like people with PTSD. Also considering those politicians that reported they never cared nor felt badly about negative media coverage, there was a shared tendency among interviewees to downplay or hide emotions. One of the main cited reasons for the lack of women in leadership roles is precisely because women are too emotional. Consistent with Sorrentino & Augoustinos (2016) the avoidance of displaying emotions reflects the patriarchal belief that being emotive is weak and feminine, therefore, one must always show how strong they are, a typically masculine characteristic.
Another important finding of this research relates to the rationalisation of the attacks instrumental to their political role, rather than attacks directly aimed at their characters. Among the episodes participants recounted, many were aimed at delegitimising their competency as political figures in a gendered way. The delegitimization based on commenting on a woman’s look, the allusion to sexual favours to explain an electoral victory or the immediate calling into question a woman’s judgement are all examples of the socialization of gender within the Italian society (Zambelli, Mainardi & Hajek, 2018). It is very common among the public to make these kinds of comments about a woman politician, therefore, interviewees’ lack of acknowledgement of the gendered implications of these attacks conveys the internalization of
misogynist behaviour due to the socialization of gender issues in Italy (Zambelli, Mainardi &
Hajek, 2018). Italians still associate feminism with something very negative, based on stereotypes which are often pushed by the media (Mazzoni & Ciaglia, 2014). Because of this negative attitude, the politicians interviewed were quick to point out that they were not feminists, and they did not want to be related to the movement in any way. Such detachment plausibly explains why politicians all justified the attacks received behind ideological motives.
The work of the campaign managers on the strategies employed might also be a result of the above-mentioned rationalisation. Contrary to research, interviewees claimed that campaign strategies are not gendered, but that they simply vary based on the context (Samuel- Azran & Yarchi, 2020). Although not mentioned, there is a difference between the treatment of women and men candidates. The fact that one campaign manager claimed that he had never worked with inexperienced women politicians, but he did help men candidates in their first election campaign is eloquent. Consistent with O’Brien’s (2015) findings, newcomers tend to be criticised more by the press because they are outsiders, yet the same does not apply to men candidates. Experience is said to ease the negativity towards a candidate, yet because women often approach the field when their children get older, they will always be less experienced than their male counterparts (Crowder-Meyer, 2020).
It is essential that politicians humble themselves, consistent with Bean’s (2019) findings. Bean (2019) claimed that a woman politician needs to appeal to values such as purity because she needs to elicit an affective response in voters. Campaign managers also referred to values such as humility, and care for the people and family, which were also supported by Nazione & Perrault (2019). The appeal to typically feminine values is not random. The socialisation of values taught us that masculine values such as strength, ambition and independence should be sought after, but in these cases, the appeal to feminine values is preferred because they convey docility (Nazione & Perrault, 2019). Participants reported that
this approach works for both men and women candidates, yet one campaign manager did mention that for a woman it is more difficult to rehabilitate her image because of harsher criticism. Again, this finding is consistent with the patriarchal concept that men are excusable for their mistakes, while women are not (Moshin & Syed, 2021).
Gender bias does not only affect the way women candidates react to negative media coverage, but it also has an impact on their overall behaviour. Campaigning for gendered issues and presenting oneself as a figure that represents gender roles rewards women candidates (Reyes-Housholder, 2018). However, the same cannot be said for the campaign managers. The inconsistency between the authenticity politicians seek to convey and the rigidity of the blue code proposed by one campaign manager is striking, as the literature is unified that a woman should appeal to women values and her femininity as an electoral advantage (Reyes- Housholder, 2018; Herrnson, Lay & Stokes, 2003).
However, the inconsistency is solely apparent since both discourses lead to a reinforcement of the current imbalances of power within politics. From the interviews, both groups talked about the press and politics as “it is what it is”. Although there was widespread contestation about how media covered women politicians, interviewees were not keen on changing the way things work. The only challenge to the system that emerged occurred when a few women politicians decided to call out journalists by using ironic answers, but no real effort to change the power structures has occurred. When asked about how they would change the situation, most politicians did not even think about the role of the press, and many were quick to disregard the question with a superficial answer. Similarly, two politicians have bitterly criticised previous efforts like the introduction of gender quotas within institutions.
Maintaining the status quo is probably the easiest path to avoid further judgement, but nothing will change until those women in power claim their position to advance that of future women politicians (Crowder-Meyer, 2020).
Even though the analysis was able to answer the research question and the subsequent sub-questions, this research comes with its own limitations. This study was not able to gather the initially planned number of participants. More than sixty people were invited, but only eight agreed to take part in the study. Having fewer participants than desired prevented me from having a wide diversity of experiences, which also hurts the external validity of this research.
Because there are few cases, it is very difficult to generalise results and it was also difficult to find common strategies pursued or patterns between politicians.
Further, respondents cover different political roles, but the desired level of diversity was not reached. In fact, among the five interviewed politicians, two were members of a municipal council, one was a mayor and two were members of parliament. Further, most participants were centre-right representatives, creating a slight imbalance in terms of political views represented. Additionally, this research decided to focus only on women politicians’
experiences, rather than making a comparison with men as well. Although it would have provided insightful data, the scope of this research was not able to include them too.
Additionally, because this research conceptualized campaign strategies broadly to encompass different choices concerning different media, the results were not able to provide a detailed analysis of what politicians do when responding to the press. Favouring a more specific conceptualization that focuses solely on language, for example, could provide a detailed analysis of how the discourse employed during their campaigns affects the reinforcement or the challenging of power structures. Similarly, negative media coverage was defined in the broadest possible sense. Narrowing down the conceptualization to only cover specific instances would probably allow for a more detailed exploration of the emotional reactions of participants.
Finally, a case study was performed based on the Italian context. Although case studies allow researchers to analyse a phenomenon in detail, it is still hard to generalize these findings to other contexts since every country has a different press system and different norms that guide
the relationship between politics and the press. A suggestion for further research could consist of a comparison between other European countries to analyse whether there are differences in the press’s treatment of women candidates.
Based on the analysis, this research can nonetheless provide some recommendations to women candidates who need help to deal with negative media coverage during their campaigns:
- Calling out journalists gathers support from voters and challenges the press’s way of doing things.
- In cases of negative media coverage regarding fictitious mistakes, ignore such coverage and carry on as if nothing happened. On the contrary, when coverage is about a committed error, be timely in admitting guilt and apologise.
To conclude, women politicians respond to negative media coverage in different ways, mostly related to the emotional impact that the attacks of the press have on them. During election campaigns, the most common strategies to counter negative press are either to ignore the negative feedback and carry on as it is or to ironically call out journalists. This study concluded that although politicians claim that they are not heavily impacted by the press, the thematic analysis demonstrated that there is an influence on behaviour, and such behaviour reinforces the current imbalances of power between genders within politics.
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Appendix A – Rationale for choice of case study
There is a lack of research regarding media coverage of politicians in Italy. Most work concentrates on salient issues like corruption and populism in the media rather than the coverage of politicians (Mazzoni & Ciaglia, 2014). Although not thoroughly studied, it is known that Italy has a rather conservative stance when it comes to women and their role in society. Up until this day, there is still a widespread conception of women as subordinate to men and the idea that women’s worth is measured through their relationship with men and their ability to have children (Zerilli, 2016). An analysis on the ways in which women politicians, people who already disrupt role norms, react to a very misogynistic political context would provide valuable insights in the often-concealed realm of politics.
Appendix B – Interview guides Campaign managers
1. How long have you been working in this field? What made you start this career path?
2. Briefly, could you describe the process of developing a political campaign?
3. According to your experience, how does the media cover women politicians?
4. Has any of your female clients had to deal with negative media coverage? Do you remember how they felt?
5. Have you experienced a difference between male and female candidates when dealing with bad press?
6. Which campaign issues bring more effective results? Have you noticed any difference in the press’s reaction when men or women tackle the same issue? Which issues are more gendered in your experience?