First Ladies: A Look at Coverage
in Two Major Newspapers
graduate students at the S.I. Newhouse School of
Erica Scharrer (doctoral student) Jackie Arnold (master's student)
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Erica Scharrer Jackie Arnold
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Erica Scharrer Jackie Arnold
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First Ladies: A Look at Coverage
in Two Major Newspapers
The content analysis of a systematic sample of stories from the New
York Times and Washington Post involving Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton shows
the more a First Lady is involved in hard issues, the more likely she will
receive negative coverage and the more prominent coverage will be. This study
is a ground-breaking empirical investigation of the relationship between the
role the First Lady takes on and the subsequent tone of media attention she
Introduction and Theory
First Ladies can strongly influence the leadership of the United States, both
behind closed doors and within the glare of the public spotlight. Their
influences have been heard in the whispers of Nancy Reagan and in the protests
of Eleanor Roosevelt, a champion of civil rights. Although 60 percent of
American families now include two wage earners, and women have achieved higher
status in the work force, Americans "are still ambivalent about a First Lady
with too much clout" (Mower, 1992). "The Presidency is an `I': Americans do not
expect to elect a couple to run the government," says Paul Costello, a former
press spokesman for Rosalyn Carter and Kitty Dukakis (Mower, 1992). As a result,
some voices in the public are skeptical of a First Lady who oversteps her
"wifely bounds." (Beasley, 1988).
Yet, inarguably, the role of the First Lady has broadened. More than any other
First Lady before her, Hillary Rodham Clinton has again raised the debate about
how much power a First Lady should wield. In less than two years, she has moved
the role of First Lady from baking cookies into high-powered decision-making.
Because her activism is unprecedented, the media seem to have taken a keen
interest in her newfound position. Is the media scrutinizing her more because of
this? Is she being punished by negative media coverage for tackling "hard"
issues, rather than traditional pursuits such as fashion or White House decor?
Has the focus on hard issues put her in a more prominent position within the
media? How does her coverage compare to Nancy Reagan, another First Lady accused
of having too much influence on her husband?
This is an area of particular concern because of the power of the media in
shaping public opinion about political leaders. Negative news coverage may lead
to negative opinions about the First Lady and, perhaps, the President. If news
coverage is particularly prominent, the impact on the news audience can be
greater. This can lead to the effects of "priming," in which political leaders,
or even First Ladies, may be judged within the context of the issues presented
in the media (Krosnick & Kinder, 1990).
Despite these potential consequences, there is a dearth of media studies
regarding First Ladies. Of the studies that exist, most are qualitative in
nature and provide only descriptive information. Until the 1980s, most research
was limited to biographies, anecdotes and personal impressions of individual
First Ladies, with little information derived from primary source material, such
as actual White House files (Gould, 1990). For the most part, skepticism
prevailed about the cost and necessity of such scholarly pursuits, particularly
because they focused on women who were neither elected nor paid.
In the 1980s, interest grew as a result of a "First Ladies" convention in April
1984 at the Gerald R. Ford Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan. More significantly,
presidential libraries began opening up their records on First Ladies, revealing
a treasure trove of letters and other documents on the intimate details of their
lives (Gould, 1990). Lewis L. Gould, a history professor and First Ladies
scholar, pointed out the significance of such research:
By ignoring First Ladies, we have truncated
the humanity of presidents and diminished them
as men. Our grasp of the presidency is poorer
for that action. But we also have, and this is
more important, downgraded a group of women who
have fulfilled a unique responsibility. It is
too simple to say that their role has been symbolic.
It has been widely said that we live by symbols.
How we view the First Lady is how we expect women
to act, marriages to work, families to grow, and
Americans to live. In the most profound sense,
the study of First Ladies holds up a mirror to
ourselves (Gould, 1985).
Despite progress, Gould believes the "serious study of First Ladies is in no
danger of running out of fruitful topics" (Gould, 1990). Aside from delving into
the details of each First Lady, painting a more complete and intricate picture
of their personalities and political roles, the research has documented
historical continuities of these women, such as their penchant for White House
redecorating and their inclination to adopt causes. It looks at ways in which
First Ladies have affected their husbands, examining those influences in the
context of presidential performance. In another arena, the rising influence and
prestige of the American First Lady has stimulated comparative studies between
her and presidential wives from other nations (Hoxie, 1990).
From what can be determined, however, none of these studies has taken a
systematic look at how the media portrays First Ladies, other than to refer to
news accounts in general, sweeping terms. In Betty Boyd Caroli's First Ladies
(1987), for example, the author "recognizes the impact of the media in defining
the parameters of the First Lady's position, bounded by the contours of a
marriage" (Beasley, 1988). She notes that interest in presidents' wives,
including the term "First Lady," evolved after the Civil War, when women
journalists found a lucrative "beat" in covering First Ladies, a territory in
which male reporters showed little interest. Finally, she discusses how the
media have turned publicity for First Ladies into a double-edged sword. On the
one hand, Caroli explains, the media have given the First Lady access to a
national audience, expanding her power and influence as a communicator. On the
other hand, if a First Lady becomes too involved in political decisions, she is
quickly accused in the media of "overstepping her wifely bounds" (Beasley,
In his article, "Nancy Reagan: China Doll or Dragon Lady?" (1990), James G.
Benze Jr. takes this concept one step further by focusing specifically on former
First Lady Nancy Reagan, whose eight years in office were marked by repeated
controversies and an avalanche of media attention. Initially, when she first
came to the White House, Nancy was praised for bringing "style and elegance" to
Washington, particularly in comparison to the "perceived austerity of the Carter
years" (Benze, 1990). Later, however, a "virtual onslaught" of criticism began.
Nancy was criticized for wearing designer clothes, keeping an entourage of
hairdressers, accepting $209,000 worth of exclusive ivory china and raising
$800,000 in private donations to refurbish the White House -- money that was
largely tax deductible. In December 1981, a Gallup poll cited by Newsweek showed
nearly two-thirds of all Americans believed she overemphasized style at a time
of economic hardship (Newsweek, 1981). Later, during her second term in the
White House, the criticism intensified, as many accused Nancy of dominating her
husband, particularly in the hiring and firing of personnel.
Benze, who noted a similar pattern among other First Ladies, makes the
First Ladies are often caught in a dilemma that
seems rooted in the ambiguity faced by modern
American women who are expected to play at least
two, sometimes conflicting roles in American
society: mother/homemaker and worker/bread winner.
We want them to be active, but we often want them
relegated to "soft" issues -- those that directly
affect people's lives. ...It is when we leave the
area of soft issues for harder issues such as
foreign policy, labor, banking and trade that
the ambivalence about their roles appears.
For First Lady Hillary Clinton, whose high-profile career and history of
activism reached far beyond the First Ladies before her, the ambiguity of her
role quickly became a focus of media attention. On Inauguration Day, for
example, the media focused on a more traditional, or "soft" issue related to
First Ladies -- fashion. For Clinton, the issue of "the hat" marked her first
media controversy at the White House. As Anne-Marie Schiro wrote in the Jan. 22,
1993, issue of The New York Times:
Pity Hillary Clinton. A woman who never put fashion
high on her list of priorities is being criticized
left and right for what she has been wearing for the
inaugural festivities this week. The main target:
the hat. A blue velour number with a turned-back
brim that some say made her look like a chipmunk.
People kept wondering why she didn't at least take
it off when she removed her matching coat...
Within a month, however, Hillary Clinton's key involvement in a far more
substantive issue -- health care -- again turned the media spotlight in her
direction. When Clinton was appointed to lead a national health care reform task
force, lawmakers questioned whether it was appropriate to give the First Lady
such unprecedented authority over a crucial and complicated domestic policy
issue. As U.S. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), chairman of the House Ways and
Means Committee, asked: "At this junction, there is some speculation, you know,
should it be his wife?" (Priest, 1993). Later, after Hillary Clinton's health
care proposal received sharp criticism and was ultimately defeated, the media
latched on to another controversy -- Whitewater. In this case, the media's
obsession with Hillary Clinton's role in the real estate venture, as well as her
questionable, $100,000 profit from an investment in cattle futures, resulted in
what political scientist Larry Sabato would refer to as a media "feeding frenzy"
Our study expands on the above research and breaks new ground by taking a
systematic look at media portrayals of Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton during
their first two years in office. Drawing on a content analysis of articles from
the The New York Times and The Washington Post, we examined both the tone and
placement of stories to determine if the First Ladies received more favorable
coverage by focusing on "soft" rather than "hard" issues. We also examined the
articles to see if "hard" issues, as well as articles that were negative in
tone, received a more prominent spot in the newspapers, such as front-page
coverage or a space inside the Sunday sections, which are generally the most
read. Finally, we examined the sample to see if the tone of the coverage changed
when either Hillary Clinton or Nancy Reagan were the primary actors in the
story, rather than secondary actors. In most cases, we addressed these issues by
examining the sample as a whole, then splitting the articles to draw comparisons
between Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton.
A review of the literature led us to have certain expectations about the issues
we examined. From Benze's article and Caroli's work, we expected the First
Ladies to draw the most negative coverage when they "overstepped their wifely
bounds" and focused on "hard" issues, rather than soft ones. Also, drawing on
Doris Graber's descriptions of news criteria, which includes "conflict,"
"scandal" and "impact," we expected the articles that were more negative in tone
to be more prominently displayed (Graber, 1993). From the literature, as well as
our own knowledge of the First Ladies, we expected Hillary Clinton to have more
negative news coverage, particularly because of her immediate role in health
care and the subsequent Whitewater controversy. Finally, we expected stories in
which the First Lady was the primary actor to be less neutral, if only because
reporters would probably be less inclined to apply evaluative statements to the
First Lady if she was not the focus of the piece.
Here are the specific hypotheses we tested:
H1: The more a First Lady gets involved in hard/controversial issues, the more
negative the media coverage.
H2: The more a First Lady gets involved in hard/controversial issues, the more
prominent the coverage will be.
H3: The more negative the story, the more prominently it will be displayed.
H4: The greater the role of the First Lady in the story, the more likely the
story will NOT be neutral.
H5: Hillary Clinton will be more involved in hard/controversial issues than
H6: Stories about Hillary Clinton are more likely to be negative than stories
about Nancy Reagan.
Trained coders conducted a content analysis of The New York Times and The
Washington Post using stories from the first two years of office for Nancy
Reagan and Hillary Clinton. The time frame was selected as a way of drawing an
objective means of comparison between the two First Ladies, regardless of when
specific topics were in the news. Moreover, any estimate of negative stories
during this time frame is particularly profound given the traditionally-viewed
nature of the time period as a "honeymoon" of sorts, in which the press is
allegedly more lenient with the President, and therefore, perhaps, with his
Furthermore, only stories that had the First Lady's name in the lead were used.
In narrowing the scope of the sample in this way, we were able to focus solely
on stories in which the role of the First Lady was prominent enough to warrant
the appearance of her name in the lead. The lead was automatically defined by
the Lexis/Nexis database from which our sample was extracted, and appeared to be
quite liberal, with some stories having the First Lady's name first appear three
to four paragraphs within the story.
From the population of all possible stories for each woman in each publication
(N=1,818), every fifth story was systematically selected to reach the ultimate
sample size of 285 stories, 103 of which were about Nancy Reagan and 182 of
which focused on Hillary Clinton. A random starting point within each
publication for each First Lady was selected by the toss of a dice. The numbers
of stories for each First Lady were weighted according to the amount of coverage
each woman received during each time period. Specifically, 642 stories in the
two newspapers had Nancy Reagan in the lead during this time frame, while 1,176
stories involved Hillary Reagan under the same specifications.
A codebook was designed by both coders to operationalize variables and
facilitate valid and reliable coding. Stories were first given an identification
number. They were then coded for date and the medium in which they were placed
(The New York Times or The Washington Post). The next code addressed placement
within the publication, with the mutually exclusive categories of front-page
Sunday edition, front-page daily edition, inside-page Sunday edition and
inside-page daily edition. These were placed in ascending order of conventional
journalistic importance, with the front-page Sunday slot being most prominent.
Coders then noted whether the story was an editorial or non-editorial.
The stories were also coded for length, using the following intervals: 0 to 500
words, 501 to 1,000 words, 1,001 to 1,500 words, 1,501 to 2,000 words, and more
than 2,000 words. The coders then judged the tone of the story along the
traditional Likert scale, with "very negative" having a value of "1," and "very
positive" having a value of "5." The middle score of "3" was labeled as
"neutral/mixed." The neutral category included stories that did not contain
evaluative statements, or interpretive phrases that could be construed as
positive or negative. It also included stories that included approximately equal
amounts of negative and positive commentary. During a pilot study, coders
determined that even if the subject of the story was negative, such as
Whitewater, the tone of the story was to be judged based on the way the First
Lady was treated in the story.
The subject of the stories was also coded into categories of "soft" or "hard"
issues. Soft issues were defined as those that did not involve policy making or
platform issues. Specific topics included fashion, personal life, family issues,
background and biographical information, charity, public service,
performance/approval, decor and decorating, and other issues. If the story was a
"hard" issue, it involved substantive policy areas and was coded accordingly.
Topics included health care issues, drug- or crime-related stories, education,
the economy, Whitewater and other hard issues. Another variable was the
prominence of the First Lady within the story. This was coded as either
"principal actor" or "secondary or minor" actor. Originally, the sample included
stories in which a "passing reference was made to the First Lady. However, it
was decided that these samples would be thrown out, as no solid conclusions can
be based on fleeting and often irrelevant comments such as these references.
Finally, the story was coded for visuals used in the coverage, with categories
in descending order of importance, beginning with "photo of First Lady," "other
photo," "graphics" and "text only."
A pilot test was conducted using the codebook and 10 percent of the sample
size. Intercoder reliability was 95.3 percent using Holsti's formula. The sample
was then coded and data was entered into a data file using the SPSS 4.0
(Statistical Procedures for Social Science version 4.0). Data analysis was
performed using the same program. The final score for intercoder reliability
according to Holsti's formula for the entire sample was 96.4 percent using just
under 10 percent of the sample (N=26).
Of the 285 news stories in the sample, 103 were about Nancy Reagan and 182 were
about Hillary Clinton. This calculated to 36.1 percent of the sample applying to
Nancy Reagan and 63.9 percent of the sample applying to Hillary Clinton (see
Table 5). On average, the length of the stories fell within 501 to 1,000 words.
The average tone of the story on a 1-to-5 scale, with "1" being very negative
and "5" being very positive, was 3.144. The standard deviation of this figure
Most stories in the sample were found in the inside pages of a daily edition
(74 percent), with only 12.3 percent appearing on the front page of either the
daily edition or the Sunday newspaper. The vast majority of the stories were not
editorials (89.1 percent), and most fell within the 501- to 1,000-word category
(30.9 percent). Only 7.8 percent of the stories in the sample were 1,500 words
or more, and, within this group, many of the articles were only partially about
the First Lady (see Table 1).
In slightly more than half the stories, the First Lady was addressed as a
secondary, or minor, actor (56.8 percent). This compared with 43.2 percent of
the stories in which she was the main focus of the news coverage. A large share
of the articles only contained text (41.4 percent), while a substantial number
had a photograph that depicted the First Lady (22.8 percent) or another
photograph that did not depict her (31.9 percent). Finally, the majority of the
stories covered "soft" issues (57.2 percent), with subjects such as performance,
approval, public appearances, fashion, personal life and family occurring the
most often. Of the 42.8 percent of the stories that were about "hard" issues,
health care (16.5 percent) and Whitewater (11.9 percent) received the most
coverage (see Table 1).
To test our hypotheses, we first set out to determine whether one of the
sources from which we drew our sample was more likely to have negative or
positive coverage of the First Ladies. A crosstabulation of stories in The New
York Times and The Washington Post with the tone of the stories shows that both
newspapers were almost exactly alike in the numbers of stories that were coded
as negative, neutral or positive (see Table 2). Therefore, we may make
generalizations based on the newspaper coverage without having to break the
sample down according to each newspaper for each hypothesis test. This finding
also adds to the reliability of our results, supporting the assertion that major
American newspapers usually do not vary dramatically in their tone of coverage
for specific people or events.
Our data analysis supports the first hypothesis, showing that hard issues
related to First Ladies were significantly more likely to get negative coverage
than soft. Statistical analyses were conducted using both First Ladies
collectively, then using each First Lady separately to facilitate comparisons
between the two. When crosstabulating the specific subject of each news story
with the tone of coverage, most of the stories were neutral. However, of the
stories that were NOT neutral, the soft issues were more likely to be positive,
and the hard issues were more likely to be negative. To further illustrate this
point, it is helpful to collapse the tone of stories into more general
categories of "negative" and "positive." For instance, 0.7 percent of the sample
was about personality and character and was negative; whereas 1.8 percent of the
sample was about personality and character and was positive. Under the heading
of hard issues, 0.703 percent of the sample concerned Whitewater and was
positive; whereas 3.203 percent of the sample concerned Whitewater and was
negative. When comparing subject of the story and tone, the results were
statistically significant (see Table 3).
To further illuminate this finding, we collapsed the specific subjects of
stories into more general categories of "soft" or "hard," then ran a
crosstabulation with these new categories and tone of the coverage. Again, the
finding is statistically significant and shows that soft issues are
substantially more likely to be positive WHEN THEY ARE NOT NEUTRAL, while hard
issues have a greater chance of being negative when they are not neutral. Of the
soft issues addressed in the sample, 8.1 percent were negative and 20.0 percent
were positive (see Table 4).
When we break down the stories according to which First Lady is addressed, the
results generally hold, but are less significant. For Nancy Reagan, stories that
dealt with soft issues received more positive coverage than negative coverage
(27.2 percent positive compared with 9.7 percent negative). However, none of the
hard issues that involved Nancy Reagan received negative coverage. Instead, 3.9
percent of the hard issues involving Nancy Reagan received positive coverage.
Thus, in the specific case of Nancy Reagan, the hypothesis was not fully
supported, and the results were not statistically significant.
On the other hand, in the specific case of Hillary Clinton, the hypothesis is
clearly and significantly supported. Of the news articles regarding soft issues
about this First Lady, only 7.1 percent were negative, compared with over twice
as many, 15.9 percent, that were positive. Of the hard news issues involving
Hillary Clinton, a full 12.6 percent received negative coverage, compared with
7.1 percent that received positive coverage. In this instance, the results were
statistically significant (see Table 6).
The second hypothesis was supported by the data as well. A crosstabulation of
the subject category by the placement of the story within the publication showed
that hard issues were indeed more likely to receive more prominent coverage than
soft issues. A full 46.7 percent of the sample represented soft issues displayed
in the least-prominent section of the newspapers: the inside pages of the daily
editions. At the same time, soft issues rarely made it to the position of most
prominence: the front page of the Sunday newspaper (1.4 percent of the sample).
Another 1.4 percent of the "soft issues" landed on the front pages of the daily
newspapers. Within the category of hard issues, 8.4 percent of the sample was
found on the front pages of the daily editions, compared with 27.4 percent on
the inside pages of the daily editions. Overall, the findings regarding
Hypotheses 2 show a statistically significant relationship between the category
of the issue at stake (hard or soft) and the placement of the coverage (see
Table 7). However, it can also be seen that only a small portion of stories
concerning the Front Lady made it to the front page at all.
To measure the variable "prominence," we attempted to compute an index based on
the coded variables for length of story, placement within the newspaper
(discussed above), presence or absence of visuals, and the role of the First
Lady within the story (whether she was primary or secondary actor). However, it
was not statistically sound to build such an index (Cronbach's alpha for the
reliability coefficient = 0.2107) even if one or more of the variables were
dropped out of the scale. Therefore, estimations of prominence are defined using
the variable with the highest amount of face validity for measuring prominence,
which is the placement within the newspaper. All data analyses measuring
prominence, therefore, are based solely on the placement of the article.
The next hypotheses tested in the data analysis was the assumption that
negative stories, regardless of subject, would be more prominent than positive
stories. Although the basic anticipated relationship was found, the results for
Hypothesis 3 were not statistically significant. Of the stories receiving the
most prominent placement, front-page Sunday, 0.1 percent of the sample was
negative, while none of the stories in this location was positive. Of the
stories receiving the second-most prominent placement, front-page daily, 1.4
percent of the sample was negative, compared with 0.14 percent that was
positive. However, in the areas that are less prominent, and therefore deemed
less prominent by the gatekeepers within the media organizations, there are more
positive stories than negative. Specifically, of those stories appearing on the
inside pages of the Sunday newspapers, 3.2 percent are negative and 4.3 percent
are positive. In the inside pages of the daily newspaper, 10.3 percent of the
stories are negative and 20.7 percent are positive. Again, however, the
relationships mentioned here are not statistically significant (see Table 8).
The results for Hypothesis 3 hold constant and remain insignificant when the
stories are broken down according to First Lady. Although they appear to support
the general premise of the hypothesis, in the case of both Nancy Reagan and
Hillary Clinton, the differences in placement between negative stories and
positive stories are not statistically significant (see Table 9).
Further results show support for Hypothesis 4, supporting the assertion that
the greater the role of the First Lady within the article, the greater the
likelihood the story will NOT be neutral. Instead, it will either be positive or
negative. Only 15.1 percent of the sample involved stories that focused on the
First Lady as the main character and were neutral or mixed. On the other hand,
42.8 percent of the stories featured the First Lady as a secondary or minor
character and were neutral or mixed. The hypothesis was statistically
significant at the p<0.05 level (see Table 10).
Based merely on conventional wisdom and the seemingly inflated amount of
negative opinions about Hillary Clinton, it was hypothesized that she would be
involved in a greater number of hard/controversial issues than Nancy Reagan. A
simple descriptive statistic demonstrated that this does seem to be the case.
Within the 103 stories about Nancy Reagan, 79.6 percent were about soft issues,
and 20.4 percent were about hard issues. However, of the stories that involved
Hillary Clinton, 44.5 percent were about soft issues, compared with 55.5 percent
that were hard or controversial (see Table 11).
Finally, we set out to test the widely-held belief that Hillary Clinton has
received a great deal of negative coverage. Hypothesis 6 stated that stories
about Hillary Clinton will more likely be negative than stories about Nancy
Reagan. This hypothesis was supported, and the relationship between the
variables was statistically significant. In fact, of those stories about Nancy
Reagan, 9.7 percent were negative and 31.1 percent were positive. Apparently,
Hillary Clinton received harsher treatment, with 19.8 percent of her stories
being negative and almost as many, 23.1 percent, being positive.
After years of neglect, political science scholars have started to take a
closer look at the role of First Ladies because of the important part they play
in influencing their husbands, participating in government and serving as a
national symbol. As two scholars have pointed out, First Ladies often find their
task difficult because they were not "elected" and have no clearly defined
constitutional role. This puts them in the "paradoxical situation" of being
expected to advise their husbands, yet not to become TOO involved in government.
(Benze, 1990; Beasley, 1988.)
In reviewing the larger body of literature, we found that First Ladies have
largely been neglected when it comes to scientific evaluations in one major
arena: the media. Most studies have focused on media approaches to political
candidates or political parties -- people who are ELECTED to office. (Patterson,
1994) This focus has extended to comparative media studies of political
candidates and political parties in other countries, such as Great Britain and
Germany. (Semetko et. al., 1991; Semetko and Shoenbach, 1994) Other studies have
focused on the power of the media in influencing the relationship between
politics and public opinion, exploring concepts such as "agenda setting" and
"priming." (Iyengar, Peters & Kinder, 1982; Krosnick & Kinder, 1986) These
studies, however, have not been applied specifically to First Ladies.
As with political leaders, most people do not have personal contact with First
Ladies. Therefore, they rely in large part on the media in forming opinions
about her performance and her role in government. With the activism of former
First Ladies coming to light -- and their obvious involvement in government
today -- the "non-elected" status of their position should make little
difference in evaluating the necessity of such research.
Our study attempts to fill a portion of this research gap by examining the
coverage of Nancy Reagan and Hillary Rodham Clinton in two of the largest and
most prestigious U.S. newspapers, The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Several findings have emerged that shed light on this coverage.
First, our study revealed that both newspapers were largely neutral in tone
when they addressed both First Ladies, a factor that may be attributed to the
goal of objective reporting among newspaper journalists.
This neutrality applied for both "hard" issues and "soft" issues, although a
slightly larger percentage of the "hard" issues were negative in tone when they
were not neutral. Conversely, stories that addressed "soft" issues were far more
likely to be positive in tone when they were not neutral. In only two cases --
health care and Whitewater -- did the negative stories outweigh the positive
stories in the "hard" issues category.
In comparing the two First Ladies, we found it interesting that Nancy Reagan
received no negative coverage when she dealt with "hard" issues. However, nearly
10 percent of the "soft" issues coverage was negative in tone, compared with
more than 25 percent that was positive. This makes sense in light of the fact
that Nancy was initially praised for the "style and elegance" that later came
back to haunt her. As stated earlier, much of the country criticized Nancy for
wearing designer clothes, accepting money for White House decorations and
pulling out the new, expensive china during a time of economic hardship. Perhaps
this simply means that even issues that are traditionally "soft," such as
fashion and White House decor, are bound to receive negative coverage when a
controversy is involved.
Hillary, on the other hand, received most of her negative coverage -- 12
percent -- when she was associated with "hard" issues. By comparison, about 7
percent of her "soft" issues received negative coverage. These findings were
also expected in light of her immediate involvement in health care and
Whitewater, which probably left little time for anything else. Interestingly,
Hillary also received more coverage overall, generating 182 stories from both
newspapers compared to 103 articles for Nancy.
Second, our study showed that neither First Lady received a great deal of
prominent coverage in terms of where the articles appeared in each newspaper.
However, a greater share of the "hard" issues, rather than the "soft" issues,
appeared on the front page -- about 10 percent of the overall sample. Of these
front-page stories, most were neutral in tone, with less than 2 percent falling
into the negative categories.
These findings suggest that newspapers -- at least these two in particular --
still do not give prominent front-page coverage to First Ladies, especially when
they are involved in "soft" issues. When the stories do appear on the front
page, they are more likely to address "hard" issues and be neutral in tone -- a
fact that may bring comfort to future First Ladies.
To some degree, these findings paint a different picture than the journalistic
cynicism and rise in interpretive reporting described by Thomas Patterson in his
latest work, Out of Order (Patterson, 1994) According to our findings, newspaper
reporters for The New York Times and The Washington Post seemed conscientious in
avoiding evaluative or interpretive comments. They also steered clear of
one-sided stories, a pattern that was apparent even within the negative context
of an issue such as Whitewater.
Finally, while these First Ladies predominantly received coverage that was
"neutral" in tone, they were less likely to be treated neutrally if they were
primary actors in the stories, rather than a secondary ones.
If a story was specifically about the First Lady, it was "neutral" in tone
about 15 percent of the time, according to our study. If the First Lady was a
secondary player, that "neutrality" shot up to 43 percent of the sample.
Interestingly, nearly 20 percent of the articles that focused specifically on
the First Lady were positive in tone, compared to about 9 percent that were
negative. Thus, a First Lady might also take comfort in the fact that she is
more likely to receive positive coverage -- rather than neutral or negative
coverage -- if the story is specifically about her. Again, this would probably
be limited to newspaper coverage, which generally strives to be objective.
Our study, while it does address several questions about the newspaper coverage
of two First Ladies, has several limitations that should be noted here.
For starters, our sample leaves out a large body of media that includes
television, radio, talk shows and magazines. Thus, our findings may not be true
for "the media" as a whole. In magazines, for example, the style of writing
calls for an author to have a "point of view" in his or her piece, which means
those stories are more likely to be negative or positive, rather than neutral. A
cursory look at the coverage in Newsweek during this same time period indicated
this to be true. The public may also get its news about First Ladies from one
dominant media source, such as television. If this were the case, it would be
more important to examine coverage in that arena.
Our study was also limited in that it included only two first ladies -- and
only applied to their first two years in office. Nancy, for example, apparently
drew more coverage during her later years in office, when she became closely
involved in contoversial decisions about personnel. Other researchers may drum
up different results if they expand the focus of their studies to include
several First Ladies over several media outlets. These researchers may also want
to address the content of visuals, which leave important impressions on viewers
and readers. In our study, which used the Nexis/Lexis database, we could not
determine what was contained in either the visuals or graphics that accompanied
stories. Therefore, we could not determine if these visuals affected the
prominence or tone of the stories.
Finally, our research was also limited in that it did not address the effects
of this newspaper coverage: Did it change people's views of Nancy or Hillary?
Did the issues addressed in the media have a "priming effect," causing the
public to judge the performances of these First Ladies in the context of those
issues? (Krosnick & Kinder, 1986). For Hillary, this may have been especially
significant in light her involvement in the Whitewater controversy.
In general, our findings revealed that most coverage of First Ladies in The New
York Times and The Washington Post was neutral in tone, except when the story
focused specifically on her. In those cases, the story was more likely to be
positive. As expected, the most prominant coverage -- at least in terms of
placement in the newspaper -- dealt with "hard" issues, rather than "soft" ones.
Because of the limitations of our research, particularly its narrow focus, the
future calls for further study in addressing the relationship between the media
and First Ladies. In his article, "Modern First Ladies in Historical
Perspective," Lewis L. Gould warns about the dangers of neglecting First Ladies
We will only understand the past of our
presidents and ourselves most fully when we
grasp it in all its richness. A history that
excludes First Ladies, or the contribution
and lives of women generally, will be a record
that is limited, false and wrong.
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Graber, Doris A. 1993. Mass Media and American Politics. 4th ed. Washington:
Congressional Quarterly Inc.
Gould, Lewis L. 1990. "Modern First Ladies and the Presidency." Presidential
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Gould, Lewis L. 1985. "Modern First Ladies in Historical Perspective." 1985.
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Hoxie, Gordon R. 1990. "About this issue." An introduction. Presidential Studies
Iyengar, Shanto, Mark D. Peters & Donald R. Kinder. 1982. "Experimental
Demonstrations of the ~`Not-So-Minimal' Consequences of Television News
Programs. American Political Science Review. 76:848-58.
Krosnick, Jon A. & Donald R. Kinder. 1990. "Altering the Foundations of Support
for the President Through Priming." American Political Science Review.
Mower, Joan. 1992. "What Kind of First Lady Do We Really Want?" McCall's.
September 22. p. 124-130,196.
Newsweek. 1981. "A Newsweek Poll on the President's Lady." December 21. United
Patterson, Thomas E. 1994. Out of Order. New York: Vintage Books.
Priest, Dana. 1993. "First Lady's First Task Force Breaks Ground; Health Care
Panel Chairwoman Introduces Herself to Congress in 6 Hours of Phone Calls."
January 27. The Washington Post.
Robinson, Michael J. "Three Faces of Congressional Media." As seen in the
"Course Package" for Politics and the Mass Media. Spring 1995. p.47-68.
Sabato, Larry. 1991. Feeding Frenzy: How Attack Journalism Has Transformed
American Politics. New York: Free Press. p.1.
Schiro, Anne-Marie. 1993. "Settling In: The Fashion Scene; A Blue Has Critics
Wondering." January 22. The New York Times.
Semetko, Holli & Klaus Schoenbach. 1994. Germany's "Unity Election": Voters and
the Media.rMDUL_~~rMDNM_ Cresskill, N.J.: Hampton Press Inc.
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Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
Table 1. Percentages for placement of story regarding the First
Lady, type, length, tone, and subject of the story, prominence of the First Lady
within the story, and presence or absence of visuals.
placement of story
front page Sunday 2.5
front page daily 9.8
inside page Sunday 13.7
inside page daily 74.0
type of story
length of story
0 to 500 words 30.9
501 to 1000 words 73.7
1001 to 1500 words 18.6
1501 to 2000 words 3.2
2000+ words 4.6
tone of story
very negative 1.8
very positive 6.3
prominence of the actor
principal character 43.2
secondary/minor actor 56.8
Table 1. cont'd.
visuals of story
photo of First Lady 22.8
other photo 31.9
text only 41.4
subject of story
personal life/family 7.7
charity/public service 2.8
public appearances 9.8
health care 16.5
Table 2. Crosstabulation of the tone of the story and the medium in
which it appears.
Medium Tone (in percent)
very negative negative neutral/mixed positive very
The Washington Post 0.7 7.7 33.0 10.5 3.1
The New York Times 1.1 6.7 24.9 9.1 3.1
chi square=0.97, df=4, ns
Table 8. Crosstabulation of placement of story regarding the First
Lady by tone of the story.
H3: The more negative the story, the more prominently it will be
Tone (in percent)
Story very negative negative netural/mixed
positive very positive
front page Sunday 0.1 1.7
front page daily 1.4 7.4 0.1 0.04
inside page Sunday 1.1 2.1 6.3 3.2 1.1
inside page daily 0.1 10.2 42.6 15.8 4.9
chi square = 17.94, df=12, ns
Table 3. Crosstabulation of subject of the story regarding the
First Lady and tone of the
H1: The more a First Lady gets involved in hard/controversial
issues, the more negative the
Subject Tone (in percent)
very neg. neg. neutral pos. very pos.
fashion 1.4 5.3 1.8 .003
personal/family 4.9 2.5 .003
charity/public service .003 0.7 1.4 .003
personality/character 0.7 1.1 0.7
public appearance 1.1 4.6 4.2
performance/approval 2.5 3.9 2.8 2.8
decor 1.1 2.1 1.1
other soft issue 1.1 7.4 0.7
health care 1.1 2.1 10.5 1.8 1.1
education .003 .003
Whitewater .003 3.2 7.4 0.7 .003
other hard issue 1.4 9.5 1.1 .003
chi square = 102.03, df=56, p<0.05
Table 4. Crosstabulation of "soft" and "hard" subjects by tone of
H1: The more a Fist Lady gets involved in hard/controversial issues,
the more negative the media coverage.
Subject Tone (in percent)
very negative negative neutral/mixed positive
soft 0.4 7.7 29.1 15.4 4.6
hard 1.4 6.7 28.8 4.2 1.8
chi square=18.34, df=4, p<0.05
Table 5. Percentages of stories for each First Lady.
Variable % and amount
Nancy Reagan 36.1 (N=103)
Hillary Clinton 63.9 (N=182)
Table 6. Crosstabulation of tone of the story by category of the
subject for stories regarding Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton.
H1: The more a First Lady gets involved in hard/controversial
issues, the more negative the media coverage.
Tone of Story Category of Subject of Story
very negative 1.0
neutral/mixed 16.5 42.7
positive 2.9 24.3
very positive 1.0 2.9
chi square=6.33,df=4, ns
very negative 2.2
negative 10.4 7.1
neutral/mixed 35.7 21.4
positive 4.9 10.4
very positive 2.2 5.5
chi square= 15.76,df=4, p<0.05
Table 7. Crosstabulation of category of subject by placement of
H2: The more a First Lady gets involved in hard/controversial
issues, the more prominent the coverage will be.
Placement of Story (in percentages)
Category of front page front page inside page inside page
Subject of Story Sunday daily Sunday daily
soft issues 1.4 1.4 7.7 46.7
hard issues 1.1 8.4 6.0 27.4
chi square=24.0,df=3, p<0.05
Table 9. Crosstabulation of placement of story by tone for each
H3: The more negative the story, the more prominently it will be
Placement Tone (in percent)
very negative negative neutral/mixed positive very
front page Sunday 0.0 1.9 2.9 0.0 0.0
front page daily 0.0 0.0 6.8 1.0 0.0
inside page Sunday 0.0 0.0 3.9 1.9 0.0
inside page daily 1.0 6.8 45.6 24.2 3.9
chi square=11.53, df=12, ns
front page Sunday 0.0 0.0 1.1 0.0 0.0
front page daily 0.0 2.2 7.7 0.5 0.5
inside page Sunday 1.6 2.2 7.7 3.8 1.6
inside page daily 0.5 12.1 40.7 11.0 5.5
chi square=14.58, df=12, ns
Table 10. Crosstabulation of prominence of First Ladies in stories
H4: The greater the role of the First Lady in the story, the more
likely the story will not be neutral.
Actor Tone (in percent)
very negative negative neutral/mixed positive very
principal 1.4 7.7 15.1 12.6 6.3
secondary/minor 0.4 6.7 42.8 7.0 0.0
chi square=58.17, df=4, p<.05
Table 11. Percentages for amount of hard and soft issues in which
each First Lady was involved.
H5: Hillary Clinton will be involved in more hard/controversial
stories than Nancy Reagan.
Variable Category of Subject of Stories
Nancy Reagan 20.4 79.6 100.00% (N=103)
Hillary Clinton 55.5 44.5 100.00% (N=182)