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Gender Assumptions, Public Trust, and Media Framing: The impact of media-constructed gender performance on public trust in a candidate Open Access

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This study examines how conflict between public assumptions and media framing of a political candidate’s gender performance impacts public trust in the candidate, building upon prior research concluding that the Republican and the Democratic Parties are linked cognitively with ideas about gender, with people often associating the Republican Party with masculine characteristics and the Democratic Party with feminine characteristics. This study operates under the theory that conflict between media representation and participant assumptions will lead to lower levels of trust in a candidate whose gender is framed as conflicting with the underlying gendered assumptions of their party. In an experiment, subjects read one of six news articles describing a hypothetical presidential candidate and answered a questionnaire to measure their trust in the candidate. The results indicate that participants have a higher level of trust in the feminine-framed candidate and a lower level of trust in the masculine-framed candidate – in comparison to the baseline of a gender-neutral framed candidate – in both the Democrat and the Republican condition. Further analysis of the results suggest that while participants assume all candidates possess certain masculine traits often associated with leadership, the presence of feminine traits may increase a candidate’s perceived likeability, which in turn leads to the perception that the candidate has a higher degree of integrity, is more responsive to public concerns, and is ultimately more trustworthy. Additionally, the presence of masculine traits may threaten the candidate’s perceived trustworthiness without the presence of feminine traits to increase the candidate’s likeability. This study expands the current conversation about media and gender to look beyond a candidate’s sex and consider the media’s role in constructing and reinforcing a candidate’s gender performance. It also provides a foundation for future research about the media’s power to shape public perception of candidates and, by extension, the electoral process.

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