Although it seems obvious that an unflattering portrait painted by reporters would negatively impact a candidate’s image with voters, what’s surprising is that even positive, or neutral, descriptions of a female candidate’s appearance proved detrimental in damaging key attributes and the likelihood that people would vote for her.

News coverage that referred to a female candidate as “fit and attractive and looks even younger than her age,” even though it sounded complimentary, hurt the voters’ perceptions of the politician for being in touch and being likeable, confident, effective and qualified. Both negative and positive comments caused damage. The voters whose responses were affected the most by coverage of a candidate’s appearance were independents — and their support often determines the outcome of an election.

The nationwide survey of 1,500 voters, along with a sample of 100 young women, age 18 to 35, looked at a hypothetical Congressional race between Jane Smith and Dan Jones. Survey respondents read a profile of each candidate, along with sample news stories covering their positions on an education bill. Nothing was said about Dan Jones’s appearance; the articles about Jane Smith included either a positive, negative, neutral or no description of her appearance.