Student Thesis Projects
"The Beauty Bias in Television News - spoiler: it's about gender," by Moa Golster, 2016
It is late January 2016, and conservative politician Sarah Palin has just announced that she is endorsing Donald Trump for president. News anchor Kimberly Guilfoyle introduces the news on Fox News’ debate show The Five with intensity. With her perfectly styled, shiny chocolate hair and generous make-up, she is so strikingly attractive that it is hard focusing on what she is saying.
Guilfoyle is among a large number of top-of-the-scale beauties we see on television every day. What stands out is that Guilfoyle is not a reality TV star, nor a judge on “Dancing with the Stars.” She is a journalist, whose job, at least originally was to inform the public, not to entertain. Despite this, women in television news are continuingly being held to high beauty standards, not equivalent to their male colleagues. Meanwhile, professional female journalists at the height of their careers are concerned about aging, anxiously aware of their shelf life.
“Why, after decades of feminism, do we seem to demand that women in the public eye be extraordinarily beautiful but their male counterparts can get away with being ordinary?” William Leith asked in the 2013 The Telegraph editorial, "The Ugly, Unfair Truth about Looking Beautiful." Leith argued that unproportional standards of beauty are held against women in all aspects of life, while men not only get away with, but aren’t expected to be anything more than “average looking.” This especially applies to film, television, magazines, and even to news reporting. While Guilfoyle could be mistaken for a model, her male co-hosts on The Five, well, couldn’t.
In the 1980s, newswoman Christine Craft filed a lawsuit after she was fired from her anchor position at ABC-affiliated KMBC-TV in Kansas City. A focus group had decided she was “too old, too ugly and not deferential to men.” Although a jury sided with Craft, awarding her $325,000, an appellate court struck down the decision after the defendant appealed.
There is no doubt that television news anchoring requires a lot more than shiny hair and a symmetrical face. Intelligence, analysis, sharpness and hard work are only a few of the characteristics that most women that have made it into television newsrooms have in common. However, looks is the blatant requirement that separates television news anchors from their equivalents in the online, print or radio part of the news industry. And for what reason? The easy explanation would be that television is a visual medium. But it’s not quite that easy.
As for for all television formats, ratings are an inevitable factor for news networks to consider. Without viewers, there can be no newscast; therefore, the viewers have to be kept satisfied.
As television news began to face rating competition from cable television and the broadening horizons of local news stations, news networks pursued a more entertainment-oriented format. In “Love, Light, and a Dream: Television’s Past, Present, and Future” from 1996, James Roman explained that the networks began to concentrate on elements on personality and style, values that are generally more appropriate for entertainment programming than for the presentation of hard news. However, the new entertainment values, Roman wrote, was soon focused on the female anchors. Perhaps, he said, “the blame for turning news into a superficial beauty contest can be attributed to American culture, and the value it places on physical appearance rather than substance.” But Roman also pointed out that television helps to set the public agenda and has a great influence on the evolution of American culture.
American culture likes good looks and glamour. It also likes personalities. Therefore, Roman claims, networks have turned to creative talent and personalities to pursue a more entertainment-oriented format. Only problem: cultural gender norms apply different expectations to men and women in the industry, and what makes a successful “television news personality.” Anthony J. Ferri and Jo E. Keller found the answer in their 1986 study, “Perceived Career Barriers for Female Television News Anchors,” and it remains true to this day: “The [female] respondents noted that they are often judged by their appearance while their male counterparts are judged more for their work skills.”
Yet, female news anchors are subject to a “catch 22” situation. While our culture seems to demand female news anchors to be beautiful, there is also a rather traditional notion that beautiful women are not competent, credible, and dare I say, intelligent? This certainly makes it a very challenging task for women to succeed in the industry.
Despite this, some women have succeeded: Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer, Connie Chung, Katie Couric, are just a few that could be added to the list. Critics and the news industry like to remind us of these successful female news anchors, and demonstrate their accomplishments to downplay the issue. They certainly all fit the cultural beauty norm, but they have also earned status and credibility in the industry. However, the general picture suggests that these women should be viewed as exceptions to the rule. As Paula Dubeck pointed out in her 1996 book, “Women and Work: A Handbook," their successes are not typical of the majority of men in the field, either. While Sawyer and Walters have often been spared the superficial scrutiny their counterparts have faced, Couric, despite her great success, has not.
When Couric was picked up from NBC’s Today Show in 2006, and joined CBS Evening News as the first permanent solo female network news anchor, she received a great deal of press. However, many have argued that the press framed Couric in a gendered manner, mostly focusing on her femininity, body and bubbly personality. This diluted Couric’s credibility as a journalist, stated Katie Gibson in her 2009 publication “Undermining Katie Couric: The Discipline Function of the Press.” Gibson explained that the press’ focus on Couric’s body and beauty turned her into an object. In turn, scholars Dr. Rebecca Kern and Dr. Suman Mishra have referred to it as a reflection of the sexist environment of the press, “particularly the ways in which women are presented in news: as lacking credibility or “gravitas” as an “Other” or as secondary to masculinity, and as a subject of feminine discourse.”
The latter may play an even bigger role than one would think. When women anchors were first introduced in television news in the 1960s and 70s, it likely wasn’t to favor gender equality. The networks simply realized it would be more effective to bring in women to cover “women’s stories.” Lana F. Rakow and Kimberlie Kranich explained in a 1991 article called “Woman as Sign in Television News” in the Journal of Communication, that the coverage of news topics by television journalists illustrates “a gendered division between ‘serious, important’ news that is overwhelmingly masculine, and ‘human interest, lifestyle’ news that is more likely to be the purview of women reporters and readers.”
More recent studies prove that not a lot has changed since the early 1990s. A study conducted during a two-week period leading up to the 2012 presidential election, by Mariah Irvin of Elon University, analyzed three prime time news broadcasts to determine whether male journalists reported more hard news stories than female journalists. The results showed that male reporters were assigned more hard news than female reporters, and of the three networks analyzed (CBS, ABC and NBC), ABC scored exceptionally low. Out of ABC’s 11 stories reported by women (as opposed to 44 stories reported by men), only one was hard news.
A year earlier, in 2011, an Indiana University study by Elizabeth Grabe and Leila Samson examined how women’s attractiveness may affect male viewers’ perception of their professionalism and competence. The findings suggested that enhanced sexual attractiveness increased men's perceptions of the female anchor’s professionalism. Yet, when it came to evaluating her competence for reporting on different kinds of news, men questioned her abilities to do a good job reporting on hard news topics.
“That is classified information,” Mary Snow said, laughing. I had just asked the Al Jazeera reporter how old she is, and only as she continued, I realized that she was serious–she wasn’t going to tell me her age. She doesn’t like to tell people, she said, because revealing her age has been a deal breaker before. “People definitely look at you differently when you reveal your age,” Snow said. For men in the industry, however, it’s different. “People think of older men as having experience,” Snow said. “They think of women as having wrinkles.”
It was almost accidental that Snow ended up working in front of the camera, originally being a producer. But at an early age, she said, she knew that if she was going to be on TV, she would have a shelf life.
You can survive in the industry if you’re very good at what you’re doing, Snow said, referring to Judy Woodruff, who at 69 is still co-anchoring the PBS NewsHour. But like Sanders, Walters and Chung she is an exception to the rule, according to Snow.
Woodruff, herself, discussed aging women in the industry with author Judith Marlane in her 1999 book, Women in Television News Revisited: “’Someone who has a name identity, well, there’s value in that name identity and you just can’t shove somebody like that out the door. But that doesn’t mean women don’t get pushed out all the time. They do.’”
In 2000, the study “Looking Through a Gendered Lens: Local U.S. Television News Anchors’ Perceived Career Barriers” was published in the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media. Authors Anthony J. Ferri and Erika Engstrom conducted a nationwide survey of 246 local TV news anchors to examine anchors’ perceptions of hindrances to their career progress. Their main findings were these: Women anchors’ highest-rated barrier was the overemphasis on their physical appearance; lack of professional networks and support groups ranked the highest for men.
However, another significant, almost unintended finding was discovered in the early stages of the survey, when respondents marked what age category they belonged to. It turned out that the average male anchor age was in the “40-44” category; the female anchors’ average age was in the “30-34” category. While only 5% of the women in the survey said they were between 45 and 49, none of them marked they were 50 years or older. Among the male anchors 18% were 50 or older, and 36% were between 45 and 49.
This suggests that women both start and leave news anchoring jobs earlier than men, which may be aligned with the different cultural expectations on the genders. The Telegraph’s William Leith turned to David Buss’s The Evolution of Desire for answers about cultural norms in terms of age and gender.
Buss, a University of Texas psychology professor and author, says that it all comes down to the basics of sex. Leith summarized: “Men are attracted to women who look fertile. Women are attracted to men who will make good providers. That’s why men want their female partners to be a bit younger than they are. It’s also why women are attracted to older men – men with a proven track record.”
If this is true, it could explain the age patterns that Ferri and Engstrom stated in their study. It could also suggest that, as women are struggling to grow older in the television news industry, men may struggle to get into it as early as women.
In fact, the survey showed that youthful appearance ranked among the top career barriers for male anchors, with comments from male anchors saying things like: “Male anchors reach their prime time much later than women anchors,” and “I spent 7 years in radio before going into television because I looked so young.”
In terms of physical appearance, some female anchors in the study noted this: “Women are supposed to appear attractive, perhaps even glamorous…the men just have to look trustworthy”; “Male anchors here are allowed out-of-date or sloppy dress–but I’m not”; “My co-anchor rarely if ever gets comments”; and, “Oh yeah! Tell me the last time a male’s hair color came into question.”
The overemphasis on physical appearance ranked almost last for male anchors in the survey. For male anchors, physical appearance is just not as important. Some male anchors who participated in the survey confirmed the female anchors’ testament that their female colleagues are subject to more scrutiny regarding their appearance then they are.
With Diane Sawyer taking over ABC’s World News from Charles Gibson in 2010, despite a long, well-credited career behind her, gender was a large part of the focus in the media commentary. This stroke some female journalists as antiquated, journalist Marisa Guthrie wrote in a Broadcasting & Cable magazine article at the time. “I think it will be news when it’s not news,” Elizabeth Mehren, journalism professor at Boston University, was quoted saying in the article. “Coming in as the second woman anchor of a major [evening] news show shouldn’t really be news.”
While the industry has seen change by allowing more women in big network anchoring positions, much of the media frenzy and viewer reactions about women in the news reveal how differently male and female anchors are actually viewed.
A simple Google search for “female news anchors” demonstrates that looks and sex are not only associated with the term, but more so defining it. Nine of 10 listed results are different versions of Buzzfeed-type lists and articles about “The World’s most beautiful female news anchors” (occasionally “beautiful” is replaced with “hottest” or “sexiest,” but we get the point.) The search for “male news anchors,” on the other hand, results in biographies of news anchors, links to networks like CBS and CNN, a list of popular and not as popular anchors, and other articles about news anchors (apparently an Australian news anchor wore the same suit for a year!)
Many have agreed, and it has been previously noted in this article, that the gender defined standards and expectations placed on news anchors are really just a reflection of our society and culture. However, the media – television news included – is a powerful tool that can educate, effect social change, and shape not just public policy, but cultural values as well. Ultimately, it is the one tool that can change the cultural norms that is held against its own female employees, allowing them to be journalists only, not beauty contestants, and work for as long as they are capable of doing excellent news reporting.