The faces of local TV news in America

Stereotypes exist, perhaps unintentionally, when it concerns publicity by local television news stations in the United States, affecting women more than men. This is the conclusion of this surprisingly fascinating research article.
It is understood that television is a visual medium whereby on-air talent invariably needs to ‘look good’, even though this necessarily is not a synonym for beauty, especially as beauty can be subjective. There has been criticism that female on-air talent has a certain pressure to be ‘younger looking’, ‘sexier’ and ‘attractive’, whereas their male counterparts can always rely on aged authority if their better days are allegedly beyond them. For minorities, it has been suggested that they need to conform to western (read white) norms too.
This article examined over 400 publicity photographs of local news personalities in the United States, forming a valid research pool. It is accepted that publicity photographs will try to ‘look their best’, perhaps even better than any on-air realities that may subtly change over time, and dependent on location (e.g. studio versus in-the-field during a storm). The same artificial situation is a valid one, as all participating companies are expected to follow specific rules and norms, meaning that the research pool can be viewed as comparable.
Subjects such as this, with an air of subjectivity, can always be written off by detractors as being extreme, although a kernel of truth may still exist. It is not, however, automatic that any malevolent intent is intended, yet even unintentional problems, upon discovery, may need seeing over and possibly being resolved. In the United States, there have already been lawsuits complaining about age and sexual discrimination, through broader discriminatory practices between the sexes. With television, mainly based in a studio, it is typical for all on-screen talent to have a certain amount of make-up to aid the picture. This research looks past this and more into the styling and presentation of the talent, noting similarities and differences along the way.
The fundamental question may be thus: ‘are standards of attractiveness are different in ways that favour men, punish women for getting older, and glorify whiteness.’ As an occasional viewer of U.S. television, even as a white, middle-aged male, I can understand some of the views of this research as rather too many female on-air talent does appear, without any scientific evidence, to be more “cookie-cutter” in style and appearance than their male counterparts.
The introduction and review of literature was interesting, especially to somebody with a media interest who is not so familiar with the intricacies of feminist-related research. Selected literature seemed to be sensitive and relevant. It would not be too much trouble to adapt and extend this research into other representative groups and sectors, and I could see this being interesting, even if it does not necessarily answer “why?”. Considering elements that may contribute to the issue and the various pressures, both simple and complex, was thoughtful. I had not thought that the ‘hip-to-waist ratio’ was necessarily relevant, but when I delve into my memory bank, maybe there is an element of size discrimination too.
Four hypotheses were developed, and this led to a well-designed research programme being created and actioned. A random selection of 100 television stations was chosen at random, and talent photographs were downloaded from those that featured their own newscasts. To further make the sample random, every other picture was selected, yielding 426 photographs (more than the 333 said to be needed to produce a balanced sample). An element of filtration then took place to remove photojournalists, pilots and other non-on-air staff, leading to 401 subjects that could be coded for analysis. Reasonable adjustment had to be made due to the nature of typical publicity photographs, but this seemed appropriate and allowed consistency. Often consistent, as possibly expected, was the type and format of publicity photograph, e.g. looking directly at the camera, friendly smile and so forth. Some restrictions existed with the research, but these were defined and should not affect the broader findings. Limits could, perhaps, be considered as targets for future, more focussed research too, such as minority presence and appearances on ‘minority’ media or outlets.
The research was nuanced and interesting on many levels. One key takeaway was that there did appear to be a preferred style of appearance — stereotypically heteronormative, not overly sexy, and predictable i.e., short hair for men, shoulder length for women; clean-shaven for men, some makeup for women. Not much has changed in the past 40-plus years, note the authors, when other researchers had defined typical newscaster stereotypes.
There does appear to be justification to the empirical suggestion that women may be hired due to ‘to tighter standards of attractiveness; that these standards that favour one race over others, and that these standards do not reflect the diversity of the larger community.’ How this may be resolved, however, can be the bigger challenge.
A credible piece of research!
Bock, M.A., Cueva Chacón, L.M., Jung, H., Sturm, H.A. and Figueroa, E.J., 2018. The faces of local TV news in America: youth, whiteness, and gender disparities in station publicity photos. Feminist Media Studies. DOI:10.1080/14680777.2017.1415950

A post-publication review of this article appears at Publons.