A new study found men retain less information when the woman delivering the news wears a sexier outfit. Could shorter skirts and form-fitting blazers be the reason that the 24/7 news cycle is leaving Americans more ill-informed?
Indiana University researchers Maria Elizabeth Grabe and Lelia Samson had 400 subjects watch one of two short newscasts featuring the same 24-year-old journalist. In the first, she "was dressed in a tight-fitting dark blue jacket and skirt that accented her waist-to-hip ratio," bright red lipstick, and a necklace. In the second version, the woman wore "a shapeless and loose-fitting dark blue jacket and skirt," with no lipstick or jewelry.
The result: Men retained less information from the report when it was presented by the more attractive version of the anchor, and "saw the sexualized version of the anchor as less suited for war and political reporting." Women recalled more information from the sexualized anchor, but the effect was far less pronounced than with male subjects. What the anchor was wearing had no impact on whether or not female subject felt she was competent.
On Miller-McCune.com, Tom Jacobs quips, "While the results of that scenario are speculative, this paper offers one more reason why Fox News viewers are so ill-informed on so many issues," and links to racy GQ photos of Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly. Compared to when cable news started in the '80s, there's obviously been a push to feature more attractive anchors, but is it fair to blame their appearance for the fact that a frightening number of Americans can't name a single Supreme Court justice and think President Obama is a foreign-born communist?
Megyn Kelly is an easy target, but Fox News viewers aren't chock full of misinformation because they're tuning her out. As Jon Stewart demonstrated just last night, listening to her with rapt attention wouldn't do much good either because she says idiotic things.
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Jacobs doesn't discuss the finding that men see the sexualized anchor as less competent, but this is key to understanding the study. It suggests the problem isn't particular to female anchors, but part of the double standard all professional women are held to. Sure, cable news may be a hotbed of sexism. And perhaps it's true that networks would rather feature a pretty face who brings in ratings than a frumpy reporter with years of experience. However, it isn't fair to imply that female journalists are to blame for men's lack of news comprehension because the little strumpets are making themselves distractingly pretty. The real culprit is that women still aren't allowed to be smart and attractive, and TV news is a profession that demands they be both.
Since TV is a visual medium it's no shock that new programs are interested in putting more attractive people on the air. As we've moved from black and white television to HDTV, the loose-joweled, elderly male anchor has, for the most part, been replaced by younger, photogenic reporters of both genders. The difference is that a male anchor can choose pretty much any suit or neckwear combination with the exception of a Mickey Mouse tie and look attractive, yet appropriate. In both of the news reports used in the study, the reporter was wearing a blazer, but women's clothing is more sexualized. For a woman anchor, "professional attire" means calculating how tight her jacket is and exactly how many buttons she should leave open on the shirt underneath.
The effect an attractive male anchor has on how much information women retain from a broadcast hasn't been studied, but there probably wouldn't be as much discrepancy as there was with a female anchor. Anderson Cooper's lusted after as the "Silver Fox," but it hasn't damaged his credibility as one of the most authoritative TV journalists. However, when Katie Couric chooses the "wrong" hair color, makeup, or clothing, she's driving the CBS Evening News into the ground with her lack of gravitas. The real problem isn't that female anchors who choose to present themselves as attractive distract male viewers, it's that men are taught to tune out pretty women because they have nothing important to say.
Sexual Cues Emanating From the Anchorette Chair: Implications for Perceived Professionalism, Fitness for Beat, and Memory for News [Sage]
Sexy News Anchors Distract Male Viewers [Miller-McCune.com]
She Reports, We Decide She's Hot [GQ]
Jon Stewart Exposes Fox News' "Nazi" Rhetoric Hypocrisy [Gawker TV]
Couric's Style Goes From 'Today' To 'Evening' [USA Today]