Lara Logan (CBS), Megyn Kelly (Fox) and Robin Meade (CNN/HLN)

Study: Hot female reporters are distracting

Researchers find that men aren't paying attention to what attractive newscasters say

Mary Elizabeth Williams
January 27, 2011 9:42PM (UTC)

Hey pal, eyes up here. She's trying to tell you about genocide and financial collapse. What's that you say? You missed the headlines again because the anchor babe was confusing your man brain? You're not alone – a much-forwarded study published this week from Indiana University researchers Maria Elizabeth Grabe and Lelia Samson in Communication Research found that the sexier a female news reporter is, the less likely male viewers were to regard her as qualified for war and political reporting – and to remember what she said.

Researchers had a 24-year-old woman do a short newscast twice, one time wearing a shapeless outfit, and another dolled up in red lipstick and dressed to accentuate her waist-to-hip ratio. The more alluring the waist-to-hip ratio, the less credible the reporter appeared. But while a sexed up anchor might not make a dent into her male viewers' ears, the Indiana study found women viewers reported no such disconnect. The study also didn't mention whether all its subjects identified as straight, so who knows what results the researchers might have obtained if they'd throw a little Ron Corning into the mix? Who among us has not occasionally spaced out the fact that someone was a litany of bad news because said individual was also wicked hot?


There's no non-depressing way to interpret data like this. True, maybe this is proof that the oversexualization of the evening news doesn't work if your program cares about credibility or effectively disseminating the news. One could argue that increasing trend of younger, hotter, and lower necklined ladies in the chair really is just a transparently shoddy ratings ploy, one that ultimately undermines the fifth estate. But just because, as both CNBC and TV Squad report, "Duh,"  that doesn't mean that networks will suddenly start reviewing female job candidates based more on their journalistic credibility and less on their shiny hair and bodacious cleavage. Think Hecklerspray and Maxim are suddenly going to be grasping for candidates for their lists of "tasty titans of the teleprompter?"

Is the fact that male viewers find attractive women less effective at communicating the news sufficient evidence that attractive women are less effective, period? Does it imply that if the news isn't delivered by a stentorian male or matronly woman, dudes won't care about that bombing in the Middle East? It comes back to the old damned if you do, damned if you don't logic. If an ambitious young reporter is encouraged to play up her attributes, she runs the real risk she won't be taken seriously. Yet if she's not conventionally attractive, she diminishes her chances of getting on the air in the first place. Your looks will get you ahead and they will hold you back. You can be sexy or competent, but just remember that sexy will short circuit competent every time.

And that's the real revelation of the study. After all, the researchers had the same woman deliver the same news report. Her ability didn't change based on the tightness of her top, only the perception of it did. Of course all of us, male or female, have to gauge how to present ourselves at work and the appropriateness of our professional demeanors. But what are working women -- and not just those in the journalism business -- to make of the news flash that the more men are watching a lady, the less they're really hearing her?

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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