Faces not for radio

A post by Janet Wilson expresses a general conspiracy theory I’ve held for a long time about why radio news is usually better than TV news: because the people are chosen for different qualities. To an extent the “beauty bias” is present in every field, and of course, even in news it is simplistic — there are a host of other factors to do with resourcing, format, training and so on. As in almost all fields — and for the same sorts of reasons — these pressures weigh much more heavily on women journalists than on men, and consequently the aesthetic homogeneity of NZ’s top female TV presenters is striking:

What Janet calls “tits and teeth” selection really matters: people instinctively trust attractive people more than unattractive people (as long as they’re not too attractive), and broadcast news is all about projecting authority and trustworthiness via a predominantly visual medium. Dress and bearing are also relevant — as is voice, which is even more important in radio. But those things can, to a much greater extent, be worked on or around.

So TV news is biased in favour of attractiveness. In general, a presenter’s job is to present — their newsgathering, interviewing and editorial skills are backgrounded to a considerable degree. So this bias isn’t entirely unjustified for presenters, but the problem is that it’s also clearly evident in the journalistic ranks from which presenters are drawn. While it does not exclude journalistic quality the beauty bias does weight against it. Because the jump from reporter to presenter is a crucial part of a broadcast journalist’s career arc, and being unwilling — or unable — to fit the pattern is an explicit and well-known limitation to advancement, it likely dissuades people who might otherwise make outstanding broadcast journalists — which society desperately needs — from entering the profession. As Janet notes, the bias also selects against experience, because while men tend to become “distinguished” as they age (strengthening their gravitas) women do not, and those who don’t retain their youthful dash paradoxically become less favoured as their screen experience increases.

A case in point on this last point has lately been evident in the most trivial forum: Breakfast, on TV One. My wife, at home with our daughter, remarked on the greater capacity of One News anchor Wendy Petrie to deal with co-host Paul Henry’s soft-gonzo screen persona while she covered for Pippa Wetzell recently: a sort of dismissive indulgence, as if of a poorly-behaved child on his birthday. The customary pairing is a classic mismatch: Henry dominates the studio while Wetzell — herself a quality presenter, as we occasionally see when Henry is absent — is often forced into the role of slightly-embarrassed fall-gal. Petrie, with close to a decade’s primetime hard-news presenting experience under her belt, is out of Henry’s league and she knows it.

Of course, she herself has the beauty bias on her side. But the question is: how long does she have left? And how many other talents have we lost — or never found — due to the dire ravages of crow’s feet, a poor hairdo, a few additional kilos, or a mismatched outfit?

(Thanks to Naly D for the link to Janet’s article.)


PS: I’d like to endorse Nicola Kean’s campaign to go to Columbia Journalism School, as others are doing. Go and vote for her, and perhaps she’ll do better than another well-known graduate from these parts.

9 thoughts on “Faces not for radio

  1. Of course, she herself has the beauty bias on her side. But the question is: how long does she have left? And how many other talents have we lost — or never found — due to the dire ravages of crow’s feet, a poor hairdo, a few additional kilos, or a mismatched outfit?

    How long does she have left?… Best ask the “mother of the Nation” that one. ;o)

  2. This post is disappointing. Coverage of TV faces should properly be in the nasty gossip and media industry columns. I might also add that I have a great radio face, so you owe me equal time.

    Using intellectual energy on such trivia says two things about you in this current moment: 1) you have a very broad view and tolerance for all things media; 2) you are clearly bored or killing time waiting for the birth.

    As for that journalism scholarship endorsement. I disagree. Nicola may be a nice person but if she was not offered a foreign student scholarship by CSJ (of which there are several, and which people like Matt Nippert have received), then she was judged to be second-tier by the admissions committee. Moreover, given the track record of NZ CSJ grads (e.g. Deborah Hill Cone, some Metro non-entity, HOS wonders) and the existence of a few select independent journos in NZ, I vote for Nicky Hagar’s suggestion that good-minded people put NZ$20/week into an “independent journalist support fund” that allows NZ investigative reporters to cover their basic costs of living. Nominations welcome as to who might qualify but I have a short list handy.

  3. Pablo, this posting would make an even worse style/gossip column than it does a blog post!

    The reality is that I care about newsroom culture, and the framing/depiction of public personalities in general culture. In this regard it’s not that much different to (though less in-depth than) my recent post about Julia Gillard, and others further back.

    News-people are public personalities, and their celebritisation matters to the quality of news.

    About Nicola; you might be right (I don’t know her, but I know people who do and they speak highly). But if she’s not up to scratch, she won’t succeed. There’s no real opportunity cost to supporting her internet petition for funding, and it certainly doesn’t circumscribe other initiatives, such as the one suggested by Nicky.


  4. Is this a symptom of a relatively young TV industry, or perhaps NZ, because we so often see more mature women in clips from the States?

    Since I listen to more RNZ news bulletins than I watch TV my biggest beef is with the apaulingly low standard of field recording … but maybe this is the price we pay for competition with a group of reporters fighting for a position next to the talent. Second would be the poor diction of the cub reporters compared with the front people’s clarity.

  5. Lew – good post and I speculate that a similar story applies to the wider politic environment. Your message mayeb good but you need to consider the medium by which it is being communicated. In todays society TV is the significant medium – and being able to master that medium matters for politics. The first example of this being the Kennedy vs Nixon debate.

    So actually I think this is a very worthwhile blog post and not simply a gossip column.

    Ps you need to get out more often if your watching that much tv.

  6. I think it’a an important issue, both for news and more generally in the way it constructs a very narrow normative view of gender.

    In many ways NZ mainstream TV news & current affairs seems to have gone backwards in recent years (probably in relation to the general decline of our news media).

    In contrast, I am very impressed with the quality of both the anchors and the field correspondents on Al Jazeera. I try to watch its NewsHour on Triangle daily. It has a strong contingent of smart women, as well as embracing cultural diversity. The women do tend to be on the young and pretty side, but they also tend to have a strong journalist background.


  7. Lew:

    I hear what you are saying. It is not so much your dissection, which as always is good, but the subject itself that bothers me. First, because it belabours the obvious: people like to see pretty people, especially cheese- or beefcake on TV. Second, because It seems unworthy of your talent, perhaps akin to my attempting to deconstruct the TV shows “Border Patrol” or “Cops” (I flatter myself with the comparison).

    One of the signatures of Fox News is the gaggle of right-wing blondes (all who we are told have advanced degrees from Harvard). Ozzie TV is full of bimbos and boytoys showing more than teeth and tans. The race to scratch the basest viewer itch is the lifeblood of the bottom line. Since NZ TV is heavily influenced, if not controlled by this type of structural imperative, who cares how different blondes handle the breakfast buffoon?

    Carol is right about al jazeera, something that is also true for Russia Today (RT). The reason they have “intelligent” looking wimin on air is that the broadcast model that underrides their newscasts is not reducible to the bread and circus logics of the Murdoch model. For both, their broadcasts are meant to have overtly political intonations, something that happily prevents the overuse of the teeth and tits logic.

    Of course, in formulating this response I have undermined my argument that the subject has no worth. But if it does have worth it is more like that of water cooler conversation fodder rather than policy debate.

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