Odd Angles Emerge From TV News Research

Academicians often come up with unconventional topics to study. And those involved in television are no exception. Here are four research projects that range from tracking the lipstick factor in female anchor credibility to weathercasters who think they’re God.

I’m fascinated by the preponderance of obscure, or at least very narrowly focused, academic studies out there that scrutinize TV news, particularly the local variety.

How else would we learn that a little lipstick can make male viewers forget what they are watching or that weathercasters behave as if they can actually control the weather?

So, here are four recent findings from the world of a academe. Do with it what you may.

1. Sexier female anchors have diminished credibility among male viewers.

Indiana University’s Elizabeth Grabe and Lelia Samson find that male and female viewers react differently to newswomen done up to look alluring, with men questioning their credibility.

The study — which appeared online in December and will be printed in an upcoming print edition of Communication Research — asked 400 people to watch one of two short newscasts with a 24-year-old woman, wearing a conservative outfit in one of them and more form-fitting clothes and red lipstick in the other.


The study finds that men actually retain less news when a female anchor’s appearance plays up her sexy side. Men also doubt the credibility of a newswoman with an alluring look, believing she may not have what it takes to cover hard news, the study finds.

Women, however, are more forgiving, rating the competence of both the conservatively and provocatively dressed anchor equally, the study finds. In fact, women actually remember more news when reported by the sexier anchor.

What those findings actually mean for women working in news, however, is unclear. Clearly, there’s no scarcity of pretty faces on TV news, so you’d have a hard time backing up the assertion that alluring women, whether viewers see them as credible or not, are at a disadvantage in the workplace.

But Grabe and Lelia (who are conducting a more in-depth study on the subject) say that indeed may be the case.

“Sexual cues harden men’s perceptions of a woman’s ineptness to report on traditionally masculine story topics,” Samson and Grabe write. “Given that men dominate executive decision-making positions in newsrooms, including story assignments, this discrepancy between how men and women see a sexually attractive woman’s professional competence might fuel gender tension in the workplace.”

2. The more local TV news people watch, the more they feel powerless against cancer.

In other words, TV news could be fueling a public health problem by not covering cancer-related news they way it should be covered.

That’s the word from two researchers — Cornell’s Jeff Niederdeppe and Ohio State’s Chul-Joo Lee — whose study in the Journal of Communication (Volume 60, Issue 2, pages 230-253, June 2010) finds the plethora of cancer-related news on local TV and the relatively sensational way in which it’s covered contribute to the widespread bleak view that cancer can’t be beaten.

The study suggests that local news concentrates too much on new or controversial cancer causes, many of which people encounter on a regular basis, rather than proven ways to thwart the disease. In doing so, local newscasts boost anxiety among people who tend to be fatalistic. They also are fueling beliefs like there’s not much you can do to prevent cancer, the study says.

What’s this mean for you? The researchers suggest that TV reporters take it up a notch, providing more tips for cancer prevention, perhaps even spending a little time with health officials or researchers to get a better grasp on the subject.

3. Local TV news is not the best at getting people off the sofa and involved in what’s going on around town.

A study by two Northwestern and one Indiana University researchers, published in the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media (Volume 54, Number 4, pages 551-568, December 2010), shows the correlation between news consumption and civic involvement varies widely when you look at how people are getting their news.

Cable TV watchers and news magazine readers tend to be the most actively engaged, while the correlation of Internet use was “barely significant and the association with local news viewing was modest at best.”

Although the study, which sampled nearly 25,000 consumers, shows that local newscasts draws a relatively big audience (even 79% of people coined news “avoiders” watch it), it finds that the actual news is often ignored by viewers. They are more likely tuning in for sports, traffic and weather.

However, viewers get more than they tune in for, simply by being exposed to local news stories while waiting for, say, the weather, the study says. Given that the study finds that even small doses of news could spur civic involvement, “this kind of news use may be important.”

4. Weathercasters think they are God.

To explore how far journalistic authority extends into local newscasts, researchers at the University of Illinois discover that weathercasters often rhetorically claim to control the weather.

Tracking morning weather on Boston’s affiliates during the 2004 Democratic National Convention, authors Richard Doherty and Kevin Barnhurst find that its common for weathercasters to go beyond their jobs as messengers, making statements like “I’ll get you the sun out,” or “That’s right, I promise. No rain today.”

The finding, published in the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media (Volume 53, Number 2, pages 211-226, June 2009), is part of the study’s analysis of the complex relationship among weathercasters, viewers and nature itself, exploring how weathercasters balance being both authoritative and entertaining.

The study also finds the stations’ forecasts were not identical, even though national, weather-related data exists. The researchers call for a larger, national study of weather coverage, now that weather coverage has risen in importance and the “weathercaster provides another example of that transformation from lowly clown to high-status knowledge worker.”



Diana Marszalek writes about local TV news every other week in her Air Check column. You can reach her for comment on this column or with ideas for upcoming ones at [email protected]. For other Air Check stories, click here.

Comments (2)

Leave a Reply

Laura Watson says:

March 14, 2011 at 3:54 pm

“The study also finds the stations’ forecasts were not identical, even though national, weather-related data exists. ”
They should be? Don’t think so.

Joe Langhan says:

March 23, 2011 at 9:00 pm

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