Saturday, August 10, 2013

Writing about Women's Looks

This particular Salon story was aimed at a comment Obama made about the California AG Kamala Harris, but let's go deeper.

1) A double standard exists concerning the way journalists describe the appearance of men and of women. Doesn't it? Am I being PC? If it does exist, is it a big deal? Why?

2) Okay. You are a young ambitious reporter, neat and presentable,  probably female but not *necessarily* female. The person you are interviewing makes comments about your appearance. Do you include these comments in your story?

3) The salon writer talks about how women in TV tend to be better looking than their male counterparts. Is that your observation also? Are such hiring decisions ethical? To what degree would you use your appearance to get a job? To what degree would you use good grooming to get a job! And - moving on into another aspect of all this - would you, Ms. or Mr. Young Reporter, use your physical appearance to get a source to open up? Remember Seeming to be young, attractive and just a little dim - the Blond/Blonde ploy, which can work for both sexes - can get a source to lower his/her guard.


Lauren said...

This is a good question. I think it brings up a point that many people overlook because describing the physical attributes of a woman have almost become a norm. I always have to ask myself, does describing the source in detail support the content of my story? If it doesn't, there is no point.

You have to keep in mind your intended audience, the platform for which you're writing, and what type of story this is. Chances are if you're writing a breaking news story about a woman whose physical appearance has no relevance, then including it is pointless.

Journalists also have to consider that they might need this source in the future. Will he or she be offended by including a description of their apperance?

On the other hand, does giving a fair and accurate description of their looks pertain to the relevance of the story? Then I'd absolutely include it.

Use your best judgement and if ever in doubt- run it by your editor.

Here's an interesting story about describing the clothing of women politicians, it touches on a few of the ethical dilemmas mentioned in this question.

Anonymous said...

I really think you have to judge each and every situation unique to its own - where as someone might say you look nice (or give some sort of compliment to you) out of politeness, someone else might totally be hitting on you or being just plain inappropriate. It is no doubt that females have to deal with remarks, stares, provacative looks, and/or hollers, however unless it completely shows a strong character judgement that corresponds with the story, why bother distracting from the initial story itself. I would definitely run it by your editor though, because you never know and a seconds persons opinion is always helpful. I also agree with Lauren's point about not burning bridges and keeping strong rapports with sources - that being said, women shouldn't use their sexuality to seek out information.... but then again some floozies might beg to differ.

Susan White said...

1) A double standard exists regarding the appearance of men and women, period. Women are judged first and foremost by their looks; the same can’t be said about men. Beauty isn’t a reliable factor in determining a person’s qualifications or providing insight into her moral character – but hey, that’s the world we live in. Even women’s magazines perpetuate the stereotype; articles featuring female celebrities often dedicate an opening paragraph or two to the subject’s ethereal skin tone or perfect body figure. Men are usually described by their demeanor or the mood they project – “this singer carries an air of je ne sais quoi about him, this actor is different than the TV role he portrays,” et cetera.

2) No. If I were writing a news story, I would not want to include myself on sheer basis of the fact that I am not the focus of the story. (It would seem arrogant to include myself.) If I am writing a soft news story featuring the charitable work of a local celebrity, who cares what the subject thinks of my outfit/smile/relationship status? I can’t think of a single instance where it would be relevant, unless I was interviewing Anthony Weiner about his recent text messaging scandal, and he said something lascivious and inappropriate to me. But even that would be unsurprising, and hardly newsworthy at this point.

3) Of course they are. Have you seen the local MUNI posters advertising strategically good-looking women to sell morning news programs? Often juxtaposed with a catchphrase such as, “It’s going to be a beautiful day in San Francisco” – emphasis on the word “beautiful”? (I wish I had a link to one specific poster I saw. I’ll post it here if I find it.) In a world where beauty still matters and the economy remains precarious, I can’t say I wouldn’t utilize my appearance to get a job. Is that “cheating”? I don’t know. Would you have the willpower not to “cheat” in a race where it was a virtually known fact that every single contestant was “cheating”? I’m not saying I would ever do anything crass or inappropriate to obtain work or the trust of a source, but it would seem almost stupid not to groom myself or put on a little charm for the sake of self-preservation.

Oh. Didn’t mean to write a novel there. Sorry.

haley wise said...

a. This standard does exist without a doubt, just because it is completely indisputable that double standards exist in all areas of life and it would be completely naïve to think that they didn’t exist in the media and how it reports on women. This double standard is a big deal because of the inequalities women face on a daily basis. In the professional environment, women have a harder time being taken seriously and avoiding objectification from men in the workplace. By reporting on the fashion choices or appearances of women, the media is only helping to further these preconceived notions of women being primarily focused on fashion and beauty or should be primarily judged on their appearances, rather than their policies and political decisions. If the press doesn’t actively try to prevent this double standard from happening, progress will delay in the journey for female equality in politics and business. Although journalists may report on both male and female appearances, it is highly more detrimental to women, maybe not on an individual basis but for the general advancement of female equality in general.
a. I would definitely not include any comments related to my appearance, even if the person I am interviewing makes a comment. I am 99.99% sure that I will leave this out of my article, leaving the .01% chance for circumstantial exceptions. However, I do not think that my appearance, as a reporter, should ever be a factor in my reporting and neither is it necessary or relevant for the readers to know about my appearance in their consideration of my reporting. If I happened to be interviewing a fashion guru or stylist, this may be an exception, however, I would still seek advising regarding this subject, whether or not it is ethical to include information about my own appearance in an article.
a. I think using the term “TV” is tough because this includes so many different mediums – reality TV, news programs, and scripted programs. If we are discussing news programs, I would have to agree with the observations of the writer. I believe that the female news anchors tend to be far more attractive than their male counterparts. Take Regis and Kelly for example, no one can dispute that Kelly Rippa is an extremely attractive woman, and Regis on the other hand is less than desirable. You also tend to see more older men on news programs and talk shows than older women. It seems that as men grow older they become more distinguished and trusting and women on the news tend to be younger. Although there are exceptions to this observation of course.
b. When it comes to the ethics of hiring television personalities, there is a hard distinction between hiring people solely based on appearance, because of course appearance is important as they will need to be presentable for a wide range of audiences and not be too sore on the eyes. However, this should not be factored in larger than the academic and professional qualifications of candidates. This becomes and ethical dilemna when the appearances of women are judged more harshly than the appearances of men in the application process.
c. I would hope that my appearance will never be a factor in finding a job. Although this is completely unrealistic, I would feel extremely uncomfortable in the workplace if I knew that I was hired because of my appearance. This would make me feel that there are separate expectations of me as a woman in the position as there would be for a man in the same position and no woman should ever feel that she must fulfill a role outside of the professional expectations. This being said, I would use my appearance to get a source to open up, while staying within the boundaries of professionalism, appearance can help you seem more trusting and more approachable to your sources.