Should Pounds Matter When Hiring Broadcast Journalists?

Tell the truth:  if you are a member of LinkedIn, why are you there?  Do you participate just so people can say you have more than 1,000 connections?  

I actually read intelligent LinkedIn posts from quality professionals who help me learn something in a given day.  Holly MacTaggart is a human resources executive. I was glued to one of her recent offerings because she made me introspective about the hiring process in broadcast journalism.20160730_205819-1

Here is an excerpt from Holly’s post:

Today, I was disappointed in my profession. I received a call from an HR professional whom I mentor….She told me that she had been pursued for a new role. She had several phone interviews and was asked if she could set up a very short Skype for a few “tactical” questions before going in for onsite interviews with the client. She rearranged her schedule, took the call from her home office and when the screen went live she saw the two recruiters look at each other, and slightly shake their head. Within 10 minutes, they said they had enough information. A few days later, they wrote and told her the position was on hold and thanked her. She said, “I think they didn’t like how I looked.”  Now, I don’t know what happened. I do know, she isn’t model thin … but what is in this woman’s head is amazing and she would be a tremendous benefit to any company. I explained that she needed to focus on the role she had, realize she “got off lucky” and continue to work her craft. Then I wondered … did the company even know what happened? Are we a culture of “how good you look” vs what knowledge and skills you bring to the table?

Holly’s last rhetorical question made me pause to think:  if we are truly honest, how would the television news industry as a whole answer?  

Before you start throwing brickbats and saying, “You, of all people, who used to supervise newsrooms should know appearance is one of the necessities of our business,” I simply want you to think.  How many people have news directors turned away over the years because they were overweight?  I will strike a little more terror into your hearts:  are most of those who were eliminated because of their weight female?

Let’s consider several givens:  I recognize viewers can be more incisive about the appearance of on-air journalists than a surgeon’s knife.  Without the benefit of empirical research, my experience during my news director years was that women viewers are far more critical of the look of women anchors and reporters than are men on men.  My first day in the news director’s chair in 1983 brought me this call from a woman who had no idea who I was:  “When are y’all gonna do somethin’ about them big swingin’ earrings that Catherine _________ wears?  I get dizzy just watchin’ them things swing.”  That’s no joke.  I suppose I could have told her, “If her earrings bother you that much, you can always change the channel,” but as a newcomer to town who wanted to encourage viewers to turn to us, I eschewed my initial inclination to respond with a smart aleck answer.

I am acutely aware that weight clauses exist in some anchor and reporter contracts, particularly in larger markets.  That is no different from the entertainment industry.  However, I ponder whether those continue because of the tradition of television news or because of the perceived expectation of viewers.

Further, news executives find no joy in their days having to field a call such as I did on my initial day on the job.  Add to that, they find even less joy taking a call from the general manager who says, “I’m getting more and more calls about ______________’s weight.”  Unspoken (or sometimes spoken) is the question:  “What are you going to do about it?”

An additional given is what should be a primary concern for anyone, regardless of their profession.  Excessive weight makes one vulnerable to health issues.  

Let me give you an example from my quarter century as a broadcast media professor.  For our purposes, I will refer to the young woman in question as “Janet.”  She entered our university as an enthusiastic, energetic 18-year-old with a goal.  Her heart and soul were focused on a career in TV news.  

When she arrived, she was—by society’s and the culture’s conventional standards—the picture of a future on-air personality in appearance.  She demonstrated maturity well beyond her years in her curiosity and performance.  However, in her first year, she tacked on the stereotypical “freshman 15” pounds.  By the end of the following year, that had become the “sophomore 60.”  One day, when I happened by the cafeteria, I passed by Janet and some of her friends.  I stopped to speak but privately was stunned.  Janet’s plate resembled the size of “The $100,000 Pyramid.”  A second casual visit revealed the same result.

Toward the end of Janet’s sophomore year, her mother called me.  Unlike typical helicopter parents of today, this was a very nice, concerned woman with a serious concern about her daughter.  “She has never been like this before in her life.  We are concerned, because she can’t push away from the table,” her mother said.  “What I want to know is this:  is she eating her way out of a chance to work in television?”

My first thought was:  how do I sensitively handle this with Janet’s mother and yet be honest.  In the next few minutes, I confided that Janet is still every bit the excellent potential journalist she was when she first entered college.  I explained to her mother that while as a college professor I can counsel with her and straightforwardly give Janet the facts of life about the profession, the industry is going to look the other way if she doesn’t begin to melt down some pounds.

Janet’s family and I both had sensitively-handled but direct conversations with her about the expectations of appearance in television news.  She received our advice affirmatively and constructively.  Sadly, she could not manage a way to drop even half of those extra 60 pounds.  Ultimately, she opted to switch her major to social work and has enjoyed a successful career in reaching out to people who are sometimes in difficult situations.

In the months after Janet graduated, I had one of those paradoxical moments of reflection.  Janet’s abilities and potential as a journalist did not deteriorate because of her weight.  I remember saying to a colleague, “I wonder what a TV news department is missing by not having her on staff, because she definitely had the tools.”  At the same time, I am confident Janet would have experienced the same as the woman in Holly MacTaggart’s example once a news director or station management would have seen that she was not model-thin.  I also asked rhetorically, “Is this really right?  What does it say about our industry?”

In the last year, I have become a huge fan of NewsON and frequently sample newscasts from around the country.  I have begun to see a miniscule increase in on-air anchors or reporters who, by the culture’s standards, would be considered overweight.  Each one of them had a pristine delivery and I could tell no difference in their communication skills than those who weighed 20 to 50 pounds less.  Likewise, each one was well-dressed and neatly groomed.  The only contrast to others on their staffs was the sizes of their clothes were larger.  In no way was I compelled to turn to another city’s newscast because of the sizes of these young men and women.

This is one of these “just asking” propositions:  does the local television news industry maintain a double standard when it comes to size?  In the last four years, we have seen lemon juice-vaccinated gripeboxes on Facebook and Twitter throwing cruel darts at pregnant women meteorologists who continue to work after their soon-to-become loved ones become significantly evident onscreen.  Some of these women have had the guts to strike back online.  In at least three instances in the last year, news directors have been quick to come to their defense and rightfully so.  I have personally emailed those three and, in so many words, let them know, “We’ve got your back.”

So here’s the opposite side of that question:  if we justifiably stand up for an expectant on-air employee who is increasing in size because she is about to experience one of the happy additions of life, are we being ambiguous if we close the door to a well-dressed, well-groomed, well-spoken reporter applicant because he or she happens to be overweight?  I imagine a number of people in hiring or decision-making capacities either don’t want to face the answer to that question or will dismiss it altogether with “TVnewsexecspeak.”

Holly MacTaggart’s true scenario that rekindled my thinking on this subject was of a woman who sensed immediately that she was being rejected for a job because of her weight.  No matter her ability or talents, which Holly could verify, those executives on Skype just shook their heads.

If lawsuits or job discrimination assertions are filed by people in taxpayer-paid, public positions because of weight issues, local TV news departments would be likely to pounce on that as a story.  Proving that someone is rejected for on-air employment because of weight is relative and on the burden of the prospect.  Yet, people who make such a decision know exactly if they are making that call because of pounds.  They really do.

I am convinced that “Janet” could have worked with competence and creativity as a journalist in any television news department.  She just happened to be 50 to 60 pounds over society’s (and television’s) expectation of appropriate weight.  

Given that she had talent, ability and may have broken stories that would have gained attention for your news team, just consider one question.  Would you have hired Janet?  Just asking.

 

 

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