By Teri Finneman and Selena Yakabe, South Dakota State University
Social media bullying of television journalists has garnered increasing attention.
Too much makeup. Clothes are too tight. Weight gain. Hair. Jewelry.
A Minnesota female television anchor said she’s encountered viewer criticism for all of the above during her career and that the amount of critical feedback has increased with the rise of social media.
Viewers now have immediate access to leave cruel and anonymous comments, she said, a phenomenon that has affected her both professionally and personally.
“I've called in sick because I was too depressed to go into work,” the anchor said in an anonymous survey.
Social media bullying of television journalists has garnered increasing attention in the past year, with WGN journalists reading mean emails and tweets from viewers in March and Fox News reporter Megyn Kelly making the news herself this election season as stories highlight sexism she encounters.
These incidents coincide with a new national survey that found television broadcasters believe the growing public use of social media has increased the amount of criticism that broadcast journalists receive about their appearance.
Researchers at South Dakota State University and the University of Missouri will present the findings of this exploratory study, conducted earlier this year, Aug. 6 at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference in Minneapolis.
Male and female broadcasters were asked about comments they have received regarding their appearance, how it affected the broadcasters and how they handled the comments.
Survey findings include:
- More than 75 percent of broadcasters who responded to the survey said they had received viewer criticism about their appearance.
- The majority said email/letters (64 percent) and Facebook (58 percent) are the primary ways they received this criticism, although one-third said they have been criticized in person.
- Nearly 90 percent said social media have increased the amount of viewer criticism they receive about their appearance.
- Nearly 100 percent said women in television receive more criticism from viewers than men.
An Arkansas female producer who participated in the study said people find it easy to hide behind their online personalities.
“I also think social media has made people more critical in general,” she said. “Everyone has an opinion, and social media has made it easier to share.”
One California female anchor said she receives criticism about her appearance on a weekly basis, some of which crosses the line into sexual harassment. A female Texas anchor said she’s tried to get jobs in other markets but has been told she was “too fat to be on TV.”
A Rhode Island female broadcaster also said she feels “constant added pressure” about weight, particularly after pregnancy.
"We aren't allowed to age. Our bodies aren't allowed to change,” she said. “No one ever says anything, but come on. If we came back looking like a whale, we'd have a harder time keeping a job.”
Broadcasters in North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, North Dakota, Oregon and Indiana also discussed salary inequality for female broadcasters, while other survey respondents also noted struggles with ageism and assignment inequality.
A male Texas producer said he agrees women in broadcast face more challenges.
“When a women is authoritative, she's a ‘bitch,’” he said. “When they're quiet, they're ‘mousey.’ I think this is in and out of the newsroom. They face increased criticism from peers and superiors, especially other women.”
These anecdotes provide evidence that little has changed in the 20 years since Engstrom and Ferri surveyed nearly 250 local TV news anchors about barriers to their career in order to better understand gender-based obstacles in broadcast journalism.
Based upon answers provided by anchors across the country in 1997, the authors found the top concern for women anchors was the amount of emphasis placed on their physical appearance.
In the 2016 study, a Virginia female anchor said “it’s just the way of the world” that there are different standards for women than for men.
“Women aren’t supposed to age, get gray, shift in weight,” she said. “Guys can be frumpy and go gray and not even wear makeup or powder and it’s OK.”
Nearly 90 percent of the 2016 survey respondents said their newsroom does not have a policy for responding to viewer complaints about appearance. The same number thought their newsrooms should provide training on how to handle these situations.
A North Dakota female anchor said she appreciated when her station’s management responded to inappropriate criticism from viewers on social media.
“It has reminded them [viewers] that women who work in the news are not bikini models,” she said. “They’re working journalists and storytellers.”