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Sexy News Anchors Distract Male Viewers

• January 24, 2011 • 12:00 PM

New research finds when a female news anchor’s sexual attractiveness is played up, male viewers retain less information.

Scholars, critics and viewers have noted that some TV newscasts can be momentarily mistaken for Victoria’s Secret specials. In an apparent attempt to capture channel-surfing male viewers, stations have hired attractive female anchors, often outfitting them in attire that emphasizes their sexuality.

This strategy may boost the ratings, but in terms of the programs’ purported purpose — informing the public — recent research suggests it has a definite down side. Males may be drawn to those alluring anchors, but they may not remember what they were talking about.

Two Indiana University scholars report that, for male viewers, “emphasis on the sexual attractiveness of female news anchors distracts from memory formation for news content.” They found that “men’s cognitive mechanisms favored visual over verbal processing,” which is a delicate way of saying their focus — and subsequent memory — are more on the broadcaster’s appearance than on the material she was delivering.

Writing in the journal Communication Research, researchers Maria Elizabeth Grabe and Lelia Samson describe the clever experiment that led them to this conclusion. They created two versions of their own short newscast, both of which featured the same 24-year-old female anchor.

For the first version, the broadcast journalist “was dressed in a tight-fitting dark blue jacket and skirt that accented her waist-to-hip ratio,” they write. “She also wore bright red lipstick and a necklace.” For the alternate version, she was dressed in “a shapeless and loose-fitting dark blue jacket and skirt,” and wore no lipstick or necklace.

“The anchorwoman was framed in a medium-long shot to reveal her upper body, including her upper thighs, waist and hips,” the researchers note. “The news stories were about local matters, including United Way fundraising, interest rate changes for federal loan programs” and the like.

The just under 400 participants were randomly assigned to watch one version or the other. All then filled out questionnaires summarizing their impressions of the reporter. They were also asked four multiple-choice questions about her physical appearance, and 10 multiple-choice questions about the content of the five stories she presented.

The researchers found the men recalled “significantly more information watching the unsexualized anchor deliver news than her sexualized version.” For women, the opposite was true, but the effect was far less pronounced.

Looking at the data a different way, when the anchor had a desexualized appearance, men retained more of the information she presented than women. But when she was dolled up, the men’s retention level dropped to the point where the two genders retained the same amount of content.

The study provides evidence for a basic theory of evolutionary psychology: When it comes to processing information, visual tends to trump verbal.

It also confirms something women have long suspected: A sexually charged image can flood the male brain, stimulating its visual processing component “to levels that demand close to full cognitive capacity.”

This problem did not turn up in women in this study — but then again, they weren’t responding to newscasts featuring muscular male models. While the results of that scenario are speculative, this paper offers one more reason why Fox News viewers are so ill-informed on so many issues. I mean, have you seen those photos of Megyn Kelly?

 

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Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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