“Suits were very expensive,” O’Donnell said. “You can get a really nice dress for $300. I actually find it a lot easier as a working mom.”
Researchers wonder how the new look of news is affecting viewers. Maria Elizabeth Grabe, a telecommunications professor at Indiana University Bloomington, co-authored a study on the impact of sexualization on news viewership. She found that the more “sexualized” a female anchor is, (i.e. bold makeup and clingy clothes), the less likely male viewers are to remember the news. For her 2011 study, a 24-year-old anchor read the same news broadcast twice, once in androgynous, loose-fitting clothing and little makeup and again while wearing bold makeup and attire that accentuated her waist-to-hip ratio. Viewers found the sexualized anchor less credible, but women remembered more from the sexualized anchor’s broadcast, indicating a gender gap in how viewers remember news content.
“The old wisdom of femininity not getting in the way of the news has been thrown out,” Grabe said. “I think the news consultancy business is driving the changes. . . . With cable news networks taking off, it’s all about eyeballs and getting an audience.”
Still, when in doubt, in court or in the presence of breaking news, sleeveless dresses are left hanging in the closet. Candy Crowley and Martha Raddatz both wore traditional black suit jackets for their turns moderating presidential and vice presidential debates. Mitchell wore a militaristic crimson blazer when announcing the resignation of David Petraeus as CIA director. And while the Supreme Court does not require women in the press section to wear suit jackets, they often do, perhaps to show solidarity with their male colleagues, who are required to wear suit and tie when in the chamber covering oral arguments.
A changing age of news
Although some anchors, including Brzezinski and O’Donnell, prefer dresses to suits, the new wardrobe poses questions for television’s 20-something newcomers. Will sunny dresses and four-inch heels make them seem unprofessional?
Kayla Tausche, 26, a reporter for CNBC, is a relatively young face on the business network. Covering corporate finance and mergers, she balances dressing for television with looking appropriate for source meetings on Wall Street.
“If you’re esteemed, you can wear a bright-colored dress. But for younger anchors like myself, I worry that wearing bright colors might appear amateur,” Tausche said. She often wears the same sheath dresses that her colleagues wear but prefers muted colors and tweeds. Young newswomen also tend to make the mistake of dressing older than their years, a faux pas sometimes encouraged by journalism schools.
“In [journalism] classes, some of the clips professors are using to demonstrate a successful reel include interviews with Diane Sawyer from early ’90s,” Tausche said. “You’re supposed to focus on content, but students can’t help but wonder, ‘What was Diane Sawyer wearing? How can I recreate that?’ ”
Journalism schools now have the difficult task of advising women on an appearance standard in flux. Kent Collins, chairman of the television department at the Missouri School of Journalism, trains young anchors to work for the NBC affiliate in Columbia, Mo., as part of the teaching lab at the journalism school. He says female students are asking more questions about their on-screen wardrobes and appearance.
“TV stations across the country want different appearances,” Collins said. “So how do we take someone and get them ready with a video résuméthat stands up in the broad range of conservative to liberal appearance styles throughout markets?” While short skirts and cleavage may work for a reporter in Los Angeles, markets in the heartland could find a sexy meteorologist off-putting.
Collins says the changes make instructors nervous, especially because faculty at broadcast schools have differing opinions on how students should dress for entry-level reporting positions.
“It was easier for us to advise them when it was shorter hair, no jewelry and blazers,” Collins said. “It’s becoming much more complicated. There’s been a lot of talk amongst the women, particularly on the issue of sleeveless. We’re still trying to figure out what’s acceptable.”