Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Beauty and Body Image in the Media

Images of female bodies are everywhere. Women—and their body parts—sell everything from food to cars. Popular film and television actresses are becoming younger, taller and thinner. Some have even been known to faint on the set from lack of food. Women’s magazines are full of articles urging that if they can just lose those last twenty pounds, they’ll have it all—the perfect marriage, loving children, great sex, and a rewarding career.

Why are standards of beauty being imposed on women, the majority of whom are naturally larger and more mature than any of the models? The roots, some analysts say, are economic. By presenting an ideal difficult to achieve and maintain, the cosmetic and diet product industries are assured of growth and profits. And it’s no accident that youth is increasingly promoted, along with thinness, as an essential criterion of beauty. If not all women need to lose weight, for sure they’re all aging, says the Quebec Action Network for Women’s Health in its 2001 report Changements sociaux en faveur de la diversité des images corporelles. And, according to the industry, age is a disaster that needs to be dealt with.

The stakes are huge. On the one hand, women who are insecure about their bodies are more likely to buy beauty products, new clothes, and diet aids. It is estimated that the diet industry alone is worth $100 billion (U.S.) a year. On the other hand, research indicates that exposure to images of thin, young, air-brushed female bodies is linked to depression, loss of self-esteem and the development of unhealthy eating habits in women and girls.

The American research group Anorexia Nervosa & Related Eating Disorders, Inc. says that one out of every four college-aged women uses unhealthy methods of weight control—including fasting, skipping meals, excessive exercise, laxative abuse, and self-induced vomiting. And the Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute warns that weight control measures are being taken by girls as young as nine. American statistics are similar. In 2003, Teen magazine reported that 35 per cent of girls 6 to 12 years old have been on at least one diet, and that 50 to 70 per cent of normal weight girls believe they are overweight.

Media activist Jean Kilbourne concludes that, "Women are sold to the diet industry by the magazines we read and the television programs we watch, almost all of which make us feel anxious about our weight."

Unattainable Beauty

Perhaps most disturbing is the fact that media images of female beauty are unattainable for all but a very small number of women. Researchers generating a computer model of a woman with Barbie-doll proportions, for example, found that her back would be too weak to support the weight of her upper body, and her body would be too narrow to contain more than half a liver and a few centimeters of bowel. A real woman built that way would suffer from chronic diarrhea and eventually die from malnutrition.

Still, the number of real life women and girls who seek a similarly underweight body is epidemic, and they can suffer equally devastating health consequences.

The Culture of Thinness

Researchers report that women’s magazines have ten and one-half times more ads and articles promoting weight loss than men’s magazines do, and over three-quarters of the covers of women’s magazines include at least one message about how to change a woman’s bodily appearance—by diet, exercise or cosmetic surgery.

Television and movies reinforce the importance of a thin body as a measure of a woman’s worth. Canadian researcher Gregory Fouts reports that over three-quarters of the female characters in TV situation comedies are underweight, and only one in twenty are above average in size. Heavier actresses tend to receive negative comments from male characters about their bodies ("How about wearing a sack?"), and 80 per cent of these negative comments are followed by canned audience laughter.

There have been efforts in the magazine industry to buck the trend. For several years the Quebec magazine Coup de Pouce has consistently included full-sized women in their fashion pages and Châtelaine has pledged not to touch up photos and not to include models less than 25 years of age.

However, advertising rules the marketplace and in advertising thin is "in." Twenty years ago, the average model weighed 8 per cent less than the average woman—but today’s models weigh 23 per cent less. Advertisers believe that thin models sell products. When the Australian magazine New Woman recently included a picture of a heavy-set model on its cover, it received a truckload of letters from grateful readers praising the move. But its advertisers complained and the magazine returned to featuring bone-thin models. Advertising Age International concluded that the incident "made clear the influence wielded by advertisers who remain convinced that only thin models spur the sales of beauty products."

Self-Improvement or Self-Destruction?

The barrage of messages about thinness, dieting and beauty tells "ordinary" women that they are always in need of adjustment—and that the female body is an object to be perfected.

Jean Kilbourne argues that the overwhelming presence of media images of painfully thin women means that real women’s bodies have become invisible in the mass media. The real tragedy, Kilbourne concludes, is that many women internalize these stereotypes, and judge themselves by the beauty industry's standards. Women learn to compare themselves to other women, and to compete with them for male attention. This focus on beauty and desirability "effectively destroys any awareness and action that might help to change that climate."

News in the Age of Money

By Diana B. Henriques

Financial Writer at the New York Times


In 1980, I was working in New Jersey as an investigative reporter at The Trenton Times, trying to unravel the local angles of the FBI's wacky "Abscam" sting, in which members of Congress were secretly filmed accepting bribes from undercover agents posing as aides to an Arab sheik. By the end of 1982, I was a business reporter, covering the Latin American debt crisis for The Philadelphia Inquirer. The media monitor Dean Rotbart estimates there were only a few thousand business journalists in 1980. When his newsletter, TJFR Business News Reporter, first counted noses in 1988, there were about 4,200 of us in the top fifty newspaper markets and at national business publications in the United States.

Trained on political news beats, we were utterly unprepared to cover the economic legacy of the 1970s. Before we had memorized all the members of OPEC, the next "war" was upon us -- Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker's campaign to curb inflation. This demanded something new: a vocabulary capable of explaining the deadly mismatch between the borrowing and lending rates at banks and savings and loans (S&L's), a grasp of the relationship between risk and reward, and at least a rudimentary idea of who regulated banks, S&L's, money market funds, and insurance annuities. It was not our finest hour, to say the least.

The bright side of this frantic, learn-on-the-fly journey has been that each working day brought a new opportunity to stretch and grow. A less satisfying consequence of our odyssey is that we have been constantly climbing the steep slope of the learning curve. Our early ignorance made skepticism and independent analysis difficult. And too often, before we could get around to producing the lucid, profoundly informed pieces that are the joy of the learning curve's summit, we were once again in unfamiliar territory.

Technology, most of all, is rocking the boat from which we are trying to cover it. No longer mere journalists, some of us are now "multi-media content providers." In 1980, searching the archives meant leafing through fat envelopes of fragile clippings; today, everybody's old stories are a double-click away. Back then, the only way I could file a story from outside the newsroom was to dictate it over a public telephone to some rewrite person. Today, I dictate my stories to the voice-recognition software installed on my laptop computer and file them by e-mail, checking in on my cellular phone later to see if the copy desk has questions.

On good days, I believe that this remarkable twenty-year boom in business news has produced a financial press corps of unparalleled depth and breadth, and that today's technology is simply empowering us to do more, better, faster. But if today's best and brightest are far more savvy about the modern machinery of business journalism, they seem far more naïve about its age-old temptations. Those covering the "new economy" for the "new media" seem especially mystified about why it's such a big deal if they invest directly in industries they cover, or accept cheap insider stock in some industry pal's IPO (initial public offering), or do consulting work on the side for technology companies.

Janelle Brown, writing thoughtfully in Salon in mid-1999, suggested that we need fresh ethical rules "flexible enough to anticipate new issues that will surely arise in this fast-paced industry, where the lives of journalists are increasingly entwined with the people whom they write about and companies that they cover. Or must all technology journalists simply accept that by joining the writer corps they are taking an oath to disavow the temptations of technology riches?"

Well, yes. At least those riches that raise questions about the independence and credibility of their reporting. A technology journalist can avoid unseemly conflicts simply by investing only in broad-based mutual funds. (Of course, those funds may own some technology stocks, silly. But somebody besides you will be deciding which stocks to own and for how long. And yes, those who work for Internet news organizations have a personal stake in the sector whether they own shares or not ­ but it's fully disclosed on your business card, for heaven's sake.)

These are not, after all, "new economy" issues. Selling out has been a temptation for journalists since the Republic was a pup. The Congressional investigation of the 1929 stock market crash turned up evidence that market manipulators had paid New York newspaper reporters to tout stocks on demand. Ronald Steel noted, in his magnificent biography of Walter Lippmann, that the legendary pre-war journalist Arthur Krock, while at the New York World Telegram, actually moonlighted as a public relations adviser to the Wall Street firm of Dillon, Read. Maintaining an undisclosed personal stake in any arena that you are supposed to be covering independently and objectively -- whether it's a political movement, a Broadway play, or an Internet stock -- violates pre-Cambrian concepts of journalistic ethics. And in every generation, there have been sincere but misguided journalists who believed that, in their case, it was different.

One of them was, like me, an émigré from local journalism in Trenton. In 1981, he went to work at the Dow Jones News Service and in July 1982, he was hired by The Wall Street Journal to help write the paper's influential "Heard on the Street" column.

His name was R. Foster Winans.

Like today's young technology journalists, Winans found that his life soon became "entwined" with the rich, clever people he covered. He, too, was disgruntled over the stinginess of journalism paychecks. He, likewise, was certain he could invest on the side without "letting my investment alter my judgment at work in any way." Soon after he arrived at the Journal, Winans secretly bought 400 shares in a small, illiquid company, American Surgery Centers, and then wrote positively about the company in his column.

"I knew what I was doing was technically unethical for a journalist," he wrote in his memoir, Trading Secrets: Seduction and Scandal at The Wall Street Journal, published by St. Martin's Press in 1986. But he somehow reasoned that "the ethical question was purely one of appearances .... If no one ever found out, no one would perceive a potential conflict and, therefore, I would not have done anything unethical. It was slightly circular reasoning but it got me past the big hurdle."

Soon, Winans had agreed to tip a broker in advance about stocks that would be mentioned in his "Heard on the Street" columns, in exchange for a share of the profits. He made about $30,000 on the deal, more than he made in a year at the Journal. The outraged Journal reported on March 29, 1984, that regulators were investigating the scheme. In June 1985, Winans was convicted of various federal mail and wire fraud charges; he was later sentenced to eighteen months in jail. In 1987 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld his conviction.

Although Winans insisted to the end that he had not violated any laws, he knew what he had done to his fellow journalists. He had "confirmed the suspicions of many investors about stock market writers -- that they take personal advantage of the information they gather. Realizing this hit me pretty hard."

Looking back after 16 years, I still feel that the Winans affair put all the fearsome temptations of modern business journalism into razor-sharp relief for me. How could anyone mistake these for fuzzy-edged issues? But Matt Welch, a trenchant young media critic for the Online Journalism Review, told me recently that he is convinced that Winans's sins, if committed today, would not provoke one-tenth the media outrage expressed in 1984. When a Silicon Valley gossip columnist accepted cheap pre-IPO shares from a local technology mogul, he noted, many supposedly sensible professionals wondered aloud whether she had done anything wrong. "Journalists see all these people getting rich -- including other journalists, back when online content was worth something," Welch says. "And a lot have really lost their bearings."

I can only hope that he is wrong. If he isn't, no matter how rich today's young journalists become in this great business-news bazaar, journalism itself will be poorer beyond measure.

But let's assume, under the influence of some persuasive Chardonnay, that most of us will attain the rocky promontory of intelligent skepticism and dig in there for the duration, regularly producing lucid, hard-headed business coverage. And let's further predict -- yes, please, just another splash of that wine -- that most of us will do so with our honor and reputations intact. We would still just be talking about what kind of people we are. And ultimately, this boom in business journalism is not really about us. Rather, it is about our relationship with those we're trying to reach -- whether we call them readers, viewers, or (heaven help us!) "eyeballs."

Most new business writers back in 1980 instinctively and perhaps wrong-headedly approached local business news from the perspective of the workers involved -- after all, we were workers ourselves, with a healthy mistrust of what passed for management in the newspaper business. As the 1980s rocketed along, our "readers" became "consumers." As the 1990s unfolded, those "consumers" morphed into "investors." And today, some of us are speaking only to investors who also own computer modems.

A sad thing has happened along the way: as our intended audience has gotten narrower, so have we. Business news today rarely sounds the sonorous chords or heart-lifting themes of great journalism. Most of it simply buzzes and squeaks, a reedy clarinet against a rhythm section of cash registers and ticker tape. The men and women who scrambled to explain the economic turmoil of the 1970s -- the gas lines and the shuttered factories and the apparent erosion of American competence -- were not writing for consumers or investors. They were writing for citizens, for people who cared deeply about how this nation turned out. They assumed an audience whose concerns stretched far beyond the performance of their 401(k) and the leasing arrangements on their Jeep Grand Cherokee.

I don't know about you, but I'd rather be writing for those people again. I suspect that nothing we achieve in terms of competence and integrity as business journalists in the years to come will matter very much, unless we do.

Defining the Land of the Fourth Estate

By Nicholas Johnson
Visiting Professor of Law, University of Iowa College of Law

"Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech or of the press. . . . "

(Amendment 1, Bill of Rights, U.S. Constitution, 1791)

These words enshrine freedom of the press in the U.S. Constitution, the document that forms the structure of government and undergirds U.S. law.

In constructing the framework for U.S. government, the Constitution establishes a balance of power between the legislature, the judiciary, and the executive (the president and the administration). Each branch is imbued with separate and distinct powers that establish a system of checks and balances. The Founding Fathers painstakingly designed this governmental architecture to create a system in which the distribution of power among the branches would contribute to stability.

By the early years of the republic when this system of checks and balances was devised, a daring journalistic community had already become established. A bold and scrappy press was an influential force in denouncing the rule of an English king and leading Colonial America into its revolution against the British empire. With journalistic freedom protected in the 1791 Bill of Rights, the press became an assertive force during the first decades of nationhood. The U.S. media today is frequently known as the Fourth Estate, an appellation that suggests the press shares equal stature with the three branches of government created by the Constitution.

The Law

The presumption against regulation of the press in U.S. law can be described in a few paragraphs, but volumes have been written about the sometimes bruising and bitter struggles waged to protect press freedoms and contain the excesses of irresponsible journalism. Through it all, the independent judiciary has been an essential partner in protecting freedom of the press.

Several critical court cases have been landmarks in establishing the rights of the press to pursue information and to publish government documents or derogatory information about public figures. For instance, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the newspapers, rather than the government, in permitting the publication of what came to be known as the Pentagon Papers. Newspapers printed these confidential Vietnam War documents, unofficially obtained, over the government's objections.

The U.S. Supreme Court also has held that the media should have some First Amendment protection from the laws of libel -- lest fear of lawsuits and possible monetary damages might disincline media owners from fully reporting on public matters. In order for a public figure to win a defamation case against a media defendant, the plaintiff must show "actual malice," which the courts have defined as knowledge that the published statement was false or as "reckless disregard of whether it was false or not."

The genuine independence of U.S. federal judges is a key factor in the evolution of the legal protections enjoyed by the media. Federal judges are appointed by the president and approved by the Senate. Once in office, they remain for life, deliberately sheltered from outside pressure exerted by political interests or by executive or legislative branch officials. Judges' salaries cannot be reduced and it is virtually impossible to remove them.

Beyond these constitutionally-based principles, few, if any, laws or regulations govern the practice of journalism. The U.S. government does not license journalists or control supplies of newsprint and printers' ink. Journalists are, however, subject to the same laws generally applicable to all citizens. Newspapers, broadcast stations, and journalists must pay sales and income taxes like other businesses and citizens. Journalists are held accountable to laws regarding property trespass and highway safety just like any other citizens, no matter what their zeal to pursue a story.

The Market

Economics plays a major role in shaping the information served up to the U.S. public in newspapers, on radio and television, and now on the Internet. The media are profit-driven enterprises. While nonprofit and advocacy organizations have significant voices in the U.S. media, most of the public's primary sources of information -- major urban newspapers, the weekly news magazines, and the broadcast and cable networks -- are in business to make money.

The protections of the First Amendment are extended not directly to journalists who do the newsgathering, but to the owners of the media outlets through which this information is disseminated. Media owners may choose to give enormous freedom to their editors and reporters. They may consider it good business -- and good journalism -- to do so. But that is a matter of choice, not law. A newspaper's journalists have no more legally enforceable rights to have their stories printed than readers have rights to have their letters printed -- or, for that matter, to buy space in the newspaper to promote a point of view the owner wishes to censor.

The First Amendment right to speak, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled, includes the media owner's right to censor everyone else's speech in his or her medium. This is true even if it is the only newspaper, radio station, or TV station in town. The net effect is that the only citizens who have an absolutely unrestricted First Amendment right to disseminate their views in the press are those few who own media outlets.

Media companies are restrained from disseminating reports that reflect solely their own biases and agendas, however, by U.S. news consumers, who are capable of judging balance and accuracy in reporting among the array of journalistic products available in the information marketplace. These media-savvy citizens are quick to point out the biases and errors that appear in papers or in broadcast reports. So media owners who attempt to skew news coverage to reflect their own biases risk losing the audience, and if the audience is lost, so is the revenue from advertisers who want to reach that audience.

Newspapers, and some broadcasting networks, used to pride themselves on the "wall" between the advertising and news departments. Some critics charge that wall has been crumbling. In part this is the result of the merger of increasing numbers and varieties of media into fewer and fewer corporate hands. Detractors of this corporate consolidation fear that a network news division will no longer be accepted as a financial loss that compensates for its cost with the prestige it provides. Today, corporate boards of directors may view news as just one more "profit center," with a contributory impact on the "bottom line" and the stock price.

Balancing the cost of high quality journalism against corporate profits is one of the significant challenges in U.S. journalism today. When businesses threaten to sue over critical investigative journalism pieces or to cancel advertising, an editor or news director must decide whether to use a provocative story, even it if risks the loss of revenue or the loss of his or her own job. Thus self-censorship resulting from this dilemma, and others, may be the most prevalent form of censorship influencing the content of U.S. media today.

The Airwaves

Print and broadcast media share the same journalistic freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. For the privilege of using the public airwaves, however, broadcasters are subject to government regulations not imposed on their print colleagues. The Radio Act of 1927, the first law governing the broadcast medium, reflects the physical limitations of the broadcast band. Not everyone who wants to broadcast can do so because signals would interfere with one another and no service could be provided to the audience.

When national policies were being formed in the 1920s and 1930s, the United States, unlike most countries, did not choose to have stations owned and operated by a government agency or government-funded public corporation. Instead, it chose a hybrid system for the new medium. A station's equipment would be privately owned, but its right to broadcast would be regulated by government and limited by license.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), established in 1934, is the U.S. regulatory agency responsible for issuing broadcast licenses and for monitoring whether licensees serve "in the public convenience, interest, and necessity." In the early years, winning the privilege to hold that license required the station owner to limit the quantity of advertising and to carry a range of programming -- including a large dose of news and public affairs. But aside from that, there was little, if any, interference in the content.

For the past 30 years, there has been a movement toward deregulation of broadcast media. Today the FCC imposes essentially no meaningful programming standards regarding quality or quantity. The agency has lifted earlier regulations that limited the number of stations that one owner could control in any one city, and individual corporations, which have largely replaced individual humans as the licensees, may hold licenses to hundreds of radio and television stations.

Critics allege that fewer licensees results in less diversity in broadcast programming. As corporations buy up chains of radio stations, for instance, they tend to homogenize their sound, offering less programming targeted to local audiences.

The Watchdogs

Given the central role of independent journalism in a democratic society and the absence of a constant regulator, citizens, interest groups, and journalistic associations have launched independent, nongovernmental efforts to monitor and report on media quality. None of them, of course, has any meaningful enforcement power, but they are effective in re-enforcing the principles of fairness, truth, and accuracy in reporting.

Moreover, many publications have found it useful to create the position of ombudsman -- a semi-independent employee to whom readers can go with their complaints about the publication and the quality of its news coverage. The ombudsman may report on those complaints and how they were resolved in the pages of the publication.

Few institutions are more important to a democratic society than a free and independent media. Such freedom requires the public, elected officials, and civic organizations to support truth, fairness, and balance in reporting and to insist that media outlets honor the principles that empower them.

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