Do people watch politics for the pretty people?

In the category, “Questionable Studies From Professors,” Israeli researchers have concluded that more physically attractive members of Congress get more coverage on network television.

The New York Times says:


Two Israeli professors concluded that members whom a student survey judged to be better looking appeared more frequently on television — but not radio or in newspapers. The researchers argued that the networks were trying to attract larger audiences.

It gets even more unbelievable…


Not surprisingly, Professor Waismel-Manor and Professor Tsfati found that other factors, too, influenced coverage. Senators and representatives who hailed from larger states, were male, were black or espoused more extreme ideologies also tended to be featured more frequently. The effect of attractiveness on news coverage, the study found, was greater than the effect of tenure in office, or bill sponsorship. Frequency of news releases had no discernible effect on news media appearances. The study also examined coverage on NPR and in USA Today, and it found no correlation between the so-called attractiveness effect and coverage in those outlets.

Are we watching the same networks?

Here’s who I see most of the time, these days:

Senator-John-McCain_244x183.jpg

Here’s who the study says I saw most of the time:

marsha_blackburn2.jpg

That’s Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who most people may not recognize because she’s actually almost never on TV news shows.

Why the disconnect?

This explanation of the methodology provides a clue:


To avoid skewing the results, they eliminated, among others, members in top leadership posts and presidential candidates.

Top leadership posts? Here’s a person who doesn’t have a top leadership post, who nonetheless has had much more airtime than Rep. Blackburn.

barney_frank_pretty.jpg

Check the Sunday TV news shows sometime and see if it’s not the same group of leadership members of Congress week after week after week. Why? Because most members of Congress are there for show, and a small number actually influence anything and those are the people news organizations want to talk to.

How does the rest of Congress get some crumbs of attention? Here’s a little inside story:

Back in the early ’80s, I worked for a network news operation in New York. It was radio, but the situation is roughly the same. My job was to get interviews with people for upcoming newscasts. Over the years I was there, listeners heard a disproportionate amount of Sen. David Durenberger of Minnesota (a state, by the way, with which I had no particular affinity or knowledge).

Why did he get on the radio so much? He answered his own phone, especially on nights and weekends..

  • This is NOT lucy

    What pretty people?

  • Alison

    Are you trying to say those guys aren’t hotties?

    ; )

    Maybe being in radio you need a different angle. MPR should do more interviews with politiicians who sound like Barry White, especially during member drives.

  • Ghanna Rheaah

    “MPR should do more interviews with politiicians who sound like Barry White, especially during member drives.”

    Funny and Odd you should say so Alison. Just last night I received a phone call-the caller ID ssaid MN public Radio-where I was introduced to a Dustin Serene. I am guessing on that spelling of the last name. He pleasantly asked me to donate some money to MPR where I couldn’t do so but that didn’t keep him from asking again for a smaller amount. I applaud the determination of your telemarketers at good ole’ mPR.

  • The Big Dog

    The biggest thing I take from all this is that Bob has a little crush on Rep. Blackburn. How long did you look through photos of members of Congress before you found one that was palatable?

  • Bob Collins

    // . How long did you look through photos of members of Congress before you found one that was palatable?

    Not long at all, actually, because she was #1 on the study.

    I would have liked to have seen the entire list, which, presumably, would’ve revealed the ugliest members of Congress, but the full study is behind a paywall.

  • John P II

    Oh c’mon you’re comparing a statistical correlation to your own personal experience. The study said that Blackburn was judged most attractive (in 2007), not that she appears the most currently. I didn’t pay to view the actual study so I don’t know what period of time was studied, but McCain’s current popularity is obviously due to his being the previous GOP presidential candidate (which, of course, means he is also physically attractive. Just being bald is a dis qualifier today, right?)

    I don’t think it should be surprising that TV journalism favors attractive sources when the journalists themselves and their surroundings are so highly stylized.

  • Bob Collins

    Actually, what the study does — and what you’re doing — is accepting the conclusion because you already believed it and then backfilled it with the evidence.

    If the study says the most attractive appear the most often — as judged by a group of Israeli college kids, which is whole ‘nother story — then it should also follow that the Rep. Blackburn appears among the most often since that’s entirely the methodology of the study.

    This is the usual “it must be true because I believe it” mentality that lacks science but is generally accepted because, well, it must be true.

    There is much more science to the more factual conclusion that the representative/senator most likely to get the attention of news organizations is the representative/senator who has a legitimate reason to be interviewed (or that they are mostly likely to say something pathetically stupid).

    And you don’t have to throw out as much data as possible “so as not to skew the results.”

    Take this for example:

    “The effect of attractiveness on news coverage, the study found, was greater than the effect of tenure in office, or bill sponsorship. ”

    What’s the problem with the conclusion — the suggestion that tenure in office or bill sponsorship SHOULD be the primary (or even secondary) factor. Well, the study already eliminated the leadership from the study and that reflects tenure in office — and to a degree bill sponsorship since stories almost never focus on a bill that someone sponsored.

    The study also makes no mention — at least as far as I can tell — about the SUBJECT matter of the story as it relates to the person interviewed. If the “pretty” rep from a border state isn’t interviewed on, say, immigration. Who should be? The ugly senator from Idaho? (Disclaimer: I couldn’t tell you who the ugly senator from Idaho is).

    I’ve been in this business for 37 years in markets in big and small and I know many of the TV people who make these decisions — including a friend who books guests for one of the morning shows — and I’ve never heard any reference to a candidate’s physical attractiveness as a justification for having/him or her on . Not once.

    Not that actual data matters, of course.

    But you get on the air because you matter. And you don’t get on the air if you don’t.

    (BTW, the period studied was 2007. It was in the story)

  • Jim Shapiro

    Bob – Re “the ugliest members of Congress”:

    To paraphrase the late, great Frank Zappa,

    “What’s the ugliest part of their bodies? Some say their nose, some say their toes, but I think it’s their mind.”

  • John P II

    I think you’re assuming because the list was created in 2007 that the period studied was also 2007. I didn’t do that. I also suspect tenure and bill sponsorship were just relevant factors that could be easily measured and compared to the attractiveness ranking. The article does quote the researchers as saying news coverage of members of Congress should be based on “the quality of their work and and the originality of their ideas.” Sounds good to me.

    If you see flaws in the methodology of the study, how do you account for the completely different results for NPR and USA Today versus whatever TV outlets they surveyed?

    Also, in my humble experience, the usual “it must be true because I believe it” mentality you accuse me of is often characterized by citing years of experience and “knowing people.”

  • Bonnie

    I’m frankly a little shocked by Rep. Blackburn’s photo. I would not have chosen that blouse and that bra for a professional photo!!! What message is she sending?

  • bob collins

    Perhaps, but not until the pointing out of the nearly non-existence science in the methodology. And we haven’t even talked yet about (a) the notion of a very small group of israeli students who get to define a subjective concept of attractive and (b) the lack of any indication that the goofs commenting in the story had actually seen the data.

    It’s a ridiculous conclusion based on the data provided.

  • bob collins

    Oh, there was one other major criteria for selecting interviewees that wasn’t factored into the study — the ability to string two sentences togetherand make pointed lucidly and quickly –after very important in TV.

  • mike

    it said on average. hence, your McCain examples and the others do not work. there are 535 members last time I looked. In statistics McCain is a fluke. look at the 400 or more you know nothing about.

    So, on average your comments are quite smart. This one is rather ignorant. Does this make you an ignorant? Your call.

  • Bob Collins

    I’m not following you, Mike. Are you saying that John McCain does not appear on national TV more than, say, Erik Paulsen? Or are you saying that all of the other reps combined appear on TV more than McCain?

    There’s another aspect of this that nobody’s talking about. There has to be a comparison with “not attractive” representatives. What is the breakdown of attractive to non-attractive, by the Israeli students’ standards. It may well be that there are substantially more in the “attractive” pool. And it may well be that people cast their votes, based on “attractiveness” too.