A Face for Radio, a Voice for Print

The title of this post is intentionally blunt. Frankly, it’s cruel. But these types of digs — you’re not attractive enough to be on television; your voice isn’t good enough to be on radio — are all too common in journalism.

Over the next year (or more), I’m setting out to write a book (with the above title) on how occupational stereotyping in a variety of settings can inhibit efforts to diversify newsrooms and other media organizations. Occupational stereotyping, also known as role entrapment, leads groups in power to define the roles that others can fulfill, and leads aspiring media professionals to be tracked into positions often perceived as undesirable.

The book will primarily focus on how journalists should look and sound, and what personal attributes they should possess. To this end, I will examine the literature on aesthetic labor, defined as the observable attributes and dispositions of those entering – or seeking to enter – the workforce. The shorthand “looking good and sounding right” is often used to describe aesthetic qualities that employers consider when recruiting and assessing job applicants.

Occupational stereotyping and role entrapment can take place in many forms and settings. Journalism and mass communication educators may suggest that an attractive, confident, well-spoken student pursue on-air broadcast positions while a student with none of those qualities pursue a behind-the-scenes role. Job advertisements — or subsequent job interviews — may send a clear signal that only outgoing, charismatic applicants should apply. Employers may track new hires into occupational roles based on employees’ aesthetic qualities and notions of what viewers or listeners expect. Media audiences may have expectations of how media professionals should look and sound. This book explores all of these types of occupational stereotyping in all of these settings. It also explores the consequences: self-stigma among media professionals and a workforce that is less diverse (in terms of race, gender, disability status, etc.) than it should be.

A fair amount of attention has been paid to how people in media careers are expected to look. Less attention has been given to what “sounding right” means in media fields, including the verbal skills and attributes needed to communicate within an organization and to the broader public.

This book is an extension of research I have already conducted on expectations of fluent verbal communication in journalism jobs:

  • Powers, E. (2021). Seeking ‘skilled, poised, fluent’ verbal communicators: Aesthetic labor and signaling in journalism job advertisements. Newspaper Research Journal (Accepted for publication).

Using signaling theory, this study explores the expectations advertisements convey for how journalists should sound by conducting a thematic analysis of U.S. journalism job listings (n = 510) for positions requiring substantial verbal communication. Results suggest that requirements for exceptional verbal skills and explicit calls for vocal clarity raise barriers to occupational entry for journalists with speech disabilities or speech anxiety.  

Powers, E. (2020). The journalist’s speech: A phenomenological study of stuttering in the newsroom. Journalism Studies, 21(9), 1243-1260.

This study takes a phenomenological approach with semi-structured interviews with current and former journalists (n = 19) about their experiences as people who stutter (PWS). It examines professional socialization and role performances, and whether public and self-stigma adversely affect careers of PWS. Interviews with participants with varied job titles, career trajectories, and stuttering severity revealed a common experience: Journalism’s emphasis on verbal communication and expectations of speech fluency is challenging for PWS. Stuttering did not dissuade most participants from pursuing and sustaining a news media career, but it commonly limited career options and led colleagues to question their competency before they had proven themselves professionally. Implications for newsroom hiring and support of PWS are discussed.

Powers, E., & Haller, B. (2017). Journalism and mass communication textbook representations of verbal media skills: Implications for students with speech disabilities. Journal of Media Literacy Education, 9(2), 58-75.

This study examines representation of disabilities by conducting a qualitative content analysis of how journalism/mass communication textbooks (n=41) frame the ideal standards of verbal communication for media professionals. These texts, which are integral to students’ understanding of professional norms and may influence career decisions, often address best practices in broadcast voicing, and projecting confidence in interviews and press conferences. What are the explicit and implicit messages for students with speech disabilities such as stuttering? We argue that such framing by textbook authors, who are primarily media educators, is a critical media literacy issue because it addresses media diversity and access.