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Power to the People: Hair Texture and Gender Matter to TV News Audiences

If you're a female working on air in television news with naturally wavy, curly or kinky hair, most likely you wear it straightened or you wear a wig that mimics straight hair. Why? Because that's what television news bosses think viewers want to see.
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If you're a female working on air in television news with naturally wavy, curly or kinky hair, most likely you wear it straightened or you wear a wig that mimics straight hair. Why? Because that's what television news bosses think viewers want to see.

I really never thought about wearing my hair natural when I worked as a television news reporter from 1985-1993 because I wanted to keep my job. Instinctively, I knew natural hair was a no-no.

Recent attention to black women's hair again raises questions of what is considered "a professional look." Meteorologist Rhonda Lee, formerly of KTSB-TV in Shreveport, La., was fired after she responded to a Facebook post criticizing her short Afro hairstyle.

The male viewer reportedly wrote: "the black lady that does the news is a very nice lady. The only thing is she needs to wear a wig or grow some more hair. I'm not sure if she is a cancer patient. But still it's not something myself that i think looks good on tv. What about letting someone a male have waist long hair do the news. what about that?"[sic]

Lee's response was polite and included a healthy dose of self-worth: "I am very proud of my African-American ancestry which includes my hair."

Although her station appeared not to have a problem with her hair, it did have a problem with her speaking up for herself. The station fired Lee citing a policy that prohibits employees from responding to social media posts.

The National Association of Black Journalists issued a statement saying Lee's former employer missed an opportunity to defend her and noted that when Wisconsin news anchor Jennifer Livingston was ridiculed by a viewer for being overweight, her station allowed her to respond in an on-air editorial.

To be sure, stations have the right to develop their own social media policy for employees. On-camera journalists usually sign a contract saying they can be fired at will. But the public also has the right to criticize station actions. Lee defended herself without asking for permission. She didn't ask for agency. She took it.

No matter what the hair texture, on-camera female journalists are scrutinized much more than men. I remember a male colleague once told me my outfit did not look flattering on the air. I don't think he criticized any of our male colleagues' clothing.

There is a politics about black women's hair that cannot be denied and it is particularly salient in television news. When New York television news reporter Melba Tolliver came to work with a short Afro in 1971 planning to cover the wedding of Richard Nixon's daughter, panic broke out in the newsroom. Her bosses told to put on a wig. She refused. Editors deleted part of the story where she appeared on camera.

Award-winning, investigative television news reporter Renee Ferguson (now retired from television) lamented her trek into natural hair territory in 2007 when she wrote about her one-year sabbatical as a Nieman Fellow and the freedom she felt when she reverted to a natural hairstyle. She reminisced about being told to get rid of her Afro back in the 1970s because viewers called and said she looked too militant. After her fellowship she returned to the newsroom only to be faced with déjà vu -- still no short natural hair allowed, her African-American female boss told her.

There are some exceptions.

The recently retired and beloved Monica Kaufman wore her hair in many different styles and colors during her 37-year tenure at WSB-TV in Atlanta -- some of which included short natural styles. Evelyn Holmes of WLS-TV in Chicago sports a short-coifed natural and Melissa Harris Perry wears shoulder-length braids on MSNBC.

Let's face it. Television is a visual medium. Stations spend thousands of dollars on wardrobe, hair and make-up consultants to turn their on-air personnel into people viewers will find pleasing to the eye.

In the newsrooms where I worked viewers complained more about the color of the anchor's lipstick than about the content of the stories. And yes there still is a double standard for women who not only have to look attractive, but also increasingly need to look sexy by wearing skin-revealing, tight-fitting clothing.

Research I'm conducting on black women television news managers indicates straight hair is still the preferred style for those behind the scenes as well. Several have told me that they don't wear their hair in natural styles because they don't want all the questions that come with their choice and they believe they fit in better with straight hair.

I guess I was trying to fit in, too, when I straightened my hair and changed my outfits to please my employer. I accepted the hair and clothing unspoken rules as the uniform that came with the job. After twenty years of teaching broadcast journalism students, I still urge them not to wear anything distracting for on-camera work. To do otherwise would set them up for unemployment.

Yet, there is something irksome that in 2012 "smooth" hair remains the preferred standard of beauty in television news even as the U.S population becomes browner and more curly -- and kinky-haired. I realize what is distracting and off-putting to one person, may be appealing or neutral to someone else. Therein lies the dilemma.

Even if you agree with KTSB-TV's practice, Lee's dismissal raises concerns about the power of disgruntled viewers. As history shows, news managers pay close attention to audience comments, as they should. At one time, one letter of complaint or compliment was equivalent to at least 10 viewer opinions.

Clearly, there is power in the complaint letter or post. The Internet has created a way for viewers to criticize with anonymity. Words people write onto a computer screen, they would never voice over the phone or to someone's face.

Having worked in several newsrooms, I know it is rare to get positive feedback. It's time for a change. How about communicating what we like about our favorite on-air news talent instead of what we dislike? Let's use social media to affirm and encourage instead of antagonize and eviscerate. Perhaps then the Rhonda Lees of the newsroom will have documented viewer support and won't have to defend themselves in the first place.

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