Even in politics, good looks open a lot of doors. A study conducted by the University of Haifa found that the amount of television coverage a member of congress gets is directly proportional to how attractive he or she is perceived to be.
The study, which was published in the journal Political Communication, concluded that the reason for the “beauty bias” in this case is that television reporters believe their viewers would rather see good-looking people on their screens. According to the authors, a congressperson’s level of attractiveness “ranked third for gaining television coverage…higher than seniority, position in Congress and legislative activity in this respect.”
Shortly after the first politicians began appearing on film in newsreels, some analysts have suspected that attractive politicians are favored by those who pick and choose who to put on the screen. In order to test this theory, Israel Waismel-Manor and Yariv Tsfati had students look at pictures and rate the attractiveness of official photographs of members of Congress from a non-election year. Participants were deliberately chosen from a pool of candidates who had no stake in American politics. In fact, Israeli students were used for this project due to their relative objectivity regarding the political affiliations of Congresspersons, as well as their lack of familiarity with the work of the individuals they were rating.
To prevent the results of the ranking from being influenced by international media coverage, more prominent members of Congress, such as the Speaker of the House, were excluded from the attractiveness ranking. Members were ranked on a scale of one to 10, with 10 representing most attractive and one representing least attractive. The researchers controlled for other factors that would affect each member’s chances of appearing on television news, such as seniority, age, size, gender and race.
For the purposes of this study, “media coverage” was defined as a news item that appeared in 2007 that featured a voice recording or quotation from Congressperson. Television, radio and newspaper coverage by major national news outlets was included in the study.
The investigators found that a politician’s level of physical attractiveness had no impact on how much radio or newspaper coverage he or she received. However, the higher the individual was ranked on the attractiveness scale, the more television coverage that individual had. In fact, the only factors that netted a Congress member more television coverage were the member’s congressional activity and the size of the member’s state. For every point a politician got on the attractiveness scale, his or her television coverage increased by 11.6 percent.
Earlier researchers had speculated upon the reasons behind television’s bias towards attractive politicians. Previous research had pointed to three possibilities. One popular theory is that reporters believe watchers prefer to look at attractive people. Other speculations include that attractive people appear more reliable and eloquent to reporters or that good-looking politicians are more self-confident and thus more likely to seek the television limelight. Waismel-Manor and Tsfati believe they have uncovered the answer to this question, as well.
According to the investigators, attention-seeking behavior on the part of Congress members had no significant impact on the amount of television coverage they receive, ruling out the third possibility. The second possibility was also eliminated. “Had attractive people received more coverage because they were more trustworthy or eloquent…they should have received more news coverage on the radio and in the newspaper as well…the fact that the association between physical attractiveness and news coverage was significant only for television news, and not for radio and print, favors the first explanation mentioned above, that television journalists cover better-looking Congresspersons in order to attract the attention of audiences.”