Study Shows White Male Experts Dominate News


Attorney Donna Demac teaches communications and law at New York University.

This article originally appeared in Issue# 48

Famous Nightline Study Counts Talking Heads on TV

If you want to see a clear example of the media's definition and reinforcement of power in U.S. society, just turn to the evening news and public-affairs programs. Despite minor stylistic differences, what stands out about network anchormen Jennings, Brokaw and Rather is their similar facial expressions, most noticeably the locked jaw that opens on command, followed by the closed jaw and glance downward to indicate a subject is closed.

Although other public-affairs programs feature guests instead of anchormen, they repeat this pattern. Invited experts are overwhelmingly white men, in established positions, who rarely deal with even the most impassioned public controversy in any other mode than that of the talking head. The message conveyed is one of politics as an elite society of locked jaws. Even the highly respected public affairs show Nightline conforms to this approach to public affairs, according to a now-famous study, Are You on the Nightline Guest List? released in 1988 by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR.).

In an exhaustive research job, the study reviewed Nightline transcripts for more than three years. It showed that of all guests, Henry Kissinger. Alexander Haig, Elliott Abrams and Jerry Falwell appeared most often. Public-interest advocates, labor and racial and ethnic leaders comprised only six percent of the total guest list. FAIR points out that, night after night, Nightline virtually ignores "popular social movements, minority communities and others who might challenge the status quo."

Needless to say, although Nightline was singled out for a comprehensive study, the problem is rampant in almost all television news. Exclusion of other groups from this closed fraternity of white, male experts results in a serious problem for a nation as diverse and problem-ridden as the United States. We desperately need to seek out and implement the expertise and ideas of women, minorities and people from all walks of life, including the poor. We also need to re-examine our centuries-old assumptions about the power structure as a white male club. Only then can we begin to give power – and do justice– to someone other than the same old talking heads.