Women, I Need Your Help: Is It Ethical to Watch CNN?

Dear Women,

I need your help. I need to know if it is ethical for me to get my daily news from national media news outlets like CNN and Fox News when they use images that openly objectify and degrade women to sell their content.

Please allow me quickly to contextualize my predicament. For a living, I study visual communication (like pictures and graphic designs and websites) and I teach related courses to college students. I have a penchant (or perhaps obsession) for analyzing how people are affected emotionally by what they see. I annoy my wife by complaining about poor shampoo bottle designs and I get all nerdy about reading books on punctuation (the visual side of writing) and watching entire documentaries on the typeface Helvetica. And I am constantly scrutinizing images used in advertising and on company websites.

I am also a father of three young girls.

With that little backstory, I hope you can shed some light on what’s been bothering me recently: national news media using female bodies to “sell” us information. I need to know how (if at all) the images affect you.

As a college professor, it’s important that I keep up with the news for my professional work and it is important for me to encourage my students to do the same. As a citizen, I believe it’s important for me to stay aware of the news so that I can make informed judgments and contribute healthily to society. As a father, I want stay abreast of the world so that I can help my girls navigate the socio-cultural challenges they’ll face. And I want to teach my girls to read and watch the news in order to be informed and productive citizens.

But I’m starting to wonder if I can ethically continue to frequent news media sites like CNN without knowing first how you feel about the sexually explicit images and headlines they use to persuade people to read their content. Clearly, no matter how much I look at, analyze, and research the way images make people feel, I can’t ever see it from your perspective.

In my profession, we are frequently reminded (trained, advised, warned) to avoid anything close to gender prejudices and sexual harassment of any kind; shoot, we’re even told not to use gender-specific terminology, like “you guys” for fear we may make some students feel marginalized.  In such a sensitive environment, it would, obviously, seem absurd for me to require students to visit sexually explicit websites for class projects.

But as our country’s traditional news media fosters more and more sexually explicit material in order to boost ratings, I have to question whether I should support news organizations by giving them traffic.

If a parent of a student came to me and asked me what kind of websites I encouraged my students to visit, what do you think their reaction would be if my response went something like this: “Well, I let students choose the content they want to read, but the site I sent them to today had a video of supermodel Rebecca Romijn topless and groping other women’s breasts”?

As ridiculous as that sounds, that exact video is what I came across on CNN’s homepage. The video wasn’t an advertisement by another company; it was a humor piece produced directly on CNN’s site (as was the “humorous” video about Eva Mendes’ sex tape) .

The more I see content like that, the more I have to wonder how that makes you, women, feel when you see it in places that taut being “the must trusted name in news” (and not just in some trashy gossip magazine). It’s important for me to know, as a citizen, as a college professor, and as a father of three girls if it is worth boycotting news outlets that actively promote such content and headlines or if you think it is acceptable to prostitute women’s bodies in order attract readers and generate revenue.

But please allow me to be more specific.

How does it make you feel when you see these images, all coming from CNN’s or Fox News’ homepages?

News Headlines Images

How does it make you feel when you read that the news headlines on these major networks are “Suzanne Somers is having Lots of Sex” or “Mad Men Gal Strips for Maxim” or “Brad Pitt’s Inimate Photos of Angelina Jolie”?

Or what reactions do you internalize when you see a headline on a major news outlet that reads, “30 Ugly Celebrities without Makeup [all women]” or “10 Female Celebs that Look Like Muppets”?

These are all real headlines, directly linked from major news outlets.

How do you feel to know that Business Insider, an online business magazine cited frequently by the New York Times, advertises its most popular articles as “Here’s What Female Porn Starts Get Paid for Different Types of Scenes” and “12 Former Porn Stars Who Now Lead Boring, Normal Lives” (and, of course, there are images to coincide the headlines)?

As is the case with most human beings, when I visit a website, I am always drawn to the images first (research has proven, of course, that images grab attention better than text and images are easier to remember). Images have obviously been a dominating communication tool in advertising because they are they are aesthetically engaging (text is boring), easy to quickly understand (a picture’s worth a thousand words), and they’re persuasive (cameras never lie).

But when the images become so explicit on the pages I visit to simply get my news, I have to wonder: am I doing myself (and women) a disservice by going to news websites that almost force me to see and remember content I would otherwise never engage in viewing?

Perhaps even more challenging for me, I’m not sure how to explain to students and to my girls why I would encourage them to read content peppered with so much smut.

Of course, it’s possible that I’m just a prude, that I should “get with the times,” and that I should just soak it all in as a pleasurable method to get people to read.

But I don’t feel good about accepting it as a normal part of my daughters’, my students’, and my own daily news without your input first.

6 thoughts on “Women, I Need Your Help: Is It Ethical to Watch CNN?

  • October 18, 2013 at 3:43 pm

    Ugh… I understand. CNN tends to be a little better, but it still sells the same degrading message. It’s also difficult to send a message to these organizations by simply not viewing them.

    You might be interested to know that there is a non-profit in Salt Lake that works to combat this kind of stuff, Beauty Redefined. Check this article out: http://www.beautyredefined.net/how-men-help-fight-our-body-image-battles/

    Also, I’ve almost completely switched over to foreign news sites like BBC or Le Monde. There isn’t any hypersexualized content.

  • October 18, 2013 at 3:46 pm

    Awesome post! Thank you for thinking so critically about this subject. It’s one I think about constantly as well. We actually posted about Fox News’ horrible objectification of women on our Facebook fan page and got a huge response. People around the world are disgusted by this, so you’re very much not alone. We tell the fans of our nonprofit to turn away from anything that hurts them, leads to states of self-objectification, or reflects truths they don’t believe about themselves or others. That is so difficult to do when we’re talking about EVERY news outlet in the US! If you can’t avoid, the best thing you can do is speak out about it. It is likely these news outlets will never change and only get more objectifying and degrading, because they’ll do whatever it takes to drive hits to their site pages. But we can work within our own circles of influence to help people recognize and then reject these harmful ideals that come to appear so normal. That’s what Beauty Redefined is all about. So I’d say do what you can to avoid these sites – there are other, more reputable outlets to get your news. And when you can’t always avoid them, do your part by continuing to speak out about what you see. I’ll be sharing this post. Thank you so much for your articulate words!

  • October 20, 2013 at 4:56 am

    Three letters: NPR

  • October 8, 2015 at 3:57 pm

    Sarah Gervais, a psychologist at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, researched this phenomenon and found that “Women are more likely to be picked apart by the brain and seen as parts rather than a whole. Men, on the other hand, are processed as a whole rather than the sum of their parts.” She also discovered that both men and women are guilty of doing it. Her study concluded that “the media is probably a prime suspect.”

    Carl’s Jr. recently ran ads that shamelessly used women’s bodies to sell their hamburgers. Their purpose, they stated, was to encourage the patronage of young men and felt that the displaying of bikini-clad women was the way to do it.

    I find the degradation and objectification of women disgusting and disrespectful. Women are more than just a set of body parts. Women should not be used as “props, sex objects, or platforms to sell products.”

    Objectification can lead to body shaming which, of course, has a very negative effect on girl’s and women’s self-esteem. Also, some believe that objectification and dehumanization of women can lead to violence against women. I am so tired of women’s value being attributed to and summed up by her body parts. I believe that the objectification of women is an insult to our humanity.

  • October 8, 2015 at 4:54 pm

    Thank you for your thoughtful consideration of this issue. I would urge you to watch the film Miss Representation, which covers these issues in great depth.

    I cannot ABIDE seeing these sexualized images (ALWAYS OF WOMEN!) on news sites or tabloid sites (where they predominate) or anywhere else, frankly. I have boycotted Hardee’s for years because of their ads which Allison mentioned above.

    I find it despicable, and an attempt not only to sensationalize in the hopes of gaining a wider audience, but of trying to keep women in our place. Brilliant women are all over the news as anchors on stations around the country, but unlike men, they have to be both smart AND beautiful. Find me one woman on the news who is less than conventionally attractive and I’ll find you fifty men in half the time.

    It’s time – it’s PAST time – for us all to stand up and demand more from our news sources. To demand actual news, frankly, rather than punditry, verbal op-eds, hypersexualized sensationalism, and interpretation. Don’t interpret the news for me – let ME do the interpreting. Don’t pretend that a woman’s breasts are newsworthy. Don’t tell me what to think. Present me NEWS, dammit, and let ME figure out what to do with it!

    PHEW. I think that’s been fermenting in my head for a while.

  • January 17, 2016 at 6:24 am

    I find it disgusting that women are so objectified. It’s repulsive. I prefer NPR, as a previous poster mentioned.

    In addition to objectifying women, most news outlets engage in fear-mongering to drive traffic, which further erodes our society and trust in each other. All to chase the almighty dollar.

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