ABC's "Person of the Week": American Values in Television News

Article excerpt

This study analyzed five years of "ABC World News Tonight's 'Person of the Week"' segments to identify prominent types of people and values endorsed by mainstream news media. Individuals most frequently selected for ABC's honor lived in the United States; worked in politics and entertainment; and were white, male, and famous. American values such as individualism, heroism, and unselfishness were more commonly portrayed than were populism, capitalism, and patriotism. Women who were chosen were less famous and more likely to be in social services and to have caretaker roles than were their male counterparts. Blacks were more likely than whites to come from humble backgrounds and to be the first in their fields and involved with social issues. Selflessness, especially when exhibited by women, was a frequently celebrated value.

In 1989 ABC World News Tonight instituted a weekly feature called the "Person of the Week." Since then almost every Friday the national evening news on ABC has closed its broadcast with a fairly long (for televised news) "mini-biography" of one individual or group deemed newsworthy. Despite the feature's permanence, length, and ample promotion through ABC advertising, no studies have examined its content. This article examines the ABC feature in terms of the people selected, the stories told, and the values promoted.

In many ways the "Person of the Week" feature exemplifies the values of television news. It focuses on people, it is easy to plan for and produce by air time, and it offers viewers something that the other network news shows do not. By definition the "Person of the Week" segment is personalized giving "preference to the individual actors and human interest angles."' Personalized news is encouraged by audiences, reporters, and the requisites of the news organization.2 It also stems from our cultural commitment and attraction to individualism.3

Not only does the "Person of the Week" feature satisfy the news' desire for a personal focus, but it makes sense for economic reasons as well - it is easy to produce and promote. The news organization needs routines to standardize the process of news gathering. Creating features that are not vulnerable or dependent upon late-breaking events makes the organization's job easier.4 ABC has time to plan and prepare the "Person of the Week" segment while promoting the feature as an innovation over the other networks. The feature gives the audience something predictable in its format (we know there will be a "special person" discussed on Friday's show) yet unpredictable in content (we wonder who that person will be).

Nevertheless, it is less interesting to understand why the "Person of the Week" feature exists than to understand how it is used. Because daily breaking stories allow less discretion, they are not as revealing as special features like the "Person of the Week" which require more choice on the part of editors. Although timely events might make some people "logical" choices for the feature, ABC alone controls the spotlight. Furthermore, the way the feature is constructed - revealing the name of the "Person of the Week" at the end of the segment in a manner implying an unveiling of a mystery-indicates that the feature's intention is not necessarily to promote well-known celebrities or people who have become nationally visible due to their involvement in topical events.

We believe that ABC's choices of individuals reveal the network's news priorities and definition of who and what is worthy of acclaim, thereby illustrating the values, stereotypes, and ideologies the network adheres to. By looking at the various Persons of the Week over a five-year period, we can see the picture drawn by a mainstream media news organization of what "we" are like when "we" are our best and what kind of stories a news medium tells about us.

Who Is the "Person of the Week"?

News conventions and audience appeal factors seem to guarantee that some types of people will be covered more than others. …