By Penny Wiegert, Editor of The Observer
Back in the ’70s and ’80s when print was still king, you could easily recognize the tribe from the fourth estate.
They were the men who wore wrinkled shirts, sometimes used as jackets over a graying T-shirt with a frayed collar, paired with wrinkled pants hanging too long over scuffed shoes tied with strings needing to be replaced.
Their hair was unkept and they usually sported a day or two’s growth of a beard.
Cameras hung heavy on their shoulders while their pockets bulged with pens, notes on napkins, withered business cards, worn and ragged notebooks canisters of film and crumpled receipts smeared by yesterday’s lunch.
And they were the women who wore untucked blouses and bulky sweaters long from the weight of the over-filled pockets of all of the above.
The women too, donned wrinkled jeans usually grabbed off the floor when the police scanner sounded and whose denim was often inscribed with phone numbers they had written in haste.
Their faces lacked makeup and their hair hung long like the earrings they never changed, but they were always armed with pony-tail holders and glasses they used as headbands in an overstuffed bag that contained everything from apples to the AP stylebook.
Many times these men and women wore the perfume of strong coffee and nicotine. And if you looked close, you could find out the special at the local diner by the reading the tell-tale stains on the pockets holding their Marlboros.
These were reporters, tried and true.
Then came the Ronald Reagan era, whose administration required suits and ties, nice dresses and proper pearls be worn by White House journalists. Business attire was back. Well, at least for a while.
And it isn’t just in the U.S. where leaders have noticed or complained about journalists’ attire. Egypt’s head of the Supreme Media Council, Makram Mohamed Ahmed, voiced his “displeasure” over journalists covering events and formal interviews in jeans, noting that reporters should follow the appropriate decorum for the profession.
“It is unacceptable for a reporter to interview a government official or a CEO of a big company dressed in jeans, and ripped jeans in particular. Journalists should rededicate themselves to the core principles of dress conduct that are essential in maintaining order and deliberacy of their profession,” Mahram told Egypt Independent.
Now the Millennial generation is driving the fashion police car. They are all about making casual Friday a five-day thing to make work fun and comfortable so as to enjoy their lattes and not feel constricted when they upload a video or Snapchat a story.
Look at the leaders of Facebook and Apple. They made casual cool again.
Journalists just have to do their jobs right? How you are dressed shouldn’t determine your talent.
Reality check please.
I work in what you call a “niche” publication. Religion is our beat. And we deal with dress codes on two sides.
First, we work for God and believe we are called to be our best selves at all times. We do a lot of work in churches, at special events and worship services. People dress up. To be trusted and taken seriously, we dress up, too.
Appropriate dress is an important credential no matter where you work. Attention to hygiene and grooming is another plus.
Yes, Jesus had a beard and wore sandals while traveling the desert but it is documented that he not only washed his feet but others’ feet, as well, so it is only natural that we value good personal habits.
Second, if you are a secular journalist and you come to cover religious events or people, remember church people don’t appreciate distraction. They like to share a story and have reporters cover things they think are important, but if the person snapping photos looks like he or she should be at the beach instead of the altar, don’t expect to get personal interviews or a position close to the action.
Our home office, the Vatican, has always had a pretty strict but clear dress code for workers and visitors. No shorts, no sleeveless shirts, no flip-flops and no caps. They have relaxed a little bit and have allowed females to wear pants, but they must be long. The dress code is in place for respect and reverence.
There is plenty of research into uniforms and dress codes done by people paid way more than me. But from what I have read and experienced these last 30 plus years, dressing up instead of down does two important things.
It commands respect for you as a professional and returns respect to your subjects and employer. Dressing for success isn’t a tagline. It should be part of your journalistic ethics and skill set.
When I studied at the American Press Institute our most important lesson was to “know your community.” Not a day goes by when I don’t think of that phrase. And it is relevant for dress codes as well.
Dress to your community. If you cover business, be businesslike. If you cover the courts, or church, dress with respect.
And if you cover agriculture or the county fair, find an old journalist and borrow their jeans, wrinkled shirt and that oversized bag.
Your audience, your readers, your community and your editor will no doubt appreciate your attention to detail.
- Penny Wiegert is the editor of The Observer Catholic Newspaper and Director of Communication and Publications for the Diocese of Rockford.