Media is a powerful, mostly positive tool, but it can also propagate bias. See how bias plays out in the media coverage of the war in Ukraine.
So much has changed in the past few decades, including our norms for how we speak about social groups. When university professors in the 1980s asked students and administrators to consider dropping the so-called “generic he” if referring to both male and female students and professors, they were met with resistance. “Of course we mean everybody when we use ‘man’ or ‘he,’” they groused.
Mahzarin remembers an article in her college newspaper criticizing her classroom policy that points would be taken off for use of the “generic he.” But her argument was simple: it is inaccurate to use the pronoun of one group to stand in for another group. She argued that college is a time to learn to write accurately using clear prose. Today, we look back and smile at the resistance towards dropping the “generic he”; for many English speakers, its usage has since evaporated.
As this example shows, language is rich and constantly evolving. Today’s language may reveal tomorrow’s bias, often through specific choices of words used to describe situations involving different social groups. Language illuminates bias by reflecting the thoughts and feelings in the mind of the speaker. For example, do we pick certain words when describing the conversation of a group whose language we don’t understand, like the term “noise” instead of the more neutral “sound”? Language then propagates these habits of thought, as it is shared and because sharing or communication is its primary function.
In 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. We got our news from on-the-ground reporters, and some of us noticed bias hiding in their words. A particular reporter, one who was clearly emotionally moved by what he was seeing, said that he was shocked that the people dying in Ukraine were “blue-eyed and blond-haired.” Another commented, “This isn’t Iraq or Afghanistan…This is a relatively civilized, relatively European city.” We understand that the pain of war can cause even reporters to be distressed; but in thinking about progress, we would also insist that heartache cannot interfere with fair-minded, unbiased reporting.
Each of us have made plenty of similar mistakes that reveal our biases through our words. The challenge for all of us, then, is to practice neutrality – to stive to be impartial judges. Yes, it is hard to control how words come out of our mouths, especially when we are stricken with grief or under stress. But those are exactly the moments in which we must test ourselves to see if our behavior is in line with our values. And for that reason to call out possible bias when we hear it, even in our own speech. Why? Beyond our own desire for fairness, there’s a practical reason: in the words of the Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association, biased comments like these can “perpetuate prejudicial responses to political and humanitarian crises.”
So what should we do?
Identify biased speech. Raise awareness wherever you see it. Be kind, because it could very well be you who makes that mistake next! Turn these revelations into moments of teaching and learning. An awareness of bias in language can ultimately lead us all to practice better ways of speaking and hearing. For instance, when the reporter spoke of the tragedy that had befallen “blue-eyed and blond-haired” people, the newscaster at the desk who was communicating with the reporter on the ground could have followed up with, “And surely we would grieve in the same way for anybody – irrespective of the color of their hair or eyes?” This simple response immediately challenges the idea that a European war is a greater tragedy than others. It brings the bias not only into the awareness of the speaker, but into the awareness of thousands, even millions, of viewers.
Because no good journalist wishes to communicate that “all people are worthy, but some people are more worthy than others,” a constant alertness to the language used by media and the values it so powerfully propagates is necessary. Given the vast influence of media or the words of leaders, we must stand ready to analyze and correct biases in language when we see them.
Published April 25, 2022
This article was written by Caitlyn Finton and Mahzarin Banaji.
Artwork by Evan Younger.
Support for Outsmarting Implicit Bias comes from Harvard University, PwC, P&G, and Johnson & Johnson.