“Unbiased” and “objective.” Two words used for a century to describe good journalism – but used today to criticize and disparage journalists.
And rightfully so. The goal of “unbiased” and “objective” journalism is simply impossible to achieve and our critics waste no time telling us.
We cannot and will never clear the high bar of “unbiased,” so why do we continue to suggest we are striving for it? Some (me for instance) might even suggest that striving for “unbiased” makes for less accurate journalism.
Bear with me here. Our job as journalists is not to pretend we have no bias — of course we do — our job as journalists is to acknowledge the biases we hold and work to mitigate them as best as we can.
Bias is not something we can avoid. Bias is in all of us. It is implicit in our selves and affects us unconsciously. It guides how we see people, how we react to events around us and the judgments we make about how and why people do things. Bias, when allowed to remain unconscious, damages our ability to report fairly and accurately.
The bias we carry with us is based upon our upbringing — the beliefs our parents instilled in us, the region where we grew up, the culture in which we were raised, the religion (or lack of) that we practiced, our race and ethnicity and all of the other factors that make each of us the unique individuals we are.
Bias improves our journalism because it gives us a unique perspective on the world as we see it. Bias teaches us compassion and empathy toward those in our “in-group” and it instills skepticism about the truth as we uniquely see it.
But this is where we run into trouble. Bias can also direct us, often unconsciously, to make inaccurate, often harmful assumptions about those we know little about — our “out-group.” And too often, we fail to recognize the bias we carry.
Our implicit, unconscious bias leads us to stereotypes and subjective assumptions about who people are, how they act, what motivates them and how we should be interacting. That’s bad enough on an individual basis, but when negative stereotypes appear in our journalism, we don't just harm an individual, we paint a negative picture of an entire race/religion/generation and we give credibility and credence to that negative bias.
Acknowledging we are all biased is only the first step in improving the inclusive journalism we all want to practice; we then must know not only how to mitigate it, but how to embrace the differences in perspective that others carry.
None of this is meant to sound easy. It’s not. We as individuals will never fully know what it is like to be someone else. But accurate, fair, inclusive journalism requires we fully reflect the diverse needs, interests and perspectives of those different from us. We have done this poorly in the past.
Overrepresenting African Americans as poverty-stricken criminals or Latinos as illegal, job stealing immigrants or Muslims as terrorists has given credibility to the racism and discrimination experienced by those groups and has damaged the relationship journalists have with individuals who identify with those groups.
Research study after research study over the course of the last 30 years clearly show that people of color do not trust the news media to accurately portray their race. Worse, recent research suggests that some people of color see this issue as conspiratorial — “how can this keep happening for so long if it is not a news media conspiracy to keep people of color disenfranchised.”
We can and must, do better. It may not be natural to overcome our own unconscious bias, but neuroscience tells us it is possible. This is where compassion and empathy play a role. We must learn how to recognize bias when it creeps into our minds and we must learn to be more curious, to care about how others see themselves and the world differently from us.
You can overcome your own implicit unconscious bias using empathy, critical thinking skills and taking a moment to reflect upon what you think and believe to be true.
When we try to understand what it might be like to be different, we take the first steps toward more accurately reflecting the amazing diversity of thought, ideas, perspectives, lifestyles, needs and wants of all people.
And that is great journalism.