What is unconscious bias and how to tackle it

 

We all have a tendency to place people into - sometimes already pre-existing - categories and unconscious biases are preferences for certain people or groups within these categories. They are formed through our personal experiences, socialisation, and the way people are portrayed to us through the media, for example. 

While they are unconscious and unintended (and we all have them), they can still get in the way both in our daily lives and when it comes to representation in our newsrooms and the reporting that is done as a result.

Why is it important that unconscious biases are addressed?

The journalism industry has a severe diversity issue

In its 2023 ‘Diversity in Journalism’ report, the NCTJ highlighted that 88% of journalists come from white ethnic groups and that only around 14% of journalists and reporters were from other ethnic groups. However, when it comes to higher up positions, only 6% of editors were from a non-white background. So, while there already are few non-white journalists overall, these numbers – according to the NCTJ – ‘suggest that there are some issues with diversity in more senior levels of journalism.’

Some key findings of Ofcom's 2022 diversity report showed similar figures to the NCTJ’s when it comes to minority ethnic groups in broadcasting – 15% of those in TV and radio overall were from such backgrounds, but only 11% of all senior managers were. The report also found an under-representation of people from working class backgrounds far higher than in other sectors of the UK labour market, that disabled people continue to be ‘significantly underrepresented’ – making up only 9% of the workforce - and that minority representation across most characteristics remains poor at senior levels (disabled people, for example, make up only 8% of senior managers).

Why does this matter?

Newsrooms serve a whole population but a lack of diversity can – and has – lead to issues important to underrepresented groups being misrepresented, misconstrued, or missed entirely. Such events have led to parts of the public to disengage with news and have in parts contributed towards a trust issue in traditional media. According to Reuters, only 53% of UK people questioned in 2022 said they trust information from the news media. Having a diverse newsroom, that not only has a diversity of voices but also an environment in which they can speak up and are promoted, could help combat these challenges.

Underrepresentation in newsrooms and the findings by Ofcom and the NCTJ are not just explained by unconscious bias entirely. There could be so many reasons such as explicit discrimination, entrenched stereotypes, pay gaps, and more. But it could play a factor and, therefore, should be acknowledged and challenged.

These are some steps that you can take to burst your bubble:

Challenging and tackling unconscious biases

Be aware your biases

A good place to start is taking the Implicit Association Test, developed by scientists at Harvard, which asks a variety of questions related to a series of images to reveal any preference or bias towards certain groups.

Consider different perspectives and the positives these can bring

One good first step is to not take your experiences or world view for granted. People with invisible or visible disabilities, for example, may face challenges you are not aware of if that is not something you have lived with. So keep an open mind, and try to consider different perspectives. 

Harvard professor and researcher Mahzarin R. Banaji, who has focused on ‘unconscious mental systems’ and how they unfold in social context, previously said in a piece for The Harvard Gazette: “Recognizing the truth — that every disability may come with a unique way to know the world that could create innovation, a different way to solve problems.

“When we see somebody in a wheelchair, [let] the first association that pops into our heads be, ‘Wow, I wonder what they know that I don’t know. I wonder what they can teach me that I could never know.’”

Burst your bubble

Often biases are influenced by the fact we have little knowledge other than our own perceptions. This can be overcome by immersing yourself outside of what you know and ‘bursting your bubble.’ While this might seem hard, studies on racial bias, for example, have shown even small actions such as reading a book or watching a movie by an author/producer different to yourself can help shift implicit perceptions towards other groups. When it comes to reporting, reading work by other journalists from other backgrounds can help you to potentially see viewpoints on topics you haven’t considered before. Maybe start online and follow people with different views or experiences on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Focus on the individual and ask questions:

When it comes to daily interactions with people in your workplace or outside, another step is to think of ways you can get to know them as an individual. Research between racial groups has shown that when participants were asked to consider unique things about the other person - such as their taste or preferences - unconscious bias was eroded. When you are speaking to someone, ask questions about their life - what are their hobbies outside of work, what do they enjoy, what do they not like. By getting to know them as an individual, you’ll be building rapport and leave less space for unconscious bias to develop.

More important to asking questions, is that you listen to what people tell you - especially if they are speaking of barriers and challenges they might face. Take their viewpoints in and let them help you shape your perspective.

Keep at it! (It is hard - but it does get easier)

It is hard to change the way you think - especially when perceptions are unconscious - and, at times, you may feel uncomfortable about the process.

However, in a piece for BBC Worklife, Katerina Bezrukova, who researches management and organisational behaviour at the University at Buffalo, discusses how feeling like this is necessary for successfully overcoming biases. She said: “Human nature is to take the easy way. It works only when you’re the most uncomfortable.”

So, making changes to our behaviour and challenging perspectives is hard, but it does get easier. One thing to remember is that you’re not alone in feeling these things and you have the power to change them. Secondly, the more you open yourself up to these changes, the more perspective you will get while helping others. It is a win-win situation.

Share your experiences

Talk to others about what you learned - your colleagues, your friends, other journalists. If you see someone sharing views that seem like they are based on them potentially holding an unconscious bias, engage in conversation on what you have learned. Again - everybody holds unconscious biases. By sharing what changes you have gone through, you’ll not only feel less alone (and maybe pick up tips from others), you’ll also help more people become aware of what unconscious bias is and how they too can change.

 

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