CAMP 2017: Journalists work toward an awareness of bias

Story by Chandra Bozelko, 2017 JAWS Fellow

After leading a plenary session, “Slow Thinking: Self-Audits and Superior Sources: A Toolbox for Counteracting Bias,” New York Times op-ed editor Jenée Desmond-Harris and KQED host Tonya Mosley led an Implicit Bias Training Debrief for approximately 25 attendees of Journalism and Women Symposium’s Conference and Mentoring Project (CAMP) in Hot Springs, Ark.

Desmond-Harris and Mosley built on themes established in their earlier session — namely who we trust and how we identify ourselves — and turned the debrief into an open discussion in which journalists described their own experiences with recognizing bias in their own workplaces and themselves.

Sarah Garrecht Gassen, Editorial Page Editor for the Arizona Daily Star and a vocal proponent of the representation of persons with disabilities in journalism, said she had been consulted on other reporters’ word and descriptor choices. Another JAWS member reported to the group that her newsroom once formed a task force on how to deal with language.

Betsy Wade, the first woman copyeditor at The New York Times and one of the women who convinced the editor of the Times to start using the title Ms, rather than Miss or Mrs., commented how she was required to call a black man “colored gentleman” in print.

“It was supposed to be hyper-polite. Instead, it was mortifying,” Wade said.

As they discussed their own experiences, the group made several suggestions on how to recognize bias in their colleagues’ and their own work. The suggestions were:

  • Ask “Where am I in the story?” to orient yourself to any possible biases you might not have noticed before.
  • Follow people on Twitter who are living in the experience you’re covering. Desmond-Harris said she has learned how better to cover transgender people and understand their daily lives by following their feeds.
  • Use your bias to your advantage. Recognizing our biases “can help us get to the truth,” said Mosley.
  • Ask sources and story subjects how they identify and how they want to be described in the article. Mosley described a story where she described a 68-year-old woman as elderly. The woman didn’t use the same definition of elderly as Mosley and objected to the use of the word.
  • Question yourself and ask others: “How can I be wrong on this?” Review your reporting with trusted colleagues and acquaintances who may be living the experience you’re writing about and can challenge your point of view. Asking people directly is usually better than throwing a question out on social media where, according to Desmond-Harris, people of “different levels of maturity and decency” may contribute input which is less than valuable.
  • Create a culture in newsrooms and workplaces that enables everyone to get out ahead of issues of implicit bias in reporting, rather than reacting to claims of bias in a punishing or accusatory way.
  • Exchange the language of “is” for “identifies as.”
  • Correct the quotes of sources whose spoken English is not that of a native speaker. “It’s an implicit class judgment to quote people exactly. We will correct them every time,” said Desmond-Harris.

“We’re all biased in some way,” Mosley said, noting that the work of monitoring oneself for bias is never finished. “It’s a constant evolution.”