Is your newsroom talking about bias?

Eight questions to ask your colleagues

Jennifer Dargan
Dec 2, 2017 · 4 min read
photo: Marc Wathieu (CC-BY-NC-2.0)

My biases are deep in me. I have been working for over a decade to uncover and unlearn them.

In the 1980s, my hometown in central Wisconsin was very white, much like it still is today. I watched a lot of television. “The Jeffersons” were cool. And I loved Tootie’s roller skates on “The Facts of Life.” But every crime drama’s bad guy was a man of color. Through the repeated narratives about brown and black men being terrorists, muggers, and rapists I learned to fear men of color. (And that’s just one of my biases that I’m unlearning.)

Meanwhile, I was taught in school that all races are equal. In 1992 the band, En Vogue, taught me to “be colorblind, don’t be so shallow.” But there was a disconnect between my conscious beliefs and my unconscious biases. I professed to be a good white person, but I didn’t have a clue what I didn’t know. (By the way, I’ve since learned that colorblindness is an awful approach, but I still love En Vogue.)

The things that seep into our unconscious establish deep roots and are not easily uprooted with a fact or a lesson. As much as we’d like to have that be the case, it takes work.

I’ll wager that most journalists reading this will agree that we do better work when we confront our bias. But here’s the thing, most of us believe that we are less biased than others. If we continue to think that this work is for others to do and not focus on ourselves, we’ll get nowhere.

In my work at Wisconsin Public Radio, we have recently begun being intentional about addressing our biases. The approach includes the option of participating with colleagues in a nine-month long learning community*. In this community we work together to try to better understand how we all contribute to systems of power and privilege. It provides the time and space to learn about diversity, inclusivity, equity, and accessibility, which is important if you are trying to change your newsroom culture.

Today as a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow, I’m investigating how to best encourage journalists to examine their unconscious bias because I’ve seen impressive results when they do. They are able to produce more thoughtful, more inclusive, more accurate work. They are also able to be better colleagues and more skillfully address situations involving bias.

Let me pose some questions for discussion in your newsroom.

  1. Is there a culture of acknowledging that journalists (like all humans) have bias?
  2. Do your colleagues let you know when your biases are apparent to them?
  3. Do conversations about bias happen with the goal to learn, without shaming?
  4. Do you talk about how a reporter’s lived experiences and social identities impact their reporting?
  5. Have you practiced having conversations about bias that may be uncomfortable?
  6. Do you overcome a culture of politeness to address bias and inappropriateness?
  7. Does your newsroom leadership model how best to learn from their mistakes?
  8. Do you want to work on improving things but aren’t sure how to start?

Many newsrooms are working to become more intentional and more inclusive about their hiring and sourcing. This is great. Having more colleagues and sources who are people of color, women, working class, LGBTQ and other marginalized groups is a crucial step, but will ultimately fail if your newsroom is historically lacking diversity and unwilling to examine the newsroom culture around bias.

As the brilliant Vernā Myers tells us in her TEDx talk, to overcome your biases you need “to walk boldly toward them.”

Examination of unconscious bias is critical for good journalism. This includes a newsroom culture where colleagues are encouraged to speak honestly and bravely about bias when it comes up.

Unlearning bias is an ongoing process. It cannot be addressed in a two-hour training session and then checked off the list, “I’ve addressed my bias.” However, a session (like the implicit bias training JSK alumni Tonya Mosley and Jenée Desmond-Harris offer) is a great jumping-off point for further conversation and work. If the conversation starts when the stakes are low, such as in a training, it can be easier to bring up issues when the stakes are higher.

Throughout this year, I’ll be seeking collaboration and inspiration to help newsrooms confront their culture around bias. After you discuss the questions above in a newsroom meeting, let me know how it goes. Feel free to reach out to me in the comments below or via email.

  • With deep gratitude to Dr. Seema Kapani and her colleagues at “Learning Communities for Institutional Change and Excellence” for this model.

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