Ask me to dinner, and I’ll ask you to decide. My favorite color? All of them, maybe blue. Favorite band? It depends.
I am indecisive at the end of the day because I am “choiced out.”
As a journalist, I am hyper-aware of my choices, knowing each one influences a story’s tone and trajectory. Who should I interview? What should I wear to meet them? How much space should I dedicate to each fact and source? In what order should I present those facts and sources? What language and descriptors should I use? What photos and colors should I choose to illustrate my words? How should we present the piece to readers?
All this, knowing that even before I get my hands on an assignment, choices have been made. Journalists must recognize our role in the larger mechanics of news organizations as gatekeepers that decide what, how and when stories are covered. Even more important can be an awareness of what is not covered, who is not quoted and what sources are not referenced. If we see an overlooked angle, story or source, it’s our responsibility to push for stories that provide truth in context — adding value to our world.
Now, want to decide where to eat? Me neither.
Examples? Sure. For a story about generational poverty, you head to an underprivileged neighborhood on a weekday. You made a choice, and that decision means you’ll likely run into retired people and folks out of work. That is fine (as those perspectives are important), but you should make an effort to gather narratives of those working three jobs.
Sure, rock those high heels and white skinny jeans, but you might not want to wear them to interview Paul the Pig Farmer. He is likely not going to relate with you, resulting in a less-than interview, and he probably won’t take you schlepping through pig pens, which would provide oink-tastic narrative context. Your clothes, hair color and piercings do not influence your abilities as a storyteller, but you must consider how your appearance comes across to sources. If you don’t adapt to the worlds you enter, then be prepared to work around potential obstacles. It’s your choice.
If you cover immigration, and you pick photos of gangs and boarder enforcement, those are choices that leave out the image of Easu Martinez, a clean-cut graduate student at Ball State, who plans to dedicate his life to helping displaced families cobble together lives in new nations.
But aren’t you supposed to be objective?
As I choice through my day, the crusty old editor inside my head shouts “be objective, be unbiased.” The result: a checklist of equal numbers of contrary sources, given the same amount of space, in stories that taste like stale white bread.
I have begun to turn down the volume on my internal press pundit to embrace a new approach: What if journalists acknowledge that bias is embedded in the people, culture, and language on which we report? What if we stop trying to stamp out bias, but rather seek to manage it as a way to provide a narrative texture that makes stories more understandable and relevant?
To make that shift, we must turn our pens and lenses inward. We must consider what experiences, relationships and views have shaped us into who we are, and then write them down, and then paste that list near our computers to remind us to “check ourselves” on the job.
I am exploring my own biases, and I plan to challenge my students to do the same. In J101: Media and Society, we study media literacy (the ability to access, analyze, evaluate and create media), and it seems the perfect forum to start this lifelong conversation with ourselves and each other.
I have a few ideas …
Log your media diet for one day
I already do this one. I ask students to (for one day) detail the media they consume and log which devices/platforms they are on and how often they are on them. Then, they reflect on the meaning of their choices and whether they see any need to adjust their media consumption to (as with food) strive for a well-balanced diet. You can have Oreo cookies (TMZ and BuzzFeed), but to be an active, engaged citizen, we need some fruits and vegetables (The New York Times, CNN). Some students take on the added challenge of going without social media for a day, and the takeaways deeply influence some students’ relationships with Facebook and the like.
Masking your identity
I will bring blank, white masks to class. On one side, I will ask students to draw images and/or write words that illustrate how they believe the world perceives them (and/or how they want to be perceived). On the inside of the mask, they will draw images or write words that reflect their private self. We will debrief this exercise in class, as a way of talking about how no one side of our mask truly represents us. By asking each student to engage in this exercise, my hope is they will be slower to stereotype others based on appearance.
Exploring values, challenging assumptions
Next class, I’ll ask them to list words or phrases of five values they hold dear, then rank them from 1-5, with one being the most valuable. I will invite them to share their lists and rankings in groups, focusing on their reasoning for selecting those values and rankings. During their discussions, I hope they come to understand that everyone holds and ranks values the same, yet they have equally compelling reasons for their lists and rankings. I hope the exercise expands students’ appreciation for what motivates and inspires others.
Being comfortable with being uncomfortable
Continuing to build on self-exploration, we will dive into how we look at the world, specifically the assumptions we have of other places, people and situations. I’ll ask them to create a list of words, phrases or categories of people, places or situations they do not understand (i.e. stay-at-home moms, farming, lesbians, female pastors, slang, Muslims, vegans, children, selling drugs, old people, racists, people with kids at Walmart at 10:30 p.m. on a school night).
I use the phrase “do not understand” because synonyms for “unconscious bias” are words like, bigot, ignorant and senseless. Since we are coming at this exercise from a place of curiosity, I want students to feel open to share their biases as we seek to manage those fears, misunderstandings and lack of awareness. I’ll invite students to share a few items on their lists to discuss why, for instance, someone might rarely wash their clothes or not shake your hand when introduced.
Then, I’ll introduce an assignment that will likely be met with groans. Before the end of the semester, I want them to have a meaningful interaction with three of the people, places or situations they listed. We will spend at least two classes talking through interview best practices and what constitutes a “meaningful” interaction. I will meet with each student to discuss their three items to ensure they feel comfortable and confident (and aren’t putting themselves in harm’s way).
Sound terrifying? Well, that’s the job
As a journalist, you regularly have to enter worlds you know little about and adapt enough so that you can build relationships or engage in experiences that lead to information and quotes you weave into a meaningful narrative. In public relations and marketing, you engage with various target audiences and flit from client to client, managing different industries and organizational cultures and expectations.
Students choose: A personal or industry approach
I’ll let students decide whether they want to approach the assignment on a personal level or as an industry experience. For instance, journalism students can approach the person, place or experience as if they’re writing a story or focus on a personal interaction. Public relations or advertising students can interact with their three people, places or situations as if they are doing research about target audience for a client of their choice, say Ball State (and they could speak with the person about his/her decision to come to Ball State, campus involvement, stressors and any obstacles and opportunities to improve campus culture).
We will pair these assignments with a review of articles and public relations case studies that do a good and a poor job of managing bias to provide narrative context that enriches story. Based on these experiences, we will practice writing articles or creating brand messages that consider our own biases and give context to those assumptions.
By the end of the semester, I hope each student is “choiced out” because it means they are making choices through each stage of the writing process — from idea formation, to sources, to clothing, to when they go where, to editing, to photo and graphic selection and, finally, to presentation.
Thoughtful storytellers and strategists produce powerful, compelling work. By understanding our biases and those that are part of each story, we are more in command of the arrogance, denial and prejudice that can sneak into our prose. The outcome is stories that are more fair, comprehensive and human.
Applebee’s or Olive Garden? I hope each of them can’t always decide.
Want more? Read my teaching philosophy.