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How to overcome unconscious biases in the media

Unconscious bias is a complex matter. It does exist to some degree, whether we tend to protect the in-group and undervalue the out-group, or instinctively prefer to hire the Airbnb host who is the most attractive. In this article, we’ll ignore the overuse of unconscious bias to engage in the projection and assignment of collective blame where it may not exist. Instead, we’ll discuss what you can do to combat it yourself and in yourself. Here are a few tips on how to overcome unconscious biases in the media.

Seek Out the Other Side

Ideological tribalism causes ideologies to reject others’ opinions. This prevents them from getting necessary corrective feedback. And it drives them to shut down moderates in their own group because many want to gain points by being better and ideologically purer than everyone else. This leads to a purity spiral, as the group gets more extreme and even irrational.

One solution is to intentionally seek out the other side. Don’t block a contrary opinion by dismissing it outright as fake news. Take the time to watch the other tribe’s version of events. Note that this is important to overcome your own unconscious biases, too. Read the mainstream narrative and the minority view’s opinion to get a more balanced story. And beware of the temptation to say that only the magazines and news shows that agree with you count as “balanced”.

Read the Factual Stories, Not the Commentaries

This can take some research, but it is possible. Read the industry journal’s take on proposed legislation, not the commentator’s opinion of it. The commentator is by definition filtering it through their ideological lens and summarizing it in a biased way. Read the longer story about the pros and cons of a project, not the “OMG, they hate X, hate them and their proposal” hit pieces that tend to circulate on social media.

You may only get the true story from an anonymous insider, though it is easy for fake stories to be circulated as an anonymous source. That’s why you want to use sites that verify the identity of their sources. That way, you won’t get worked up and believe a fake story promoted to further a viewpoint or political agenda.

Never Make Your Decision Based on a Sound Bite/Clickbait Headline

This may be the hardest thing to do. Don’t make your decision based on a soundbite you heard in a video about the story or a clickbait headline. Actually read the story, and take it with a grain of salt. Sometimes, the article is very different from the biased, clickbait headline.

In these cases, the outrage generating headline was intentionally used to get content shared and generate comments. Media companies do this because search engines use social media engagement as a measure of content quality and rank both the story and the publisher in search engine results based on these metrics.

Be Aware of Your Own Biases

Unconscious bias is a complex matter. There are too many people going around accusing everyone else of unconscious bias while ignoring their own. Demonizing the ”other tribe” as stupid, crazy, ignorant, phobic or evil is a common one, regardless of what tribe you’re in. If the other side is ignorant or stupid, you can ignore their opinion. If you dismiss them as crazy or evil, why would you let them share their story? That bias is often used to deny people a platform for their opinion, justifying the violation of an entire group’s civil rights.

The solution is to consider your instinctive emotional reaction on seeing a contrary headline or hearing a different opinion. Why are you angry, annoyed, offended or upset? Why are you dismissing them out of hand? Try to set aside your emotions and listen to them. You’ll always learn something.

Don’t Shut Down Others’ Speech

Unconscious bias can result in systematic oppression, such as when Big Tech firms downgrade or outright ban news sources and viewpoints as “poor quality”. And when people are denied access to the public square and the ability to seek redress for their grievances, their only solution is to retreat to support for the extremists who will fight for some part of what they want.

The worst case scenario is denying freedom of speech or penalizing it through private actions like bullying and destroying someone’s livelihood. We even see people denying the importance of freedom of speech and justifying social abuse. They act as if the fear of losing your job, home and peace of mind is not as cruel and oppressive as the fear of the state arresting you for speaking out. Or that shadow banning and purging of viewpoints from social media and mainstream press is morally necessary, ignoring the fact that hate speech/blasphemy laws regularly led to the death of the person violating social norms in the name of public safety.

The solution, of course, is to defend freedom of speech as a concept, knowing that the minority opinion is by definition the one in greatest need of protection. This also means you can’t join a mob destroying someone’s life or join downvoting brigades to suppress freedom of speech and say it is OK, because it isn’t state power that’s oppressing them.


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