Unconscious Bias and the Media

Unconscious bias can be a delicate topic. It is not always easy to face our own biases, nor does it feel easy to call people out when we notice they may be acting in a biased way. This can be especially difficult when we are at work and might not feel comfortable calling others out for their behaviour.

The truth is that we all have biases of which we may be unaware. Despite this, it is still our responsibility to ensure that these biases don’t lead to things like stereotyping and backlash in our decisions, particularly if we are in a leadership position.

These unconscious biases arise from the way our brains function. You see, when making a decision, our brains tend to have a preference for relying on information stored in our long-term memory, rather than needing to sift through all available eternal information. Processes such as this are known as heuristics, and they are often our brain’s preferred way of making decisions. Therefore, they play an essential part in us getting through our day, allowing us to take mental shortcuts and make decisions frequently and quickly enough to keep up with our fast-paced, modern lives.

The decisions made through heuristics tend to be based on past experiences, stereotypes and the availability and frequency of information over time.

For example, imagine you are waiting for a train on a busy platform. There are no wait times displayed. You look around and notice impatient or anxious looks on other people’s faces. Your brain compares this to past experiences to quickly decide that the train must be running late. And in doing so, it eliminates many alternative scenarios which don’t fit the scenario as well. Such as, all these individuals being the ones running late, or something has happened to them all individually on the way to work to make them feel concerned.

This is an example of a heuristic in action. Our brain makes a connection that leads to an assumption, which allows us to quickly understand the world around us and go on with our day.

Throughout our socialisation process, that is, when we are learning about the world through our family, peers, school and the media, we gather and make up a set of heuristics that form our unconscious bias. Unfortunately, these automatic cognitive connections often lead to prejudice and discrimination, particularly when they are to do with gender, race and class. 

Let’s take the COVID-19 pandemic, for example.

Today’s clickbait focussed, sensationalised media tends to take advantage of, and perpetuate prejudices. Much of primetime news is tailored to create fear, and we tend to buy into this selling tactic.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak in Australia, occurrences of racism against people of Asian descent has skyrocketed. These occurrences range from subtle remarks to yelling, landlords evicting people from their homes, physical violence, vandalism, and – as has been frequently recorded – attackers ‘coughing’ on their victims.

Many respondents in the ABC’s survey around ‘COVID-19 and Racism’ cited Australian politicians taking a hard line when publicly discussing relations with China as a cause for the uptake in incidences of racism. In doing so, they are failing to distinguish between the Chinese government, Chinese citizens and Chinese Australians. This generalisation could be a source of the rise in negative attitudes towards people of East Asian descent generally.

If you share the same sentiments of Cognicity, you will likely be feeling quite upset at the fact that these acts of racism and bigotry are taking place. You likely see the perpetrators of this behaviour as separate to you and your beliefs. However, I would like to invite you to consider what you now know about heuristics, unconscious bias and the way the brain makes connections. We are all consuming media, where, even if not outwardly racist, current rhetoric is largely anti-Chinese.

For example, we may not agree with Donald Trump’s views. Still, each time he calls Coronavirus the ‘China Virus’ and it is reported to us, we unconsciously start to develop associations between China and the Coronavirus.

This might not lead us to hold outwardly racist beliefs. Still, it can train our brains to associate Chinese people with things like illness, Coronavirus, or general negativity.

For this reason, it is of great importance that everyone, especially those of us who belong to privileged groups, takes the time to check in with themselves. To educate themselves on this topic, to become an ally, and, finally, to be conscious media consumers.

This kind of self-reflection can be challenging to do at the best of times, and even more so when it involves things of which you may not even be consciously aware. This is why tools such as Cognicity’s Unconscious Knowledge Assessmentcan be so useful to us as individuals and organisations. They provide as with a window into where our implicit associations might be creating blind spots.

And we must always remember that the media industry aims to make money, which means the consumer is ultimately in control. So, in the name of social justice, we can choose not to consume biased, fear-motivated journalism as seen on some mainstream Australian platforms. We can learn to identify objective, ethical news coverage as opposed to journalism that is not fairly weighted.

You can learn how to spot dodgy journalism here.

Taking these measures might not make the problem disappear overnight, nor will suddenly end the suffering that minority groups have faced as a result of systemic racism. It may, however, help you to identify where your own bias blind spots may lie. And if you’re in a position where you’re making important decisions that affect others, you may be better able to mitigate the impact these unconscious biases have on them. Looking in the mirror is the first step to addressing this problem.

To learn more about how Cognicity can help you and your organisation identify its bias blind spots to become more adaptive, inclusive and effective, contact us or read more about what we do.

Article written by Esther Shackleton on behalf of Cognicity.

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