3 – Ethics in Workplace Culture and Research
Content warning: Because of the nature of inequity and bias, examples included in this section may be offensive or triggering for readers. Please be aware as you continue reading this portion of the text that instances of bias, harassment, and assault motivated by racial, ethnic, and gender biases are included to illustrate abstract concepts.
When evaluating the credibility of information, it is important to consider its bias. Bias, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “An inclination, leaning, tendency, bent; a preponderating disposition or propensity; predisposition towards; predilection; prejudice.” Bias does not always immediately mean an overt prejudice or a political leaning. However, in many cases, bias can be prejudicial and harmful. For example, in 2018 Eugene Scott analyzed the use of “dog whistling” in American politics for The Washington Post. Dog whistling is the use of coded language or images to appeal to voters’ unconscious biases. Scott references multiple examples of dog whistling in his article, such as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis cautioning voters that if his then-opponent Andrew Gillum (a Black man) were elected, he would “monkey this up.” While DeSantis disavowed any explicit racist intent behind his words, they are contextually rooted in a longstanding racial stereotype against Black people, regardless of intent.
You may also remember in 2017 when Pepsi partnered with Kendall Jenner to appropriate the Black Lives Matter movement to sell soda. Audiences quickly responded, and Pepsi pulled the insensitive ad. Editor of HuffPost Black Voices Taryn Finley, for one, called out Pepsi for its oversimplification of serious issues, calling the ad “tone-deaf, shallow, and over-produced.” Her tweet, depicted in Figure 3.3, implicitly points out the way that reducing the troubles and consequences of “-isms” to something that can be so easily solved, trivializes the experiences of those who have struggled with those systemic “-isms,” especially those who have been negatively affected by racism in its various forms. Ultimately, Pepsi’s ad and Finley’s response to it both highlight the consequences of failing to account for bias in professional communication.
First, it is important to acknowledge that all information is biased in some way. There are two primary types of bias: explicit and implicit. The Office of Diversity and Outreach at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) offers an easy way to distinguish between the two. is a conscious bias, meaning that we are aware of it. In contrast, is an unconscious bias, meaning that we don’t even realize we hold it.
Implicit bias starts during early childhood, so that by the time we are in adolescence, we already hold prejudices against certain groups, even if this runs against our conscious morals or ethics. The good news, though, is that our implicit biases can change and are often more of a product of our environment than anything else.
Implicit and explicit biases become problems because of the way our brains work. Psychologists say that we either process information quickly based on our prior knowledge, or that we are very deliberative and think critically about information. We rely upon our biases when we make quick decisions, but we can override such preconditions when we think deliberately and critically. According to cognitive psychologist Daniel T. Willingham, there really isn’t a clear cut way to “teach” ourselves how to become better critical thinkers, but it is possible, and anyone can do it. Willingham has found that learning deeply about a subject, drawing from and challenging our life experiences, and developing critical thinking strategies to follow when evaluating information all help us avoid cognitive biases.
The following sections cover the most common forms of bias. Each section details how each form of bias functions, highlights whom it affects, and provides concrete examples. As you review these categories, take a moment to reflect on times you have encountered them or even may have exhibited them. Everyone has unconsciously practiced at least one form of bias or another at some point, and bias in thinking inevitably leads to bias in writing and speaking. In short, being familiar with these categories of bias is important in becoming a more effective, ethical, and socially just communicator. Cognitive bias is a systemically pervasive error in our assessment of people, issues, situations, and environments, which ultimately shapes the way we act or form judgements. Many biases stem from cognitive bias, and these biases have lasting effects on how we choose to consume information and news.
The filter bubble phenomenon has been fueled by this segmentation. Filter bubbles refer to our tendency to consume news and other information that support our preconceived notions, and to reject information that challenges these notions. Three categories of cognitive bias seem to sustain these filter bubbles:
The is “a perceptual bias in which…people highly involved with an issue or interest group…tend to see media coverage of that issue or group as unfairly slanted against their own position.”
The is the tendency of those with low ability or knowledge of a topic to overestimate their competency in that topic, and/or underestimate the complexity of that topic.
occurs when we only seek out and trust sources of information that confirm our own opinions. Have you ever chosen a topic for a research paper and sought out sources that only confirmed your thesis of that topic? That is an example of confirmation bias. Biases shape filter bubbles in which we consume information and, as you will read below, play into cultural biases as well.
Gender bias occurs when a writer privileges the words and experiences of a particular gender over others. In professional writing, gender bias can often be seen in the use of pronouns (always using “he” as opposed to the “singular they,” “he or she,” or interchanging pronoun use throughout the document). Other common manifestations of gender bias include citing primarily men or individuals with male-sounding names to the exclusion of women, nonbinary, or gender-fluid individuals; citing only a male scholar even though a female scholar published similar conclusions earlier; and using different standards for praising men and women.
Especially in performance reviews and letters of recommendations, women are more likely to be praised (and criticized) for how they are perceived socially, with words such as “caring,” “compassionate,” and “nurturing.” Men, in contrast, are typically praised in terms associated with their intelligence and competence such as “brilliant” and “skilled.” In one study conducted by Hoffman et al., some letters of recommendation for female applicants applying for a pediatric surgery fellowship “mentioned [their] spouse’s accomplishments,” whereas letters supporting male applicants did not include spousal accomplishments (933). Due to gender bias, certain words such as “assertive” that are seen as positive for men (where “assertive” implies strength and good leadership) can be coded as negative for women and queer individuals (where “assertive” implies that they are opinionated and loud).
You can also see gender biases reflected in the media. In November 2017, NBC News anchor Savannah Guthrie announced live on the Today Show that her co-host, Matt Lauer, had been terminated due to revelations of sexual misconduct. While he was officially terminated as the result of one specific incident involving an anonymous NBC News colleague, there was reason to believe that this was not an isolated incident, but rather an ongoing cycle of systemic sexual harassment involving Lauer at NBC News.
In light of his termination, USA Today published a video compilation of moments in which Lauer exhibited sexist or crude behavior during interviews of prominent celebrities and politicians, including a moderated discussion between Hillary Clinton and then-Presidential candidate Donald Trump. While Lauer grilled Clinton on her use of a private email server, he breezed through his conversation with Trump. It can be argued that, based on the totality of these instances, Lauer exhibited gender bias.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation, a racial justice organization, frames racism as an umbrella term composed of a set of nuanced, context-specific forms of racism:
The concept of racism is widely thought of as simply personal prejudice, but in fact, it is a complex system of racial hierarchies and inequities. At the micro, or individual, level of racism are internalized and interpersonal racisms. At the macro level of racism, we look beyond the individuals to the broader dynamics, including institutional and structural racism.
Internalized racism describes the private racial beliefs held by and within individuals…
Interpersonal racism is how our private beliefs about race become public when we interact with others…
Institutional racism is racial inequity within institutions and systems of power, such as places of employment, government agencies and social services…
Structural racism (or structural racialization) is the racial bias across institutions and society. It describes the cumulative and compounding effects of an array of factors that systematically privilege white people and disadvantage people of color.
In other words, a complex and context-specific definition of racism is essential, because racism can take many forms and may be encountered through a number of overt racial macro-aggressions and more subtle micro-aggressions.
Such racial aggressions are able to occur because of white privilege. White privilege is “an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day,” as Women’s Studies scholar Peggy McIntosh defined it in “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” In this essay, McIntosh delineates how whites are “carefully taught” not to recognize how they benefit daily from various forms of racism and the racial hierarchy. Her examples include how whites are able to socialize with people in their own racial group and disassociate from people they’ve been “trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust my kind or me.” In other words, white people can choose to only associate with white people and get by just fine, whereas a group of non-white people might raise suspicions.
In technical and professional documents, racial bias often occurs by omission. A presentation, for example, that only uses white and white-passing models in photographs, or highlights white models in positions of power while showing Black and Brown models only in subservient or in non-executive roles, visually reinforces structures of white supremacy. In research reports, writers who gloss over key contributions of Black, indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC) researchers while focusing solely on the majority race also exhibit racial bias. In other types of writing, a writer may exhibit racial bias in how they describe individuals of different races. For example, when the media covered two domestic shooting cases, the white assailant, who had a history of domestic violence, was described sympathetically, with media reports remarking on his mental illness and good-natured public personality. The Black assailant, however, did not receive such treatment. Media instead focused on his past domestic violence and drug charges.
Ethnicity is a term that describes shared culture—the practices, values, and beliefs of a group. This might include shared language, religion, and traditions, among other commonalities. Like race, the term “ethnicity” is difficult to describe, and its meaning has changed over time. And also like race, individuals may be identified or self-identify with ethnicities in complex, even contradictory, ways. For example, ethnic groups such as Irish, Italian, Russian, Jewish, and Serbian Americans might all be groups whose members are predominantly included in the racial category “white.” Conversely, the ethnic group British includes citizens from a multiplicity of racial backgrounds: Black, white, Asian, and more, plus a variety of race combinations. These examples illustrate the complexity and overlap of these identifying terms. Ethnicity, like race, continues to be an identification method that individuals and institutions use today—whether through the census, affirmative action initiatives, non-discrimination laws, or simply in personal day-to-day relations.
Ethnic prejudice and racial prejudice are often conflated. Like racism, ethnic prejudice also occurs through similar acts of micro- and macro-aggressions. Ethnic prejudice, however, focuses primarily on a group’s shared culture rather than on a group’s race, even as race may also be part of that culture’s identity. The word “bigotry” is also often conflated with “racism”; however, “bigotry” refers primarily to ethnic prejudice, though race may also be a part of a group’s identity.
Particularly in the field of journalism, ethnic biases have come to the forefront when the media reports on Latinx communities and on the topic of immigration. For example, Cecilia Menjívar, Professor and Dorothy L. Meier Social Equities Chair in Sociology at UCLA, has found that negative media portrayals of Latinx immigrants often reinforce negative stereotypes of Latinx people, which leaves Latinx people striving to debunk such misperceptions in their daily lives. Joseph Erba, assistant professor of journalism at the University of Kansas, likewise found that such stereotypes threatened the experience of Latinx college students forcing them to combat the negative perceptions of their non-Latinx classmates throughout their time on campus.
Corporate bias occurs when a news agency, media conglomerate, or accreditation agency privileges the interests of its ownership or financial backing, such as an employer, client, or advertiser.
In advertising and strategic communications, corporate bias is part of the nature of the work. Your clients essentially pay you to represent them in a positive light. However, you have to walk an ethical line when doing so. Advertisers must remain mindful of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which enforces truth-in-advertising laws. PR practitioners must be guided by the Public Relations Society of America’s code of ethics.
In your role as a communicator, you act as a type of intermediary between the public and your client. Even though your client may pay you to promote them or their product, you must do so with the best interest of the public in mind. For instance, if you represent a celebrity who is paid to Instagram themselves with products, you will have to remind them to clearly state that it is a paid advertisement and not just a cute photo, in order to adhere to the FTC’s advertising regulations.
Or if, for example, you are developing a health-themed ad campaign for Rice Krispies cereal, you should make certain that scientists have verified that the cereal will boost a child’s immunity. When the FTC fined Kellogg’s for not backing up this claim with scientific evidence, the cereal company had to pull all advertising that sported the claim.
Loosely defined, algorithms are sets of rules that computers use to perform a specific task. Based in mathematics and computer science, algorithms are usually number-based and in code form. Using an algorithm, a machine can quickly and autonomously calculate a result. Social media companies including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube use algorithms to determine what posts appear at the top of your scrolling feed or what videos to recommend.
However, while algorithms use numbers, they are not immune to bias, whether on the part of the searcher or the creator. In her book Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism, Safiya Umoja Noble details the biases inherent in Google searches. Much of her research stems from a 2010 incident in which the top results of a Google search of “black girls” yielded explicit pornographic content. Noble argues that these primary representations of Black women in Google searches are representative of a “corporate logic of either willful neglect or a profit imperative that makes money from racism and sexism.”
What this all means for researchers is that you have to be particularly careful when searching for reliable sources, especially if you’re using a popular search engine like Google. Your prior search history, the search history of other users, and the impact of paid advertisers will influence which hits you see first, if at all. Using your university’s library service will help mitigate this issue, but be aware that there are racial, gender, and ethnic biases in all coding. Consulting references made in peer-reviewed journal articles is another helpful option, though these reference lists may also inadvertently miss key voices. When searching, therefore, you will need to actively look for perspectives that privilege marginalized voices. This research requires you to read widely and understand the accepted conventions and controversies in your field.
There is no simple fix for these deeply problematic and complicated issues. However, there are options that conscious writers can choose when addressing their own bias or the bias in their chosen field. As a writer, you need to be aware of biases and actively work to combat them.
Journalists Ed Yong and Adrienne La France worked to fix the unintentional gender bias they discovered in their own work by pledging to be more intentional about including women among their sources. Yong, for example, now spends more time searching for sources until he has a list of female contacts. Additionally, he tracks who he contacts and interviews for stories. As a result of his mindfulness, Yong now cites women about 50 percent of the time. This also has catalyzed him to start tracking how many times he includes voices of color, LGBTQ folks, immigrants, and individuals with disabilities. LaFrance, meanwhile, revised her list of go-to sources and seeks out stories that focus on the achievements of women.
In research, “diversifying your sources” also entails research methods and project design. When designing a research project that requires human subjects, be sure to directly address all cultures and genders. Considerable medical and social research relies on a sample size of predominantly white men, and while these results are valuable, the findings are not immediately applicable to women, people of color, or individuals of lower socio-economic status.
Once you have identified a diverse pool of sources, it is important to conduct inclusive reporting. Writing about the developing journalism ethics of covering transgender people, reporter Christine Grimaldi outlines some important tips. She suggests asking people their pronouns (she, him, they, xe, or ze), and then using such pronouns in your work. Other examples of inclusive writing include paying attention to how you describe individuals. Do you equally emphasize the accomplishments of men, women, trans, and nonbinary people? When you are referring to individuals or communities with disabilities, are you familiar with the terms they use to self-identify, and do you show respect by adhering to their conventions? Is the term you are using to describe one person the same you would use to describe another of a different race, sexuality, gender, or ability, given the same information? Further still, do you recognize that language constantly evolves, and that you should update your use of identifying terminology to reflect this evolution?
Recognize that there are many experts and professional organizations you also can turn to for guidance. For instance, the National Association of Black Journalists has its own style guide, and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists offers points of guidance. These are just a few examples.
This text was derived from
Younger, Karna and Callie Branstiter. “Contend With Bias.” In Be Credible: Information Literacy for Journalism, Public Relations, Advertising and Marketing Students by Peter Bobkowski and Karna Younger. Lawrence, KS: Peter Bobkowski and Karna Younger, 2018. https://dx.doi.org/10.17161/1808.27350 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Little, William, with contributors Sally Vyain, Gail Scaramuzzo, Susan Cody-Rydzewski, Heather Griffiths, Eric Strayer, Nathan Keirns, and Ron McGivern. Introduction to Sociology – 1st Canadian Edition. Victoria, BC: BCcampus, 2014. https://opentextbc.ca/introductiontosociology/. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.
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- Kristina Monllos, “Pepsi’s Tone-Deaf Kendall Jenner Ad Co-opting the Resistance Is Getting Clobbered in Social,” Adweek, April 4, 2017, http://www.adweek.com/brand-marketing/pepsis-tone-deaf-kendall-jenner-ad-co-opting-the-resistance-is-getting-clobbered-in-social/. ↵
- Taryn Finley, “Kendall Jenner gives a Pepsi to a cop and rids the world of -isms. Y'all can go somewhere with this tone-deaf, shallow and over-produced ad,” @_TARYNitUP on Twitter, April 4, 2017, https://twitter.com/_TARYNitUP/status/849378436577669121?s=20. ↵
- Taryn Finley, “Kendall Jenner gives a Pepsi to a cop and rids the world of -isms. Y'all can go somewhere with this tone-deaf, shallow and over-produced ad.,” @_TARYNitUP on Twitter, April 4, 2017, https://twitter.com/_TARYNitUP/status/849378436577669121?s=20. ↵
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- Daniel T. Willingham, “Critical Thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach?,” American Educator (Summer 2007): 10, https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/Crit_Thinking.pdf. ↵
- Cherry, Kendra. “What is Cognitive Bias?” Verywell Mind. Reviewed by Amy Morin, LCSW, on July 19, 2020. Accessed January 12, 2021. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-a-cognitive-bias-2794963. ↵
- Albert C. Gunther, “Hostile Media Phenomenon,” in The International Encyclopedia of Communication, ed. W. Donsbach. Wiley Online Library, July 9, 2013. . https://doi.org/10.1002/9781405186407.wbiech023.pub2. ↵
- Brian Duignan, “Dunning-Kruger Effect” Encyclopaedia Britannica, July 26, 2019, https://www.britannica.com/science/Dunning-Kruger-effect. ↵
- Bettina J. Casad, “Confirmation Bias,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, October 9, 2019, https://www.britannica.com/science/confirmation-bias. ↵
- “He or she” is a traditional corrective strategy for the exclusive use of “he,” but this is becoming dated as it excludes nonbinary and gender fluid people. ↵
- Gender bias exists across evaluations in most, if not every professional field. See: Karen S. Lyness and Madeline E. Heilman, “When Fit is Fundamental: Performance Evaluations and Promotions of Upper-Level Female and Male Managers,” Journal of Applied Psychology 91, no. 4 (2006).777–785. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-9010.91.4.777; David G. Smith, Judith E. Rosenstein, Margaret C. Nikolov, and Darby A. Chaney. “The Power of Language: Gender, Status, and Agency in Performance Evaluations,” Sex Roles 80, no. 3/4 (February 2019): 159–71. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11199-018-0923-7; and David A. Ross, Dowin Boatright, Marcella Nunez-Smith, Ayana Jordan, Adam Chekroud, and Edward Z. Moore. “Differences in Words Used to Describe Racial and Gender Groups in Medical Student Performance Evaluations,” PLoS ONE 12, no. 8 (August 9, 2017): 1–10. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0181659. ↵
- Aria Hoffman, Rachel Ghoubrial, Melanie McCormick, Praise Maternavi, and Robert Cusick, “Exploring the Gender Gap: Letters of Recommendation to Pediatric Surgery Fellowship,” The American Journal of Surgery 219, no. 6 (June 2020): 932-936. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.amjsurg.2019.08.005. ↵
- “Matt Lauer Has Been Terminated from NBC News,” Today, NBC Universal, November 29, 2017, https://www.today.com/video/matt-lauer-has-been-terminated-from-nbc-news-1105840707690. ↵
- Yohana Desta, “Graphic, Disturbing Details of Matt Lauer’s Alleged Sexual Misconduct,” Vanity Fair: Hollywood, November 29, 2017, https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2017/11/matt-lauer-sexual-misconduct-allegations. ↵
- Carly Mallenbaum, “Awkward Matt Lauer TV Moments Resurface in Wake of Firing,” USA Today, November 29, 2017, https://www.usatoday.com/story/life/people/2017/11/29/matt-lauer-fired-hathaway-awkward/906536001/. ↵
- The Annie E. Casey Foundation, “Equity vs. Equality and Other Racial Justice Definitions” Annie E. Casey Foundation Blog, 24 August 2020, aecf.org/blog/racial-justice-definitions/ ↵
- “Examples of Racial Microaggressions,” University of Minnesota School of Public Health, accessed August 11, 2020, https://sph.umn.edu/site/docs/hewg/microaggressions.pdf. Document indicates that it was adapted from: Derald Wing Sue, et al., “Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Implications for Clinical Practice,” American Psychologist 62, no. 4 (2007): 271-286, https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2007-07130-001?doi=1. ↵
- “Peggy McIntosh,” Wikipedia, last edited on August 11, 2020, accessed on August 11, 2020, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peggy_McIntosh. ↵
- Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” Peace and Freedom Magazine, (July/August 1989): 10-12, https://www.wcwonline.org/images/pdf/Knapsack_plus_Notes-Peggy_McIntosh.pdf. ↵
- Laura Rizzell, Sadé L. Lindsay, and Scott Duxbury. “Race of Mass Shooters Influences How the Media Cover Their Crimes, New Study Shows,” The Conversation, 27 July 2018, https://theconversation.com/race-of-mass-shooters-influences-how-the-media-cover-their-crimes-new-study-shows-100152. Content Warning: Gun violence, murder, suicide, child murder. ↵
- George Diepenbrock, “Negative Media Portrayals Drive Perception of Immigration Policy, Study Finds,” KU Today, December 6, 2016, https://news.ku.edu/2016/11/29/negative-media-portrayals-drive-perception-immigrants-study-finds. ↵
- Mike Krings, “Study Shows Media Stereotypes Shape How Latinos Experience College,” KU Today, September 8, 2015, https://news.ku.edu/2015/08/28/study-shows-media-stereotypes-shape-how-latino-college-students-experience-college. ↵
- “Truth in Advertising,” Federal Trade Commission, accessed August 11, 2020, https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/media-resources/truth-advertising. ↵
- “PRSA Code of Ethics,” Public Relations Society of America, Inc., accessed August 11, 2020, https://www.prsa.org/about/ethics/prsa-code-of-ethics. ↵
- Federal Trade Commission, “FTC Staff Reminds Influencers and Brands to Clearly Disclose Relationship,” Federal Trade Commission: Press Releases, April 19, 2017, https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/press-releases/2017/04/ftc-staff-reminds-influencers-brands-clearly-disclose. ↵
- Saundra Young, “Kellogg Settles Risk Krispies False Ad Case,” CNN: The Chart Blog, (June 4, 2010), accessed August 11, 2020, https://thechart.blogs.cnn.com/2010/06/04/kellogg-settles-rice-krispies-false-ad-case/. ↵
- Safiya Umoja Noble, Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism (New York: New York University Press, 2018). ↵
- Safiya Umoja Noble, Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism (New York: New York University Press, 2018), 5. ↵
- Ed Yong, “I Spent Two Years Trying to Fix the Gender Imbalance in My Stories: Here’s What I’ve Learned, and Why I Did It,” The Atlantic: Science, February 6, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/02/i-spent-two-years-trying-to-fix-the-gender-imbalance-in-my-stories/552404/. ↵
- Adrienne La France, “ I Analyzed a Year of My Reporting for Gender Bias (Again),” The Atlantic: Technology, February 17, 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/02/gender-diversity-journalism/463023/. ↵
- Christine Grimaldi, “I Tripped Up While Reporting on Gender and Sexuality. Here’s What I Learned,” Columbia Journalism Review, September 1, 2016, https://www.cjr.org/the_feature/gender_sexuality_reporting.php ↵
- National Association of Black Journalists, NABJ Style Guide, accessed August 11, 2020, https://www.nabj.org/page/styleguide. ↵
- National Association of Hispanic Journalists, Cultural Competence Handbook (Washington, DC: NAHJ, 2020), https://nahj.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/NAHJ-Cultural-Compliance-Handbook-Revised-8-3-20-FINAL.pdf. ↵
Conscious beliefs usually held or expressed about a group of people; can be positive or negative.
Unconscious or underlying beliefs, associations, or stereotypes held about a group of people; can be positive or negative.
Tendency of those with strong opinions or beliefs to assume that the mass media is against them, in favor of the counter point of view
Tendency of those with low ability or knowledge of a topic to overestimate their competency in that topic.
Type of bias that occurs when someone seeks out and uses information that only confirms their current opinion.