Does Personal Bias Influence Your Work? Should It?

While editing a piece recently, I found myself correcting all pronouns which are commonly and presumably used as he to he/she. In effect, chairman became chairperson. Him became him/her. Houwewife became homemaker and so on. As much as one would like to believe that these mundane edits have no deeper meaning, I have a feeling that me being a woman, a feminist at that, had to do something with altering the pronouns to make sure folks are represented properly.

It’s interesting how our cultural and ideological make-up sometimes permeates through the work we do, and how it automatically makes otherwise homogenous work more diverse. This piece, for example, was probably written with a de facto assumption that positions of power are mostly taken up by men. This may be because in the society we live in and because of the history of women at the workplace, a majority of the positions of authority are taken up by men. Hence, the original writer presumably believed that the chairman by default is a male. And if another man were to edit the same piece, there is a chance that the pronouns would remain unaltered.

But what happens when personal bias sneaks into a bigger landscape? For example, the newsroom. Does the personal background of employees or the decision makers influence what we see in the media? The short answer is yes. The long answer is: it’s complex.

Media representation

When Meghan Markle was referred to as ‘exotic’ in Daily Mail while covering her wedding into the royal family, it ruffled a lot of feathers and brought the British press under the spotlight for being too ‘white’. The coverage would have been perhaps different if the person covering the event was African-American or Asian. This is exactly why many battles have been fought over making newsrooms more diverse.

The 1967 Kerner Commissions report heavily criticised the lack of diversity in American newsrooms, which influenced the way news and politics was covered. Even 53 years later, efforts are being made to bring more inclusivity into news space – but we still have miles to go.

Closer home, one look at how news channels covered the recent protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and pogrom that followed in Northeast Delhi will tell you which way the channel swings by – left, right or centre. It’s not only and always the political ideology or ethnicity that influences the media rhetoric, but other backgrounds as well – demographic, ideology, faith, and so on.

Also read: How Gendered Language Enforces Patriarchy

In a report by Oxfam India in 2019, of 121 managerial positions in newsrooms surveyed in a study on the caste composition, 106 were occupied by upper caste members and none by members of Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes. 72% of bylined articles on news websites were written by members of the upper castes. This means that whatever Dalit literature we find in mainstream news is from the lens of people who haven’t really experienced a Dalit life. Is that why the most we get about Dalit news is the violence and atrocities they face and nothing beyond that?

It is disheartening to find that such an important conversation is missing from mainstream narrative and public opinion is shaped in absence of such perspectives. Which begs me to question – if the biggest news honcho of today’s times Arnab Goswami was not from Assam, would we still see the mainstream coverage of Assam flood on Republic TV?

Personal belief system

Such permutations and combinations of diverse belief-systems and viewpoints at workplace, and especially a creative space welcomes refreshing ideas, which are otherwise shoved in the back-alleys of our consciousness. For example, in a campaign concept I was preparing for Valentine’s Day with my fellow team member who also happens to be an LGBTQIA+ activist, my brackets of heterosexual love were pulled apart to include all kinds of love. We need more such diverse personalities and socio-cultural make-up in media room to encourage such inclusivity.

A popular YouTube channel about everything cinema – Film Companion often reflects their feminist ideology in most of their content. Most interviews are taken from the lens of feminism as film critic Anupama Chopra (founder of Film Companion) asks almost all actors about how female actors always have to bear the burden of being beautiful or how they are always expected to be prim and proper even off screen unlike the male actors.

Also read: Inside The Toxic Media Culture Of A Casteist, Islamophobic Local Daily

This penetration of our personal belief system happens perhaps consciously or subconsciously as it is human tendency to seek familiarity and validation for being ourselves outside ourselves. We need our stories to be told. We need us to be acknowledged. We need to see someone like us in aspirational positions. How many times we have felt disappointed and uninspired looking at airbrushed models with unrealistic beauty on screen and all the while seeking acceptance of acne, pimple-ridden faces, and waist-lines swinging with love handles?

So can it be said that behind commodification of women empowerment and real beauty in advertising lie feminist and body-positive copywriters? This could also be why, then, perhaps we see so many Bengali, Gujarati and Punjabi stories in Indian cinema but very few from Assam or the Northeast. Because the cultural ethos of the directors holding the helm of such stories hardly align with this part of the world. To see more diverse stories from Assam, we need an Assamese to conquer decision-making position in the Indian film industry. To find representation of the devastating Assam flood in mainstream media, we need more Assamese journalists working in mainstream media. To find more women stories in public discourse, we need more women writers.

‘Selective biasedness’

However, this is not to ignore the fact that this may also lead to selective biasedness.

While one’s personal background impacts work-output, sometimes for the better, one also tends to underplay narratives that is not in sync with one’s own personal backgrounds.

Honest confession: more often than not, I have been tempted to put Assam while choosing demographics for a campaign solely based on the fact that I belong to Assam. Which is of course not an ideal approach to take. While I have tried to put Assam ‘on the map’ by adding for example, Bihu in the content calendar for all my brands along with Pongal and Lohri, I have had to resist my patriotism towards my state where not required. As much as we gain more stories, we may lose out on others and maybe important ones, even if subconsciously, we deem a particular narrative unfit for our own ethos.

As human beings, we tend to flock around our own sheep bleating cries of our own battle and find holes to push out our stories wherever possible, even if all we get is altered pronouns.

But the trick to keep our work output unadulterated of personal whim and fancy is to find a balance between making ourselves heard and making only ourselves heard and seen.

Featured image credit: Unsplash