How are experts commonly picked and why? Who gets to speak and who is spoken about?
Social norms and stereotypes are created in speech and actions. When producing and circulating information, journalism also spreads a worldview. Journalism does not merely reflect reality, it creates it. In other words, from the point of view of media consumption, the media moulds our views of the world in many ways, both in positive and negative senses. Some of the negative effects are due to unconscious and biased decisions made by journalists. That is why a critical mindset is always needed when analysing media content.
Stereotypes have a bad reputation, but in fact all people make sense of the world through stereotypes. If this did not happen, the human brain would be filled with an array of knowledge fragments. Without the capability to organise things automatically according to stereotypes, it would be hard to put together connections and orders of importance. This doesn’t mean to say that people in general and journalists in particular should not resist harmful stereotypes.
One element of reporters’ and the media’s use of everyday power is that they pick the words and angles from which the world is discussed. As journalism is the product of its cultural and social environment, it easily keeps repeating the same stereotypes, which dominate surrounding society. Also, the prejudices and stereotypes that individual journalists hold influence the content of journalism.
As journalism is the product of its cultural and social environment, it easily keeps repeating the same stereotypes, which dominate surrounding society.
One form of distortion is normativity, the presumption of a norm or the natural state of things or people. Norms are presuppositions about what people are like and what they should be like. They regulate perceptions of gender, religion, skin colour, language, livelihood, nationality or sociality. The stronger a norm is, the more difficult it is to perceive. In general, norms become visible when someone breaks them.
Additionally, reporters are human beings, and their attention and learning are biased. Research has been able to show that a person most easily notices and learns things that reinforce their preconceptions about the world. This is called the confirmation bias. Reporters, while doing their work, become more easily convinced about knowledge that supports their own values and worldviews than knowledge that questions them.
Reporters, while doing their work, become more easily convinced about knowledge that supports their own values and worldviews than knowledge that questions them.
Our subconscious biases may also affect the news in other ways. When choosing whom to interview for a story, a busy journalist will often pick the expert already known to the media. That is, those people get to speak who already have the most influence. This is influenced even further by people’s subconscious and culturally defined values. For example, characteristics that convey expertise are considered to be a deep voice, quick-wittedness and confidence, all of which have been traditionally considered male.
If experts are then picked on these grounds without critical reflection, the male-dominated societal order is reinforced. In addition, in many countries, the key political and financial positions are still held by men, so a journalist who wishes to enhance equality encounters difficulties in trying to find a woman to give an expert opinion.
This, based on statistics, is then exactly what is happening. According to the international non-profit organisation the World Association for Christian Communication’s (WACC) 2015 Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP), 76 percent of people working in the news were male and only 24 percent female, exactly the same as five years earlier in 2010 when the organisation published its previous report.
When investigating topics featuring a female interviewee, GMMP noticed that, compared to the portrayal of men, women were more commonly portrayed as victims or based on their position in the family. Certain groups of women such as poor older women or those belonging to ethnic minorities were even less visible than others.
Compared to the portrayal of men, women were more commonly portrayed as victims or based on their position in the family.
Female reporters were also more commonly made to report mellow topics such as family, lifestyle, fashion or art. When it came to the reporting of leadership positions, women were an exception. All in all, among the key findings, GMMP 2015 reveals that “the rate of progress towards media gender parity has almost ground to a halt over the past five years.”.
This is how media, which faithfully reflects reality, maintains the gender divide. Prejudices, stereotypes and unbalanced reporting establish the power relations between groups and generate fruitful soil for the growth of discriminatory attitudes and practices.
The media moulds our views not only about gender roles, but also about people from other cultures. Presenting content which is openly racist is usually not permitted. The media has been criticised, however, for portraying the role of immigrants and different minorities in an otherwise negative light. For example, immigrants may be discussed in the media in a problem-centred way and through the mouths of officials.
In conflict cases, the origin or the ethnic background of the perpetrator often makes the news only if they are not part of the majority population. This, at its worst, creates an illusion that there are more perpetrators from certain ethnic or minority groups.
As an example, in 2019, there is an ongoing discussion about whether acts of violence committed by Muslims in Western countries are more easily labelled as terrorism or cultural conflict, whereas the same type of crimes committed by the majority population were explained by disturbed individuals, mental health problems or general malaise. Minorities may also be portrayed in the media as an exotic curiosity. A sole representative of a certain minority can also be unfairly asked to talk for their whole group.
There is an ongoing discussion about whether acts of violence committed by Muslims in Western countries are more easily labelled as terrorism or cultural conflict, whereas the same type of crimes committed by the majority population were explained by disturbed individuals, mental health problems or general malaise.
All in all, minorities are most often the objects of news articles, not active and equal actors such as decision-makers, journalists or experts in their own field, so the best way to prevent discrimination in the media would be to have minority representatives as producers of media.
The only way for a journalist to prevent the influence of stereotypes and bias on the quality of their journalism is to become conscious of their own presuppositions and always to consider their own knowledge and outputs with a critical eye.