Skip to main content
Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Implicit Bias

How to Report Inequality - Ethically

Sally Lehrman and Venise Wagner

Investigative reporters are among those journalists most driven by the field's foundational tenets to give voice to the voiceless and to shine light on injustice.

But what's the line between exposing injustice and pressing for a particular type of change? Remaining independent or taking a stance? Taking affirmative action to find diverse voices or skewing the story? Are such considerations even relevant when it comes to reporting inequality?

The traditional mission and ethics of journalism, along with historic examinations of the role of the press, offer insight.

The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics spells out journalism ideals in its preamble. Journalism serves justice, democracy and public enlightenment. Ethical news gatherers strive for "free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough."

In thinking through the ethics of reporting inequality, the tenets of justice and fairness underpin journalists' goal of impartiality, but they reach further.


“Justice” asks journalists to serve the overall public interest. This idea can be split into two types, theorists suggest. “Conservative justice” strives to preserve stability in order to ensure that social institutions can address competing interests.  “Reformative justice” addresses social wrongs and embraces marginalized groups, writes Patrick Lee Plaisance in his book, “Media Ethics: Key Principles for Responsible Practice.”

Journalism straddles the tension between the two. In the process of truth-seeking, reporters work within a beat structure that reflects a stable social order. Journalists follow the workings of government, police and health agencies and hold them accountable to the public.

In reporting inequality strictly through the social-order lens, however, journalists can be complicit in perpetuating beliefs about minority groups. Uncovering harsh treatment of African Americans by police officers, describing the ravages of hepatitis C in Appalachia, and even showing the sordid quality of public housing in some cities can activate preconceptions about cultural and group behavior. Without further information about the reasons behind inequality, readers and viewers turn to their own belief systems for explanations.

Stories pointing out health disparities such as the high rate of breast cancer mortality among African Americans and Latinas can seem to point to some unnamed biological difference or a failure to access available mammogram services. Audience perceptions would be quite different if the same stories revealed their obstacles in getting a mammogram, the atmosphere and cultural competence of the clinic, and the quality and availability of treatment once breast cancer is diagnosed. This latter approach provides a more complete understanding of the issue.

The most enterprising journalists highlight ways in which social institutions themselves are organized to give favor to some demographic groups over others. They follow the money, uncovering funding and other policy decisions that have eased the path of the white majority for generations and continue to do so. In the case of mammograms, for example, reporters might look at facility locations, transportation, physician education, translation services, and in the case of black women specifically, the evidence of deep inequities in health care delivered across a lifetime.

The most effective investigative journalists not only portray victims of discrimination, they also explain the policies, practices and procedures that give rise to it. In addition, hey show the benefits that white people, men or other groups in power reap from the very same policies.

These reporters avoid the habit of attending to non-whites or women only as victims or problem people, and instead also show members of these groups as part of the norm, including acting positively on their own behalf. They make a conscious effort to include all segments of society and present their voices as equal. They shine light on issues and events in a manner that seeks to achieve institutions, policies and practices that are fair to everyone. They take the stance of "reformative justice."


Fairness requires even deeper awareness of our habits as journalists. Without care, even investigative reporting can indirectly justify the very social organization and institutions that lead to unequal outcomes.

The work of social psychologists Anthony Greenwald and Mahzarin Banaji on implicit bias supports the idea that audiences unconsciously categorize people, assigning traits to race, gender, religion and other groups. Journalists do so too, and frame their stories accordingly.

We all engage in a perception cycle that links what we see and notice, what we think and what we say. But journalists' words, visuals and text deeply influence others. We can take responsibility by being deliberate in our reporting and language, aiming for a more well-rounded portrait of the world in which we live.

The first step to challenging our own buried biases is humility. We must recognize that our entire upbringing has shaped the world in a particular way for us, and that as journalists, we must seek out and listen more closely to other versions of the world.

Journalists often defend their commitment to fairness and accuracy by saying,  “I write what I see.”But what we “see” relies on our own cultural and social norms. To take a gender-based example, one journalist covering a technology conference might “see” the powerful male leaders in the room and notice their dynamic calls for creativity and entrepreneurship. Another may “see” that there are very few women in the room and notice that speakers are peppering their comments with sexual innuendo. Both accounts are true. Neither is neutral.

For some journalists, consciously focusing on gender, race, sexual orientation or other identities might seem contrary to fairness. But in truth, being conscious of our own identities and those of the people we are covering leads to greater fairness. That's because being "identity-blind" requires ignoring the experiences that people without historical power live with, every day.  Language and approaches that seem "neutral" often instead give favor to groups that hold the most power in society.

One tool to open up the lens shaped by our personal experience is the Maynard Institute’s Fault Lines. The Faults Lines is a conceptual framework that helps journalists consciously develop coverage that is more inclusive, complete and nuanced by thinking about a story's significance and key stakeholders through a series of identity perspectives. People make sense of the world through five major aspects of identity, according to this approach: race/ethnicity, gender/sexual orientation, geography, generation, and class. By considering how to investigate or write about any issue, disparity or policy through each of these Fault Lines, we can gain a fuller understanding of its impact. By acknowledging our own Fault Lines, we can check our hidden assumptions.

The Hutchins Commission, which convened for four years starting in 1943, also suggests that the identity-conscious point of view is the path to greater fairness. A socially responsible media, the commission wrote, represents all groups in society and offers historical context, providing a forum for exchange of ideas from a variety of society’s segments. At their best, journalists facilitate the hashing out of society’s values and goals in an inclusive public square.

An ethical journalist follows basic principles of giving the accused an opportunity to respond, exploring alternate explanations for supposed wrongdoing, and the like. But considering the deeper elements of justice and fairness supports more responsible, and more effective, investigative work.


—Whether you are part of a privileged group or one often under suspicion, seek fairness by using the Fault Lines or another tool to understand an alternate perspective.

—Avoid leaning on one person, even a person identified as a community leader, to speak for an entire group. Diversify sources at every level possible, particularly within cultural groups.

—Learn more about implicit bias and how it may affect your reporting here or the nonprofit Project Implicit. Begin to notice the assumptions you make about people based on their looks or identity.

—Try to immerse yourself in other identity groups. Read books and watch films to become more familiar with the nuances of a community.

—Catch yourself when you gravitate toward the familiar and resist the temptation to avoid the uncomfortable.

—Be willing to confer with people who have different backgrounds and perceptions. These people can be sources, or they can be fellow journalists. 


Sally Lehrman is director of Journalism Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.  Venise Wagner is associate professor of Journalism at San Francisco State University. This article is adapted from Reporting Inequality: Methods and tools for covering race and ethnicity, by Lehrman and Wagner, to be published by Routledge in 2017.  The article appeared originally in The IRE Journal, 38:3, 2015.


Nov 18, 2015