Avoiding Biased Language in Writing

Biased language is language that uses stereotypes to describe people, places, and things.  A stereotype is a fixed and overly simplified image or idea about specific types of people, places, or things.  In the world of writing, this includes ideas that demean, ignore, or patronize people on the basis of gender, sexual preference, physical ability, race, religion, or country of origin.  When writing about politics, it is just as important to avoid bias.

The reason we want to avoid biased language in writing is because we risk losing the respect of readers and it damages our credibility.  Rather than rely upon stereotypes and opinions, we should try to create a sense of community and communicating facts with our writing.  By eliminating bias, we avoid offending others and demonstrate our ability to express our thoughts in considerate and impartial ways.  Unfortunately, bias can easily creep into our writing and it is important to search for bias when proofreading.

The best way to avoid biased language is to not make assumptions about people.  We should never add our opinion.  News is only the statement of facts and devoid of opinions.  We should avoid phrases such as “I think,” or “it may/might/could.”  We need to use words certainty unless it is a direct quote.  We should use few adverbs in our writing.  Adverbs have a tendency to bring out a writer’s opinion.  At times, it might be necessary but care must be taken to not unintentionally add an opinion.

When writing about a topic with multiple opinions such as common in politics, we should make sure that each side is represented.  We need to consider more than the typical liberal vs. conservative or Democrat vs. Republican aspects of an issue.  We should try to include the views of other stakeholders such as business owners, taxpayers, or local residents.  It is important to be mindful of how much attention is given to each side of the issue.  There should be roughly the same number of paragraphs devoted to each side.

We should be mindful of the point of view being presented especially when covering politics.  We should make sure that we does not focus too much on one group.  For example, many stories by one side of the media focuses on how legislation affects politicians, stockholders, and corporations rather than the regular people such as workers or consumers.  The opposite is true of the other side.  Double standards are an issue as well.  It is imperative that we hold all sides of an issue to the same standards.

Similarly, when including quotes we should make sure that one side is not over quoted.  We should be aware of the political perspectives of sources used in a story.  We should avoid relying too much on “official” sources such as government, politicians, corporations, pundits, and think tanks.  Additionally, we should provide context for quotes and not present them out of context.

In articles about disabilities, we have a habit of emphasizing another person’s disability over the person.  An example of this is referring to a person with disabilities as disabled.  For example, we should say that a person is someone with autism rather that the person is autistic.  We should not label a person by their disability (a mute, a deaf person, an alcoholic).  We should say the person has a speech disorder, has hearing loss, or is alcohol dependent.  The easiest way to avoid offending readers with disabilities is to focus on the person not the disability and emphasize their accomplishment rather than their limitations.

Another area where we tend to be biased is in reference to gender.  While sexist language can be directed at men, it is most commonly directed at women.  Language that demeans women implies that they are not as capable as men.  We need to avoid unneeded references to their role as wife, mother, or appearance.  We should treat men and women equally.  Parallelism is important as well.  For example, we should refrain from writing Dr. X and Ms. Y if Ms. Y is a doctor as well.  It is best to try to replace terms that indicate gender with gender-less ones (postal worker instead of mailman).

We should avoid the use of masculine pronouns unless referring to a person.  One trick is to use plural forms of the pronouns.  Another trick is to replace “he” or “she” with “one.”  The use of “he or she” is acceptable as long as it is not done excessively.

Finally, when writing about groups of people, avoiding the use of stereotypes is even more important.  When talking about cultural groups, research is very important and we should stick to just facts.  It is important to avoid loaded terms like underprivileged, racial preference, or culturally deprived.  It is recommended that the writer should place his or her group in the sentence.  If the writer finds the statement offensive, it would be best to revise it.

When writing an article, the goal should be to inform the reader without revealing our true opinions.  If the reader can tell what the writer’s views on a subject are, the article is skewed and should be revised.  By avoiding bias in writing, we can be perceived as thoughtful and impartial.

References and Further Reading



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