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Biased language, conscious reading, and media literacy

There are many, many issues to discuss around the fight against racism: from distributing more funds to social services and supporting Black-owned business to calling out racist language or actions when confronted with them. I hope you’re taking this time to reflect on what actions you can take to have an impact in your community.

I know a lot of people are feeling overwhelmed, so I want to focus on something small, manageable, and actionable, yet powerful and impactful: the language that we use and consume on a daily basis.

I first want to highlight some knowledgeable sources on the use of inclusive, unbiased language. The resources I’ve listed here are not exhaustive, and they aren’t as diverse as I would like, but it’s a start. Please check these out if you want more information!

  • The National Museum of African American History and Culture has a wealth of resources, ranging from issues with language to community-building ideas. They also have a particular focus on aiding the discussion around race and how to navigate talking about race. In particular, see this page for information on biases and how to combat your own biases.

  • The Root is a great resource for (US) news that is written from the Black perspective. It can be helpful to check provocative headlines from the mainstream media against The Root to see how the news is reported differently from different perspectives (to check if the mainstream media is framing the news from a White-supremacist perspective, or if a particular news story includes internalized racist language, for example).

  • Race Forward is a racial equity organization that has information on “Best Practices for Reporting on Police Killings of Black and Brown People” (I’m so sad that the police kill people so often that this is a needed resource) and a more general “Race Reporting Guide.”

  • Racial Equity Tools. The name says it all: their website is full of practical resources, research, and curricula for understanding and learning to promote racial equity.

  • The Diversity Style Guide is a great resource on writing (and editing) inclusively, especially for media professionals. The Conscious Style Guide is another resource that promotes using language consciously and with sensitivity.

  • Queer Black Editing has great visuals on Instagram about how to be proactively supportive in your language, rather than just not racist/sexist/prejudiced/biased. Why do the bare minimum when you can be more actively inclusive?

  • The APA Publication Manual also includes guidelines on reducing bias in scientific writing; some of their tips could also be applied in other forms of writing.

  • The University of Washington has a page with more concrete tips for detecting bias in the news.

  • For my fellow language professionals, I also encourage you to read “5 Steps Freelance Book Editors Can Take to Combat Racism.”

As an editor, the power of language is close to my heart. I spend my days analyzing text and pulling apart possible interpretations to create clearer messages; I also try to be mindful of which pronouns are used and how people are described in the texts that I edit. I know how powerful (and hurtful, harmful) language can be, so I wanted to dig deeper into this topic to educate myself and to share a few things I’ve learned with a broader audience.

Language is powerful. It is pervasive, and its (sometimes destructive) power can hide in its omnipresence. We may not realize that words we read or use every day have implicit bias or that they can be loaded with unintended meaning.

One thing we can do to help combat racism is to make ourselves aware of the power of language and intentionally reflect on how we use and consume language that may be inherently biased.

With this blog post, I hope you’ll try to learn with me. Let’s work on being more mindful of the language that we use and consume.

The Racial Equity Tools Glossary’s definition of “implicit bias” underpins some of the issues with the pervasive, unconscious power of language:

Also known as unconscious or hidden bias, implicit biases are negative associations that people unknowingly hold. They are expressed automatically, without conscious awareness. Many studies have indicated that implicit biases affect individuals’ attitudes and actions, thus creating real-world implications, even though individuals may not even be aware that those biases exist within themselves. Notably, implicit biases have been shown to trump individuals’ stated commitments to equality and fairness, thereby producing behavior that diverges from the explicit attitudes that many people profess. The Implicit Association Test (IAT) is often used to measure implicit biases with regard to race, gender, sexual orientation, age, religion, and other topics.

While researching for this blog post, I’ve already learned a few things. I’ve learned to capitalize Black and White when referring to race; I’ve discovered that finding resources on fair, equal, and proactively anti-racist or unbiased language isn’t necessarily easy, especially when looking for resources from communities of color; and I’ve learned not to say “preferred” pronouns but just to say “pronouns” (kudos to my best friend, who proofread a draft of this blog post, for pointing this out).

What can be misleading in the media?

There’s an article I read a year or two that I keep coming back to. It’s called “Complicating the Narratives” (by Amanda Ripley), and it discusses how journalists can be more proactive about introducing nuance in their stories, invoking curiosity in their readers, and potentially reducing the tendency for readers to get trapped into the false dichotomies that exist in our polarized time.

In the context of racist bias in the media, one of the most important lessons from this article is that oversimplified conversations get stuck; if the media report on a story in a limited way, people have no reason to look further or to question that reporting. However, “When people encounter complexity, they become more curious and less closed off to new information.” Unfortunately, we can’t count on journalists and the media to produce nuance and complexity for us in every story that they report, but we must remember that every story is complex. Don’t take a story at face value; instead, consider the implications of what is reported, question the language that is used, and look for alternative sources to see if the reporting differs.

  • Talking around things. The Minneapolis medical examiner stated the police abuse that George Floyd sustained alongside Floyd’s “underlying health conditions,” as if his heart problems had any effect on his inability to breathe. (In case you were wondering, Floyd’s health problems had nothing to do with his death—only the police officer’s knee is to blame.) The inclusion of Floyd’s unrelated health problems is a distraction intended to place part of the blame on the victim.

  • Using short and/or misleading headlines. There is only so much space allotted for headlines, whether in print or online media. That means there is also a limited amount of information available in the headline; if readers don’t read beyond the headline, they’re missing essential information.

  • Writing provocative headlines to get readers’ attention. Because headlines are short, and because news sources need to attract clicks, headlines can play with readers’ emotions. I can’t write any more about this without writing about how White and Black suspects are written about so differently in the media…

  • Framing Black and White actors in different terms. White criminals are often framed as having mental health problems, while Black criminals are often framed as dangerous; we are meant to feel sympathy for White people who have made mistakes or gone down the wrong path, but we are meant to feel fear or anger if Black people have made similar choices. I can’t help but recall the case of Brock Turner, who raped a fellow college student. He was often referred to as an athlete or as a college student, while Black people accused of rape are often referred to in headlines with much more direct and criminalizing words.

It’s hard to pretend that news sources do this all unintentionally; more likely, their headlines and stories are intentionally misleading to persuade readers to believe a certain thing about the people involved in the story.

What can we do?

Our society is built upon racism. Unfortunately, this means that racism is often ingrained into our thinking, our actions, and our systems, so we need to be actively aware and check ourselves when these biased thoughts, opinions, or habits show themselves.

  • Examine words used to describe people. Is religion, skin color, sexual orientation, or gender mentioned? Is that descriptor relevant, fundamental, and necessary to the conversation? If the descriptor isn’t essential to the conversation, it’s likely there because of a bias and could be misleading as to the content or character of the person or story. As the APA Publication Manual states, descriptors such as “Marital status, sexual orientation, racial and ethnic identity, or the fact that a person has a disability should not be mentioned gratuitously.”

  • Be cautious when reading headlines. Headlines are meant to grab your attention, and often do so by framing a story in an emotional way. If you don’t read the whole article (and even if you do), assume that you’re missing valuable information. This sounds like common sense, but we subconsciously absorb that information, so we need to be vigilant about stopping ourselves from taking headlines at face value.

  • Be aware of coded language. Coded language is language that isn’t racist on its face but has been used to refer to a particular group so often that it refers to that group (in a negative way) anyway. For example, “thug,” which is meant to refer to a violent person, is used almost exclusively to refer to Black individuals. Spotting coded language in a news story is an easy way to spot bias and discredit the journalistic integrity of that story.

  • Respect people. It is generally accepted to use appropriate pronouns. Appropriate words around race and ethnicity should also be respected (e.g., capitalizing Black when referring to race).

  • Confront your news sources. If you notice biased or coded language in an article from your trusted new source, contact them! Hold journalists and news sources accountable for spreading bias and misleading information. If they’re not willing to address this issue, take your readership elsewhere.

I’ve only touched the surface on the topics of inclusive language, bias, and media literacy in this blog post; I also intentionally tried to focus on racial bias in this post. Hopefully, I’ll be able to write more posts in the future on more instances of bias and language.

I encourage you to read the resources I’ve mentioned in this post if you’d like to learn more! I would also like to plug the Anti-Racism Resource Collection, which provides several resources for addressing privilege. I’ll be reading through this and many other resources in the coming weeks, months, years… Stay vigilant, friends!

Curious about bias and language? Or have more questions? I’d love to hear from you! If you want to stay tuned for my next blog post, subscribe to my newsletter.


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