Wick Communications

Accept your biases

In Writing techniques on February 18, 2016 at 3:47 pm

The above video really got me thinking, not just about how photographers are affected by what they think they know about a subject but how preconceived notions affect the rest of us as well.

As you can see for yourself, six photographers were told they were shooting the same man but were given wildly different backstories for their subject. He was a self-made millionaire, he was an ex-con, and so on. The result were photographs that were as much about the preconceived notions as the subject himself.

Us wordsmiths have the same problem. Say you go to an assignment. Your editor says you are doing a story about a CEO who is speaking to a local school group. Now imagine your editor says the man speaking to the kids is a gang member. Would you approach each subject the same way? How would you dress for each assignment? Would you think one story is better than another before you even get there? If you are telling me you treat each assignment exactly the same, I don’t believe you. In fact: you should prepare differently, to a degree.

I know we try to keep an open mind. I know we say we treat all our subjects equally and with respect. We should try to do that, but I submit to you there are subtle biases that we bring to each assignment based on preconceived notions and those notions affect our final product.

Bias can be just loaded word for preparation. Take the way you dress for various assignments. When I covered major league baseball, I generally wore Polo shirts and shorts rather than slacks, dress shirt and tie because it occurred to me that professional baseball players might speak more openly with me if I reminded them of one of their golfing buddies rather than an attorney. Likewise, if I have an assignment in a courtroom, I would rather my appearance mimic an officer of the court rather than the defendant’s lowlife cousin. What I read beforehand — even the music I listen to — might vary depending on the assignment I’m heading toward. …

Acknowledging that I dress for certain situations is, in a way, admitting a preconception. I would argue that sometimes it makes sense to think about who you are liable to encounter on an assignment long before you get there. And it’s always a good idea to acknowledge your bias and that you might turn out to be wrong.

Clay

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