How to Avoid Bias in Your Writing and Communications

I’ve previously discussed communications best practices that include writing to meet your audience’s needs and techniques to engage your readers. These tips can improve your writing, but there’s more to consider as you work your magic: Are your word choices offensive?

Of course you’d never purposely write anything to offend anyone, but it can happen when:

  • Your own bias comes through in your writing. For example, what if you wrote this: “Think back to your favorite teacher. What stands out about her?” In this example, you unintentionally excluded men.
  • You assume a term is OK because you hear it used often. It can be hard to tell what’s acceptable to say in professional communications, especially when certain terms are used freely in the media and entertainment world.
  • You’re not researching whether certain terms are acceptable. Resources like the American Psychological Association Style Manual and Associated Press Style Guide offer guidance on preferred terminology to help avoid offending people and groups

Oops … Did I Say That?

Biased writing may favor or disparage one person, group, thing or point of view over another.

The ideal communication contains language that is sensitive to race, age, physical condition, sexual orientation, gender identity and other categories where terms used to describe them can change. Keep in mind: What was acceptable just a few years ago may now be controversial.

Here are a few tips to help ensure your writing doesn’t come across as biased or offensive:

  • Avoid stereotypes. This language assumes a stereotype about a group of people. For example, don’t promote a stereotype about stay-at-home moms by writing something like this: “Jill Daley, like most stay-at-home moms, enjoys not having to go to work.”
  • Use “people-first” language. When describing diseases or other emotional and physical conditions, place the person before the condition. For example, you should write “children who have autism” rather than “the autistic children” and “people with AIDS” rather than “AIDS victims.”
  • Use racial identity only if it’s relevant to the topic. If you’re writing about the first black person to be elected governor of a particular state, stating race is relevant to the story. If it doesn’t matter or help put a message into context, then don’t include it.
  • Be aware of preferred gender identity terms. There are resources like the American Psychological Association Style blog that help writers determine appropriate gender pronoun use and other preferences when writing about transgender and gender nonconforming people.
  • Avoid sexist language. Terms that you’re accustomed to using may now be considered offensive because they are not inclusive. Take the term “mankind” for example. Now, the preferred terms are “people, humanity, humans.” Or how about this: “man-made materials.” Now, the preferred terms that remove the men-only implication are “synthetic, manufactured, machine made.”

Moving Forward

If your role involves producing communications, then you have a responsibility to your readers to ensure the terminology you use is acceptable and not offensive. Remember: just because you see words used in the news or social media doesn’t mean they are the preferred terms.

Research it to be sure. There are a number of resources that will help you steer clear of the dreaded “bias zone”:

Jennifer Singleton is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

Originally posted Sept. 5, 2018.

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Juana Williams

Thank you for bringing this to people’s attention! Also, it was wonderful of you to provide references for those that believe their words are always acceptable. They are not.

Jennifer Singleton

Thank you, Juana, for your comment. I hope you and others find the resources useful. You’re right, sometimes we need help when writing about sensitive matters and I’m glad updated style manuals are addressing these issues.