Sunday, January 01, 2006

How bias creeps in

"Fev" over at Heads up the Blog has had some excellent posts on how cultural bias creeps into copy (or sometimes rides in at full stride) via the overused urban legend about how Inuits have 100 or so words for snow.

Here's another one that drives me crazy: blonde.

I use an example in class of a Wall Street Journal profile about the woman who brought down MCI that has, in the middle, a graf that begins: "The blonde mother of two ..."

In all these years, I've yet to figure out how being blonde was relevant to discovering one of the biggest corporate frauds in history. (The child part, on the other hand, was relevant but out of place. It should have been moved to the next graf where the reporters wrote that the woman's husband took care of the couple's (two) children -- my insert to show where it could go.)

Here is another example, at the end of a magazine story about the security guard who polices the student ticket lines at one southern college (it's always the stuff at the end that bites you):

It's hard to tell if students will miss Sills and his ID inspections. Some, like the girl who screamed when she had to walk around the building with no line, will not. And some, like the students who smile and ask Sills how the line is today, will.
"I don't think too many of them get too mad at me. We make up, don't we?" Sills asks a blonde as he checks her ID.
"Oh, uh, absolutely," she says before walking through the door.

Quiz time:
  • What does her hair color have to do with anything?
  • What are the hidden implications, especially when paired with the last quote:
    • Another spacey blond?
    • He hits on blonds?
    • He somehow favors blonds over others?
Which is why this kind of stuff is laden with problems -- it tends to scatter all sorts of random messages. (On, and since we're keeping score, under AP style, that should be blond for the noun, male and female. Blonde is the female adjective form only.)

Why not just say Sills asks one since the intro already frames it as students? Or Sills asks one woman (I think we can safely use woman with college-age students)?

Journalism isn't a Clairol ad, and hairdressers and others know, but it seems to keep escaping reporters and editors, that hair color is relevant maybe .0001 percent of the time.


At 1/4/06, 10:50 AM, Blogger Jana said...

Doug, just surfing around on line and found your blog on the Hartsville Messenger Forum page. I've enjoyed reading your recent posts- the blonde bias is funny and oh-so-true. You are a new addition to my "checky daily" list. Thanks for your compliment on my Hartsville Today post, hope to see that site grow in the coming year. Cheers!


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