2022 Pearson Global Forum Convenes Academics, Practitioners to Discuss Global Discrimination & Marginalization


Moderator Sasha Ann Simons and Panelists Timour Azhari, Katherine Kinzler, Yuri Zhukov, and Mark Bauman
Moderator Sasha Ann Simons and Panelists Timour Azhari, Katherine Kinzler, Yuri Zhukov, and Mark Bauman

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022, Reuters journalist Timour Azhari has noticed an inconsistency in news coverage.

“When you look at the reporting from Ukraine,” said Azhari, the news service’s Bureau Chief for Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, “you see a lot of journalists, whether they be from Ukraine, the U.S. or from Europe, who are extremely empathetic. They’re embedded with Ukrainian troops. They’re even covering Ukrainian drone strikes on Russian positions with a lot of support and a lot of empathy.”

“Can you imagine,” Azhari said, “CNN embedding with Palestinian resistance fighters in Israel, fighting against Israeli occupation? Both of those situations are essentially the same and I think that has raised questions.”

Azhari’s observations emerged from a wide-ranging panel discussion earlier this fall on Discriminatory Bias in Media Coverage of Conflict, one of four panel discussions at the 2022 Pearson Global Forum, an annual gathering of The Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts. In its fifth year, the Global Forum brings together the world’s foremost thinkers and influencers with the aim of preventing, resolving, and recovering from conflict.

The theme of the 2022 Forum was Discrimination & Marginalization. In addition to the media bias discussion, the Forum offered panels on discrimination issues facing Colombia after the 2016 peace agreement; the recent, tumultuous past and future of Lebanon; and the social cost of discrimination. More than 300 attendees gathered in UChicago’s David Rubenstein Forum for the one-day event.

The Forum was presented at a particularly volatile time. The highest number of violent conflicts since 1945 are occurring across the world – a level of conflict that contributes to the forcible displacement of an estimated 84 million people.

A Pearson Institute/AP-NORC poll, released in conjunction with the Forum, reported that nearly 80 percent of Americans believe that the U.S. relationship with traditionally hostile nations such as Russia and North Korea will worsen in the next year while relations with Canada and the European Union will improve or remain the same.

The 2018 survey found that slightly more than half of Americans expected U.S. relationships with allies to worsen while a quarter expected relations with traditionally hostile nations to worsen.

Pander or lead

Reema Saleh introducing the panel
Reema Saleh

Sasha Ann Simons, host of WBEZ Chicago’s Reset, moderated the media bias discussion, which was introduced by Pearson Fellow Reema Saleh, MPP Class of 2023. Saleh started with an acknowledgement that journalistic objectivity is impossible, an observation that others shared.

A journalist and podcast producer of the Root of Conflict, Saleh said she sees her bias “everywhere in the decisions I make,” including the story ideas she pitches, the people she chooses to interview, and the quotes she uses or discards.

“Even as an objective, impartial journalist,” Saleh said, “I know that I can’t be removed from my writing any more than my skin can be removed from my body.”

The issue may be tied to readers’ and viewers’ unrealistically high expectations of journalism, she said in a later interview. Reliable journalism is necessary to help fight disinformation and misinformation. It also educates many people.

But the demands imposed on many outlets to be profitable can contribute to bias, she said. That financial pressure fosters more “outrage journalism,” Saleh said. And research shows that one-sided, outrage journalism tends to increase conflict.

“To some extent, to make a profit, you do need to confirm people’s emotions,” she said, “even if that doesn’t make sense in the long term.”

Panelist Mark Bauman, President and CEO of Grid, a “collaborative newsroom,” and former international journalist who led media initiatives at the Smithsonian Institution and National Geographic, said audiences’ awareness that journalists cannot be objective damages credibility.

A journalism standard better than objectivity, he said, is fairness, which involves acknowledging implicit bias, “coming to terms with it, thinking about it on every story,” considering how it affects coverage, then trying to mitigate it.

“It’s not a perfect thing,” Bauman said, “but there’s a real path there to get to fairness.”

A former global reporter for many news outlets who covered the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, Bauman acknowledged that media reliance on profitability perpetuates prejudice.

“One of the most painful things about covering a genocide in Rwanda,” he said, “is being told that maybe there’s fifty seconds on the evening news tonight for it because there are celebrity trials happening in Hollywood that rate better and that advertisers want.”

It’s an atmosphere that requires journalists to pose a crucial question about their role: “whether to pander or lead,” Bauman said.

Impact on social science

Traditional and unconventional news sources that circulate through social media affect the scope of public knowledge and debate, said panelist Yuri Zhukov, Associate Professor of Political Science at University of Michigan, who studies conflict. They also create a ripple effect on social science research.

Unlike most news audiences, social scientists use multiple sources as an antidote to misinformation, making their research more comprehensive, Zhukov said. But the churning and blending of fact-based information and misinformation on social media also makes it more challenging for researchers to establish valid inferences on what’s occurring and why, he said.

Zhukov referred to an example of violence at cell phone towers that might be perpetrated by attacks from groups trying to hamper communication among their enemies. If a social scientist starts with a hypothesis that cell phone towers correlate positively to violence, the researcher may find those instances of warring factions in the data, skewing the data’s relevance and accuracy.

For news outlets, bias often materializes based on access—some areas are easier to get to than others—and journalists’ decisions on what their audience wants or needs to be covered. Typically, what journalism decision makers think their audiences want “are stories about people like them in culturally and physically proximate areas,” Zhukov said.

Those biases, he said, explain in part why coverage of the Ukraine-Russia conflict is much more prominent and empathetic to Ukraine than coverage had been for Ethiopia’s Tigray crises, which continued for nearly two years until late 2022 and is believed to be responsible for an estimated 600,000 civilian deaths.

The political system in which a news organization is based also influences media bias, he said.

For media outlets based in democratic nations, protests against autocratic regimes around the globe are “like honey from the gods,” he said. Media outlets based in nations where press freedom is forbidden are driven by the state’s preferences on coverage, which often portrays government representatives in a favorable light and depicts protestors as lawless anarchists funded by foreign interests.

“Ultimately, it all comes down to the fact that journalists are only able to cover a small subset of the events that happen around the globe,” Zhukov said, “and the information that filters down to the public and to folks like me is going to be inherently filtered, selective and, yes, biased.”

Smarter vs. nicer accents

Another complication, UChicago’s Psychology Department Chair Katherine D. Kinzler noted, is that media-influenced bias might start early. Her research comparing children in the northern and southern U.S. found that kids as young as 10 years old associated northern-accented dialect as being smarter and southern-accented dialect as nicer.

At five years old, no such distinction existed in children, Kinzler noted. The likely reason for the shift, she said, is media perpetuating a bias.

Researchers also have examined TV, film, and other media pairings of personality to voices, Kinzler added. The findings indicate that certain voices were depicted as having specific character attributes.

As an example, she noted that researchers have found that children perceive characters who speak in standard American English as being more complex people who possesses “the full diversity of the human spirit.” Characters who speak in a foreign accent or non-standard American English dialect are perceived as simpler, which leads to a dehumanization or stigmatization of non-English speakers.

“Imagine a child as being something like an intuitive statistical calculator, which is what I think they are,” she said, “and they’re adding up all these instances from the different things that they see in the media. One thing might not be so problematic, but the thing is that these pairings of personality to the voices they come with, they’re not randomly distributed. They showcase all the same biases that the creators might have in mind that are then placed into media for kids.”

Local news for global audience

Beyond suggesting that journalists pursue fairness over objectivity, Bauman said audiences must “read some things (and) engage in some conversations that you’re not used to,” to enhance media literacy and reduce discrimination. It’s also important to understand that the bigger the audience for a journalism outlet, the more likely that outlet is to pander to that audience and perpetuate stereotypes than it is to elicit new insight, he said.

“If you don't break out of your bubble, you're missing a whole lot of the story,” Bauman said. “And if you're sticking with mass audience publications, you're getting homogenized truth.”

Azhari noted that he and his colleagues at Reuters try to find stories that draw similarities between Syrian and Ukrainian refugees to temper media and audience bias. Media audiences would be well served by finding trusted regional or local sources of news, he said, adding that a movement is occurring in journalism that stresses “local journalism for a global audience.”

The target audience for those publications is the person residing in the country where an issue is unfolding, not people in Washington, D.C. or New York.

“What I do if I want to know about a country is that I make a point of looking for a local paper,” Azhari said. “You’ll get something much richer.”

About the Pearson Global Forum

The Pearson Global Forum is an annual convening of the world’s foremost thinkers and influencers with the purpose of informing and developing new strategies to prevent, resolve, and recover from conflict. By promoting dialogue between diverse academics, policymakers, and other stakeholders, the Forum elevates research findings and helps scholars secure the exposure and cooperation necessary to advance their research. For policymakers, the Forum provides access to expert direction and insights they can use to create effective public policy. By bridging this critical gap between research and policy, The Pearson Global Forum can directly impact people and societies around the world.

The Pearson Institute is housed within the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.