Pictures Without Bias


Reprinted with permission from Without Bias: A Guide for Nondiscriminatory Communication published by the Int'l Asso of Business Communicators.

This article originally appeared in Issue# 23

How to Avoid Discrimination in Visual Media

Editor's Note (1983):

Communications has provided the legs for bias, carrying it from person to person, generation to generation. Communicators can help end discrimination by selecting not only words but also images that are bias-free.

Whether one puts out a newsletter, delivers a sermon or creates a television production, there is growing sensitivity by responsible leaders and communicators to words and phrases that imply stereotyping or discrimination against others.

Already "firefighter" is quickly replacing "fireman" and "grandfatherly" is increasingly obsolete in an era of 65-year-old joggers.

Books and guidelines abound for decisions about language, whether spoken or in print. Not so common are guidelines for visuals, including photographs, illustrations, cartoons, film and television.

The following article is excerpted from a new book commissioned by the International Association of Business Communicators. Without Bias: A Guidebook for Nondiscriminatory Communication (John Wiley & Sons) tackles the issues of verbal and visual bias directly and with common sense.

It is especially appropriate on the bookshelf of those who speak or create images for organizations and institutions, whether religious, non-profit, government or private. Those who are in a position to influence others bear a special responsibility to make that influence fair and bias-free.

Messages Without Words

Speech isn't always necessary to convey very specific messages to people around you. For instance, what do you "say" by the way you walk, sit, dress, or wear your hair?

The importance of nonverbal messages cannot be ignored. Researchers report that from 65 to more than 90 percent of the messages communicated in a face-to-face encounter are carried on the "nonverbal" band.

Further, they tell us, when verbal and nonverbal messages coming from the same person are contradictory, nonverbal messages usually predominate in the interpretation of the person receiving the two sets of information.

These "silent" messages are very much part of photographs, slides, videotapes, and other visuals and must be monitored to be sure they are saying what we want them to say. Nonverbal information must reinforce (rather than contradict) verbal or written information.

One of the surest transmitters of nonverbal messages is the human body — its behavior and appearance. The fascinating study of these various elements is "kinesics" or "body language" A great deal of research in this area can be conveniently grouped into four categories: the face, the general shape of the body, touching, and posture and gesture.

Of the four, communicators most often must monitor posture and gesture when evaluating photos, illustrations, and other visuals.

As an example, a study by researcher Albert Mehrabian con-chided that people relax most with someone perceived to have a lower status, second-most with a peer, and least with someone perceived to have a higher status than their own.

Mehrabian also found that men remain more tense when with a disliked male than when with a disliked female. Perhaps this finding is evidence of an attitude of male superiority that is fast disappearing in modem organizations and society.

Another nonverbal message is conveyed by territory. An accepted behavior characteristic in most animals (including humans) is to lay claim to and defend particular areas as their own. Studies of this phenomenon conclude that a psychological advantage exists to being in one's own territory, not unlike the "home-field advantage" found in athletic competition.

Three principles relate to territory and personal status in organizations: Persons with higher status will normally have more territory than persons with lower status, protect their territory better, and invade the territory of lower-status persons

Roughly translated, these characteristics mean that the higher a person is in an organization, the more and better space that person will have, the better it will be protected, and the easier that person can move, uninvited, into the territory of lower-ranking employees.

These nonverbal elements of territory and body language are interpreted in visual communication by positioning. The person in the "primary" position is dominant, while the person in the "secondary" position is subordinate.

For example, the driver of a car is in the primary and controlling position (unless it's a chauffeur), and the passenger is in the secondary, passive position. When media most often present a male driver and a female passenger, they make a statement about sexual roles and abilities, based on positioning.

Do your visual messages depict persons of comparable levels or jobs equally? Do their postures and gestures suggest that they are equally at ease in the situation? Or is one person open and relaxed (indicating authority and dominance), while the other is rigid and motionless (suggesting inferiority and lack of power)?

For example, seeing a man seated at a desk while a woman stands at his side or in front of him signals the viewer that the man is probably dominant in the relationship. To alter this perception, simply show both of them seated or both of them standing.

Positive Visuals

Avoid situations that consistently show members of any group as superior or inferior. No matter how subtle, the implication is that people in certain groups belong in particular roles — for example, Spanish-surnamed persons consistently portrayed as blue-collar workers or women as clerical employees.

Perhaps the most obvious reinforcement of sex-role stereotyping is the treatment of women as pretty, sociable, and shallow. Such sexism often occurs at grand openings and similar occasions when the local beauty queen cuts the ribbon. This type of event and the photos or film footage that results reinforce limited thinking about abilities of women. Begin to change this demeaning practice by convincing planners to ask instead a prominent business executive or other more appropriate person to participate in the opening.

If plans can't be altered, the communicator must, then, work with what is available. When the event falls into the category of cheesecake, consider these options:

  • Ignore it. Such events are set up for publicity and will fade more rapidly if none is given.
  • Don't use a photo or footage but mention the woman by name and occupation or school in your account of the event. Save your photo space or air time for other aspects of the opening, for instance, the first customer or client through the door.
  • Give the woman some depth by showing her interest in the product or clients being served. Illustrate that she knows how to do something besides cut ribbons.


Cartoons — whether animated or still — easily contribute to biased communication since much humor is still based on sexual and racial stereotypes. The characterizations of women with no business sense often appears. as does the characterization of men as inept around the house. Racial or ethnic slurs in cartoon form are also offensive to many people and are quickly becoming unacceptable put-downs for any audience.

The artist who brings life to objects such as machinery or office equipment should keep stereotyping in mind. For example, illustrations that depict the big, fast, sleek car as male and the compact, dumpy, utility model as female aren't fair and can be offensive.

Such cartoons should be avoided and consideration given to substituting others that are still humorous or still meet the communication objective --but that make a positive statement. Wise use of the element of humor can even be a lighthearted, subtle way to discourage stereotyping.

A Balanced Image Overall

Following this guideline can be as simple as checking faces in the viewfinder before shooting, carefully selecting footage, or cropping judiciously.

For example, a video news story or slide presentation showing only some of the people working on a project presents the communicator with a choice about which ones to use — and about equal treatment.

If all supervisors are men (as is still often the case), the result will be all-male groupings if only the top people are shown. An alternative is to select persons representative of the total "team" and, thereby, balance men and women, races, ages, and abilities, and give recognition to a broader range of individuals who are contributing to the project.

A balance need not be struck in every photograph, slide, or film segment. The total publication, slide presentation, or videotape should be evaluated, as should the organization's entire communication effort for an extended period of time to determine consistency of treatment.

Don't try so hard not to discriminate that visuals appear staged solely to portray equality. Present an accurate image of your organization, but offset male-only or white-only stories and photos with material that substantiates the involvement of other races, when such is the case.

Only by taking affirmative action — by seeking out and including a visual balance of people at a wide range of job levels -- can the communicator help improve that makeup by encouraging people to aspire to roles that traditionally have been out of reach.

Depict Features Realistically

Asian skin is not bright yellow; shades of brown or tan are more realistic. Facial structures vary greatly among Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans. Blacks don't all look alike, either in skin tone or facial structure. Allowing time to research can result in more accurate visual communication.

People are varied in shape and size. Show this diversity, especially when you can hand-pick your subjects. For example, when assembling the cast for a TV spot or film, don't limit your selection to young, slim, white, athletic specimens with no visible limitations. Rather, select actors according to the needs of your film (for salespeople, clerks, drivers, and so forth), not according to some ideal of appearance.

Similarly, people with disabilities should be shown as they are. Neither camouflage nor highlight a visible impairment but present it in context, when pertinent. For instance, if the story is about a person who uses a wheelchair, include that wheelchair in photos if the emphasis is on reducing barriers on city streets and in public buildings. Don't include it, however, if the emphasis is on that person's role as president of a service organization.

Avoid Ageism

Keep the following points in mind to depict older people as they are.

  • Show realistic scenes and situations but avoid extremes. Show that life isn't all work or all play, all loneliness and nursing homes or all close families, all sedentary days or all a whirl of activity, all poverty or all well-financed leisure.
  • Integrate ages in visuals, showing older people with more than contemporaries or little children.
  • Depict a variety of physical appearance (including skin folds and other characteristics that distinguish age) and the contemporary dress of most older people.
  • Take special pains to show older women as attractively as possible to compensate for society's harsh judgment of them. (Older men have "character," while older women are "hags.") Shoot and crop to avoid emphasizing extra weight or stooped shoulders that might embarrass your subjects.
  • Don't stereotype older people as lacking in affection for others or as sexless.
  • Avoid stereotyping older people (especially in commercials and films) as bossy, crabby, outspoken, scatterbrained, hard of hearing, and in need of guidance from patronizing younger people.
  • Show more older women than older men in proportion to their representation in the population, in a variety of settings, and doing more than domestic activities.
  • Do not gloss over or avoid showing the rigors of years, but use such visuals to call attention to problems that need solutions.

Keep these points in mind to depict children as they are:

  • Don't portray all children as well-behaved fashion models, but reflect their variety of emotion and appearance.
  • Depict children interacting with their peers and with adults of both sexes.
  • Show realistic homes and families in various settings and economic conditions; don't reinforce the "traditional" nuclear family as the norm.

Finally, it is hoped that those who strive to integrate these principles will also adhere to nondiscriminatory writing in cut-lines, scripts and other language.