A basic principle of medical practice, “First, do no harm,” might well be rephrased for content writers as “First, do not assume”—that is, do not assume that you know who’s reading your website. Your audience is not homogeneous; its members almost certainly vary in age, race, gender, physical abilities, nationality, culture, sexual orientation, and so on.
Biased language, no matter how mild, excludes members of your audience and can even lead to inaccuracies that damage your credibility. For example, using the pronoun he in reference to judges is both factually wrong and liable to offend some of your readers (not to mention some present and former justices of the U.S. Supreme Court).
Some guiding principles for avoiding bias:
- Determine whether a group-specific reference is relevant. If a person’s age, race, or gender is not relevant to the story, don’t mention it. If you’re writing about the first woman admitted to Harvard Medical School, gender is relevant; but if you’re writing about a local surgeon who has won a prestigious grant, her gender probably isn’t the point of the story (winning the grant) and doesn’t need to be specially mentioned.
- Be exact. Do you say Chinese when you mean Chinese American? African American when you’re talking about black people around the world? Girls when you’re referring to adult women? Retirees when senior citizens or people 65 and older would be more precise? (Some people retire in their 40s, and the “official” retirement age may vary by country.) Use exact words and the terms favored by the group.
- Beware of false generalizations. If you find yourself implying that all members of a group behave the same way—as in “Women are lousy drivers”—stop. Similarly, speaking for “everyone” or using broad terms like normal makes readers wonder, “Everyone but me? Normal compared to what?” Normal is not the opposite of disabled, adopted, single-parent, gay, poor, minority, or other words that may describe an individual.
- Use us and them cautiously. If you use pronouns like we or us to signal solidarity with your readers, make sure that they share your traits or opinions. You probably should not say, “We all love a good pinot,” for example, unless you’re writing for a site aimed at wine aficionados. Likewise, using they or them to mean “other people” or “people not like us” may show bias.
- Don’t make the characteristic the person. Referring to a group by a characteristic, as in the deaf, can sound as though you’re limiting them to that one characteristic. It’s fine to say women or Cuban Americans, but you’re often better off making a trait an adjective rather than a noun: deaf people rather than the deaf, black people rather than blacks, elderly people rather than the elderly, and so on.
- Watch out for bias inherent in slang and other figures of speech. Common expressions often have roots in biased or dated thinking. For instance, the expression what a gyp, meaning what a rip-off, was likely derived from a prejudice against Gypsies (or the Romany people, as most prefer to be called) and a belief that they were thieves. Similarly, it might seem innocuous to say “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” or “This is not your grandma’s website,” but consider how older readers will respond to those phrases. Not only are clichés like these likely to be offensive, but they are also a sign of stale writing that needs refreshing.
- Don’t overcompensate. Trying to be too solicitous can also undermine your credibility. Don’t overcorrect by using made-up words like waitron or co-opting an in-group’s slang or usage—no matter how well-meaning you are or how hip you want to appear. Stick to standard terminology and aim for neutrality.