Pictures do the ‘heavy lifting’

When a newspaper or magazine article seeks to make a point, a lot of the ‘heavy lifting’ is done by the associated pictures. Even when the underlying text is perfectly well balanced, pictures can be chosen that distort our perspectives. Because most of us ‘skim’ articles in a superficial manner this can happen easily and however carefully the text may have been written the illustrations may leave an impression subtly different from that intended by the author. The choice of illustrations may even colour the interpretation of the underlying text. This may not be the fault of the author because pictures are usually chosen by the editorial team and may reflect their cognitive biases rather than those of the writer. Two recent articles have caught my attention but they are not unrepresentative of a more widespread problem in publishing.

The first appeared in The Conversation which is an online media outlet, written by academics, that promises us ‘academic rigour and journalistic flair’ – it doesn’t usually succeed in either aim. The article ‘How to stop psychopaths and narcissists winning positions of power‘ was published online on April 7th, 2021. The text of the article is reasonably balanced. However, the accompanying pictures show a male narcissist and a female in a positive role who appears to be working collaboratively. There is no evidence that men are more narcissistic than women but their narcissism likely takes different forms. For example, virtuous signalling of victimhood correlates with the dark triad traits of narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism.

negative stereotype = male
positive stereotype = female

This is only one article from The Conversation but it is part of a general pattern of negative stereotyping of men. The education section is particularly bad, articles with a positive message are accompanied by pictures of attractive young girls and those with a negative message are accompanied by pictures of boys.

Another recent article, this time from the BBC website (here), was about mental health issues and suicides in students. In general, students have a lower suicide rate than non-students of the same age. That is not to say that every suicide isn’t a tragedy, a life pointlessly cut short and a case of promise never to be fulfilled. However, the highest suicide rate is among men working in the construction industry but that only receives a fraction of the news coverage.

In the wider population, male suicides outnumber female suicides by about 3:1. Among students, the figure is 2:1 though there are more female students so the relative risk may be closer to the population average. The text of the BBC article was reasonably balanced and foregrounded cases involving male and female students. The illustrations, however, did not reflect the greater prevalence of suicides among male students and showed more pictures of unhappy looking women.

The fits into the concept of gamma bias that was touched upon in a previous post (here). Gamma bias is a type of cognitive-bias matrix that operates around four possible judgements about gender: doing good (celebration), doing harm (perpetration), receiving good (privilege) and receiving harm (victimhood). This means, for example, good acts committed by men will be gender neutralised by referring to firefighters or sewage workers or highlighting a smaller number of women who may have been involved. Conversely, in the case of good acts committed by women their gender will be at the forefront. Similarly in the domains of privilege and victimhood; masculinity is highlighted in the domains of receiving privilege and but hidden in the domains of victimhood.

Gamma bias in illustrations accompanying articles is something that can be easily quantified and could give a difficult to refute numerical measure of bias. For more information about this subject, I recommend the two papers cited at the bottom and the YouTube video below.

1. Seager M, Barry JA. Cognitive Distortion in Thinking About Gender Issues: Gamma Bias and the Gender Distortion Matrix. In: Barry JA, Kingerlee R, Seager M, Sullivan L, editors. The Palgrave Handbook of Male Psychology and Mental Health [Internet]. Cham: Springer International Publishing; 2019 [cited 2020 Dec 29]. p. 87–104. Available from: http://link.springer.com/10.1007/978-3-030-04384-1_5
2. Seager M. Delta bias in how we celebrate gender-typical traits and behaviours. Psychreg Journal of Psychology. 2020 Dec 1 [cited 2020 Dec 31]; Available from: https://zenodo.org/record/4299034

By femgoggles

I was abandoned by my parents in the black mountains and raised by timberwolves. On my return to the 'civilised world' with questionable table manners, I became a detached observer of human behaviour in general and gender relations in particular. This blog is the product of those observations.

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