Make Sense of Media Bias
Shivani Ashoka is a journalist, editor, copywriter, and co-founder — along with fellow journalist Meera Dattani — of Unpacking Media Bias, a monthly newsletter offering facts, figures, and resources about language, representation, and the current and future state of editorial desks across the publishing industry.
We are grateful for her thoughtful (and thorough!) answers to our burning questions. Describe your portfolio of work. I cover ethical travel, social sustainability, and identity for titles like Conde Nast Traveler (US & UK), The Telegraph, The Times, and The Independent. Essentially, I get to connect with some of the coolest people around the world to dissect issues like intersectional feminism, climate justice, and decolonizing travel—then help push those stories to the front of (some) historically conservative books. It’s eye-opening, but a lot of fun. Do you think there has there been a shift in consciousness at the publications you work for—are new ideas and perspectives making it past the pitch process? I remember, years ago, coming back from a few months in India and trying to shop stories about Rishikesh—the ‘birthplace of yoga’, which was becoming hugely commercial—and the same sections (admittedly, then under different editorship) would tell me it was too ‘niche’ a place, before commissioning white writers to visit a few months down the line. Now, I’m lucky enough to work with editors I trust—and who, I hope, trust me—to tell respectful stories about culture and community. Sometimes, if the content is particularly sensitive, I’ll explain and ask for a readback of the copy after the subs have been in—and they’ll agree. I think editors are also more conscious of getting it wrong, so, in a way, it’s something that does us all a favor. I’m yet to be let near a headline, though.
In regards to Unpacking Media Bias: What's the most important thing to be aware of as an editor or marketer, and what's the most important habit to break as a reader? Good question. It’s helpful to get your news from a variety of outlets rather than internalizing the ingrained bias of one paper; somewhere in the middle is what actually happened. It’s difficult when you don’t feel represented anywhere, though. If marketers and publishers don’t start accurately reflecting communities, I can promise you: they’ll build their own, that are properly inclusive, and will make a killing amongst today’s younger and more conscious consumers. I know so many Black women who don’t bother with mainstream travel pages, because the things they have to worry about on vacation—like safety and racial profiling—are so rarely factored in; they go to Black influencers who tell them what they need to know. Plus, the people we refer to as ‘minorities’ aren’t even minorities anymore when it comes to the numbers. It’s so wild to me that Muslim travellers are the most dominant demographic in the industry—in terms of disposable income and annual spend—and I’m yet to see a press release come across my desk that caters to (or even mentions) them, outside Arab countries. When Meera Dattani and I started Unpacking Media Bias, we were mostly just tired of reading overwhelmingly colonial takes on travel; a lot of them were thoughtlessly so, and we both wanted to provide an informal and educational space for everyone—us included. It’s so common for publishers to say they can’t find talent of color, or that they don’t apply for jobs; not only is it an active choice to have a homogenous-looking workforce in some of the most diverse cities in the world, but we also know the talent is already out there—Meera and I work with different writers and photojournalists every single month who are mind-blowingly good. Plus, from a commercial perspective, if publications—and brands—hired staff from a variety of backgrounds and demographics, they’d be able to understand those communities well enough to seamlessly engage with them.
Ethical travel is more of a journey than an event. From your perspective, what are the biggest misconceptions about ethical travel and what are the first steps toward regeneration? People tend to assume it’s all worthy-looking wild swimming or camping—essentially, that ethical trips can’t feel luxurious or indulgent. I’m rarely interested in going completely off-grid or staying in one of those tiny houses—give me a hotel with soft linen and killer gin martinis, but show me you’re giving community members jobs in senior management and making sure that a large percentage of your profit is distributed among people who live there (rather than being funneled out and into another country in the Global North). The best thing travelers can do is find out who they’re giving their cash to and whether they want to support what’s being done with it—consider it an investment into society, given that tourism accounts for roughly 10 percent of the global GDP. Most socially liberal people probably wouldn’t book into a Trump hotel, for example—and ethical travel moves similarly; it’s about aligning your values with your credit card.
What are you most excited about these days? I think I’m most excited about the prospect of travel, full stop! But, in terms of an industry trend, maybe trip-stacking. Travelling longer—and exploring other destinations that are within reach of the place you’re going—is one of the easiest ways we can be more environmentally conscious, particularly as offices have become a lot more flexible with how people take time off.
Tell us about your dream assignment. I’d love a no-holds-barred interview with Lewis Hamilton, about his push to modernize and diversify motorsport. I’ve loved Formula 1 racing since I was little, but I can’t ignore that it’s riddled with social (and environmental) problems—we’re talking about a wholly unsustainable sport that, instead of using all the innovation at its disposal for good, seems instead to have doubled down on its commitment to the 0.001%. So, Lewis, if you’re reading this, call me! In terms of travel, there’s loads—but actually, the dream is that more people take the time to properly research the history and cultural dynamics of a place (or community) they’re writing about. It’s so important to me that responsible journalism becomes the norm.