Unpacking Media Bias with Travel Writers Shivani Ashoka and Meera Dattani: How We Can Make Travel More Inclusive

As the world continues to navigate the pandemic, there is a newfound call for social justice and awareness in unconscious media bias and systemic racism across the travel industry. Travel writers, Shivani Ashoka and Meera Dattani are the co-founders of fortnightly newsletter, ‘Unpacking Media Bias,’ which helps journalists and marketers tackle unconscious bias in all forms of the press. Shivani and Meera share their about the inspiration behind launching the newsletter, the importance of highlighting media bias within travel writing and shares her thoughts on the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the industry

Shivani calls attention in particular to lack of diversity (be it in terms of race, socioeconomic backgrounds, gender, or disability) of not only travel journalists but also of travel company marketing practices, all of which are problematic and it is only by tackling these elements head on that the industry can begin to regenerate itself and most importantly, educate others. Meera also speaks to the issue of ‘privilege’ in the industry, rightly pointing out that whilst ‘we’ may preach concepts such as sustainability, we need to be aware that for those persecuted and marginalized members of society, issues such as sustainability are of little importance given their suffering.

How can we begin to tackle this as an industry and address these deep-rooted issues? Read on for our interview with Shivani and Meera who enlighten us on where to begin.

Your newsletter is called ‘Unpacking Media Bias’ – what was your inspiration behind focusing on this topic on a personal level?

Shivani: This pandemic has almost broken the travel industry, but there’s real opportunity here to build it back better and create the wholly sustainable model we should have had from the beginning. To regenerate it, if you like! There have been a lot of social issues that have come to the forefront—particularly with systemic problems of anti-blackness—whilst we’ve all been locked down and it’s become apparent to everyone that our industry lacks the diversity and inclusivity we claim to promote. I think we both wanted to open doors for people who might not have seen a place for themselves here—and I think many others felt that way, once they’d opened their eyes to the inequality around us.

Meera: Obviously, many people have been tackling media bias for decades – there are some amazing websites and people out there talking about this all the time. I guess I wanted to distil it into a digestible read, for people who perhaps don’t always engage with it at a more intense level, but would still be interested to know more about bias, how it might affect their writing and how they interpret what they read. It’s something I’m still learning more about – I’m certainly no diversity expert – and we hoped that this would make our approach more accessible.

How do you hope to help marketers and journalists tackle inclusion in media?

Meera: If all the newsletter does is make people think twice about using a certain word or photo, that would already be something. The language and images used to describe certain communities or groups can be alienating and inaccurate, so by thinking twice about that, you’re already tackling inclusion. And by highlighting certain themes or concepts, we hope it shows another side to a topic that someone may not have previously given much thought to.

Shivani: Absolutely. And, just to add to that, neither of us want to stand on a soapbox—we often point out that we’re still learning ourselves. I think the fear of getting it wrong can often discourage those who genuinely want to do better from trying, but you’re almost starting from scratch. We weren’t taught this stuff at school; most of the diaspora have gone off and read about colonisation ourselves. Unconscious bias is ingrained. It takes history and context to be able to spot inequality and systemic racism and that’s what we’re really trying to give people. You can’t just switch it off.

What developments do you hope to see in the travel industry in regard to equality and diversity?

Meera: I hope to see more voices used, both in travel editorial but also within travel companies. Not just race, but everything from socio-economic backgrounds to disability. Then you’ll have both rich, engaging editorial to read and itineraries that aren’t afraid to step outside the norm. What we see and do on our trips can shape our world view so there’s a real opportunity here.

Shivani: Just to expand on that, I think it’s so important that marketing and communications teams look at who they’re working with and what content they’re generating. We see so many homogenous, colonial-looking images being sent out by PRs or posted on brand’s websites and they can really perpetuate harmful stereotypes about what a traveller or hotel guest looks like. It’s so important for brands to think about the messaging they put out, as well. Nowadays—particularly after being locked indoors for six months, staring at their phones—people can spot performative action a mile off. You’ve got to walk the walk.

Why and how should travelers be more aware of their unconscious bias when visiting a new destination?

Shivani: I talk a lot about sustainability and I don’t think anyone being persecuted or marginalised cares to sustain the life of the planet, if it’s skewed against them—it comes down to privilege. So, if we want to live sustainably, we ought to consider the social factors as much as the ecological. It’s the same with feminism; it has to be intersectional, because it doesn’t look the same for everyone. We’re not all starting from the same place; women who don’t have basic access to sanitary products aren’t going to wind up in the same intellectual spaces as you, discussing the cultural impact of Angela Davis. I think we’d do well to remember our privilege and not force our expectations on another community—we tend to see that a lot. The amount of times I’ve heard—from seasoned travel writers—that it’s ‘weird’ that Indians eat ‘curry’ for breakfast would shock you.

Meera: Also, thinking about the type of tours they’re booking. If they’re doing any sort of favela/’slum’/township tour, question why and whether it benefits the community (some do). Same with taking photos – do those photos perpetuate stereotypes and why are they taking them? Are they engaging with locals in a way that’s meaningful and not just observing? Are they going out of their way, within reason, to support local people and entrepreneurs as opposed to what everyone is doing/buying from, that has the bigger marketing pull? The internet is a goldmine for throwing up the most amazing suggestions and I know it takes time and it’s easier to do what’s obvious – I do too at times – but if we really want to change things, we have to make some effort too.

What is the first step travel companies should take in addressing inclusion and diversity, not only in their marketing but from a management level?

Meera: I think much of it is about training people for leadership and senior roles. I hear many companies and industries say they want to have more diversity but the people ready for those roles aren’t there. That may be true, in terms of numbers, but why? Sometimes, they are there, at ‘lower’ levels so it requires a conscious effort to seek out the talent, mentor and train them, and get them into leadership positions at a higher management level. If everything is left to grow organically, that’s when the old boys’/old girls’ networks kick in. And while the ‘who you know’ will always exist, to some degree and building relationships and having connections will always be part of life, of course, if a company wants to re-address the balance, they have to go outside that network to do so.

Shivani: The ‘why’ is key, for me. If they don’t think that’s a space for them, they won’t come. If you want more diversity, you have to go out and get it. Not everyone has the mentality that they’re going to go in and break down doors, in order for people to see them. We also can’t have a conversation about race, without having one about class. Systems are in place that teach people in the top 5% of society that they can walk into any room—whether or not they’re qualified to be there—and it’s the opposite for those at the bottom, who work hard and don’t get the opportunities. It takes consistency, representation, education, and discussion—not an empty black square.

To learn more about Unpacking Media Bias newsletter and to subscribe for updates, visit the website here.

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