Media, a meal & the big reveal: What we learned designing an experience to reduce bias in media

The IDEA card is meant for players to capture what they will do differently based on what they learned. Feedback we received after the event led me (emi) to believe The cards werea bit too forced. (Emi Kolawole)

The IDEA card is meant for players to capture what they will do differently based on what they learned. Feedback we received after the event led me (emi) to believe The cards werea bit too forced. (Emi Kolawole)

Last month we launched into the unknown and brought a piece of Para∆igm to an in-person audience. We called the event "The Media Meal & Reveal," and the "we" was comprised of Amy Lazarus, the founder of Inclusion Ventures, and me

We served dinner and billed the event as an opportunity to break bread and discuss the role bias plays in media consumption and media creation. The night consisted of a game, which I had designed over the course of the last few weeks and months, and a lecture Amy designed on the nature of bias, how our brains process information and the power our world view can have on the perpetuation of bias in media and on into the wider society. 

The moment finally arrived and, expecting twenty people, we found ourselves in front of a fluctuating crowd of eight. There were ten people who joined us in total. The game was a prototype, and there were pieces that worked and pieces that didn't. Here's how it is played:

Materials:

  • 24 Question cards
  • Three Reveal cards per player
  • One Idea card per player

How to play:

The game is played in pairs, and each pair receives 24 questions on randomized cards turned face-down. The pair determines who will play as "partner 1". Then, partner 1 takes a card, turns it over and asks the other partner the question on the face of the card. 

Partner 2 then answers the question as best they can, while Partner 1 asks follow-up questions. Here's the critical rule: all follow-up questions must be open-ended. This rule presents the opportunity for players to see the benefits of asking questions in line with the empathy interviewing technique we teach here at the d.school. Examples of open ended questions are: following up with a simple "why", asking someone to "tell me more about that" or ask them "how did that make you feel". 

The conversation continues for five minutes (though we realized this was probably too little time). Partner 2 picks up a card to start another conversation, switching roles with partner 1. The players continue this way for four rounds (though, we think more rounds may be necessary in future games). 

Once the question phase is done, each player turns over their Reveal cards. The Reveal cards are meant to give players an opportunity for framed capture of what they learned. They can list what troubled them, what surprised them and what helped them. The cards also present an opportunity for people to turn inward and discover something they didn't know about themselves. 

After each player fills out their Reveal cards, they discuss them with their partner. Each partner then is given one Idea card. This is the card on which they can describe an idea they have to change their behavior for the better going forward. 

The reveal cards are meant to give players an opportunity to synthesize their thoughts and reflect more deeply on what they heard. They didn't quite work out that way. (Emi Kolawole)

The reveal cards are meant to give players an opportunity to synthesize their thoughts and reflect more deeply on what they heard. They didn't quite work out that way. (Emi Kolawole)

That's the game. It's relatively simple, and the only way to win is to reveal your media habits and commit to changing them in a way that may make you less biased in your media creation and better able to spot bias when you consume media. 

The game, in this incarnation, was focused entirely on media and bias, featuring questions such as: 

  • What is the worst stereotype you have seen in media? 
  • How often would you say you consider bias in media? 
  • What role do transgender people currently play in media? 

...and on they go for 22 questions in total. Two cards serve as "wild cards," which allow players to ask a question of their own. 

Following the game, Amy gave a lecture on the nature of bias, brain function and the ways to reduce bias and turn the non-virtuous cycle generated by a biased world view into a virtuous one. The lecture was very well received as were the conversations that were sparked in the game. But there were some very clear lessons learned as a result of this prototype event. Here are a few of the big ones:

Model behaviors in your prompts. 

The question cards are all placed face-down on the table before Players begin. (Emi Kolawole)

The question cards are all placed face-down on the table before Players begin. (Emi Kolawole)

There was a glaring problem in the game. Did you see it? I didn't until I watched people interact with the cards in a group. The questions on the cards are closed. "How often would you say you consider bias in media" implies a number of times or a finite, right/wrong response. It was an error born of wanting to steer the conversation in a particular way from the start rather than providing guide posts. It's impossible to expect open-ended follow-ups without leading with open-ended questions. 

Cards don't make a game. 

Just because you have cards doesn't mean you have a game. Simple, I know. The game was, instead, for me to figure out how people could interact to produce the desired result: an insight into the nature of their own bias. 

Cultivate empathetic dialogue rather than conversation. 

Amy is a dialogue expert and there are core elements of the empathy interview process that could be married with dialogue practice to make for a much richer conversation than the one we had. In the next iteration, it's worth testing whether we can guide people to not only have more open conversations but ones that generate greater inclusiveness.

Create a blended experience to ease interaction, grow learning & guide discovery. 

We had distinctly separated the "design thinking" element of the engagement from the "bias" element when, instead, the two components need to be blended. Going forward, it may be good to conduct smaller tests to see how people feel as one type of activity flows into another. 

Use creation as a path to insight.

It's one thing to have people share their ideas and insights. It's quite another to have them do so through the act of making something. Making is much more in line with a design thinking approach than chronicling or capturing. That's not to say capture isn't important in the design thinking process, but it's important to make something and then capture what results. I broke the rules a bit, placing the burden of making on myself (Emi) rather than offering it as an opportunity for the participants. 

One person makes a full house. 

We projected that we were underwhelmed by turnout. One person is an audience and their time is just as valuable as anyone else's. 

How do you discuss bias without calling it "bias"?

One of the attendees noted that we may want to consider using a word other than "bias". In our invitation we had mentioned the word, but that only allowed us to bring in those who are comfortable with the topic. We, essentially, preached to the choir. 

Nevertheless, the comment caught me off guard. How could we not mention bias? That was, after all, the whole point. If you don't face the problem head on, how are you supposed to solve it? 

I've spent the last few days thinking about that point of feedback. It was incredibly valuable and not feedback I could have given easily. That also made it a particularly bitter pill to swallow. But the participant was right. We need a new word to describe what we're trying to solve for. We need to make it easier for people who find the topic painful or difficult to discuss to enter the engagement. 

We need more time, but that starts with shorter tests. 

We spent an entire evening with people on this prototype, and there was a lot of front-end work. We had tested pieces of the evening separately. But, going forward, it's going to be necessary to micro-test elements of a much longer event more thoroughly. For example, what does a transition between a discussion and a particular act of making look like? What does the transition between a lecture and an opportunity for reflection look like? What do two interactions around a particular question look like? Perhaps, we just test one question at a time, holding empathetic dialogues until we settle on the ones that spark the richest interactions. 

What's next? 

We're running another prototype this month. There's a long road ahead -- one full of work. But, if we can nail this, it means creating a lasting experience through which people, regardless their profession or experience with media, can understand and act to reduce their biases and grow inclusion. 

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Emi Kolawole

Emi Kolawole earned her B.A. in international relations and theater studies from Wellesley College and studied abroad at both the Panthéon-Sorbonne and the National Theater Institute.  She joined the Annenberg Public Policy Center's FactCheck.org in November, 2005 after working as a news researcher for Congressional Quarterly on issues of defense, foreign policy, intelligence and homeland security. Previously, she was a production assistant at PBS's "NOW With Bill Moyers," and worked in the Washington area office of a defense contractor.

In addition to her work as a staff writer and researcher for FactCheck, Emi was the host, writer and video editor for FactCheck.org's weekly video feature "Just the Facts!"  She is a level 1 certified Final Cut Pro editor and earned her master's degree in producing for film and video at American University. She also led the fact-checking review effort for "UnSpun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation."

Emi served as the associate producer for "Washington Week with Gwen Ifill & National Journal." In June 2010 she joined the Washington Post as a producer for PostPolitics. She served as the founding editor for Ideas@Innovations (now "Innovations") and co-host for the Post's daily news program "59 Seconds." In 2011, Emi was named a Young Global Shaper by The World Economic Forum. In 2013 she was listed among The Grio 100, was named a French-American Foundation Young Leader and accepted an invitation to become the Editor-in-residence at the d.school at Stanford University. She has served for the past three years at the d.school, most recently as a senior media designer working on the media experiments collaboration between Knight Foundation and the d.school. She is currently the founder of the media and design consultancy Dexign LLC.