Silver Haired Bias

I was unreasonably annoyed by some media commentator on Twitter complaining about the BBC. So I decided to use data to prove someone wrong on the Internet.

In a recent article, the BBC described Christine Lagarde thusly:

The role is likely to test the silver-haired 63-year-old, who has admitted before that she lacks economic experience.

The commentator was disgusted that she'd be described as "silver-haired". He wondered out loud "I bet the BBC don't refer to men in this way!"

Luckily, we can test that claim by searching BBC news for that phrase. Here's what I found (restricting myself to stories where the reporter described the subject as "silver-haired", and where the subject was a prominent figure.)

Christine LagardeF2019
Christine Lagarde (again)F2019
Joe BidenM2008
López ObradorM2018
Sven-Goran ErikssonM2018
Uri AvneryM2018
Nikolaus Ziegert.M2015
Robert MuellerM2018
Phillip SchofieldM2017
Jean CodyF2017
Nick HewerM2010
Michel BarnierM2017
Robert Kilroy-SilkM2004
Bernie SandersM2016
Jeremy CorbynM2016
Tom JonesM2010
Robert CoulterM2007
Andrei MakarevichM2010
Des LynamM1998
Louis B SusmanM2011

As you can see - the majority of the first 20 results are male. Lagarde is unique in being mentioned twice.

But don't just take my word for it! Run the search yourself and see.

Now, there are some obvious caveats. The BBC (probably) runs more stories about men than women - so the small number of women may be disproportionately targetted. The BBC's search engine doesn't let you specify the order of results - so I may have missed some stories.

I also didn't check whether it was male or female reporters who used the term. Feel free to explore that yourself.

The commentator quickly apologised and deleted his Tweet before it had hit peak virality in its outrage.

All that said, there are lots of outdated and weird sexist tropes that infect the media. Women are often described in a way that a man wouldn't me. Men are rarely "leggy blonds" or "ditzy". They never have "ample curves" or "flawless skin and dazzling eyes".

Language matters. When we reduce people to their mere looks, we do them a disservice. Reporters should avoid these cliches like the plague.

But... We live online. It's up to you to fact check your own assumptions.

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