Bias and Conflict of Interest

Learning Objectives

  • Define bias.
  • Define conflict of interest.

Two concepts that are particularly significant to the ethics of public communication are bias and conflict of interest.


Suri’s daughter hands her a picture and asks, “what do you think of my drawing?” “I love the colors!” Says Suri. “I think it’s the best drawing of a squirrel ever . . . but I might be biased.” Bias means a tendency toward or against someone or something. In this case, Suri is biased toward this picture because it was made by her daughter.

Although the word bias sometimes has a negative connotation, it is unavoidable in our everyday lives—we all have preferences and predispositions. Bias becomes an ethical problem when it prevents you from making a fair or reasoned choice about something, such as a hiring decision.

In this regard, implicit bias (also known as unconscious bias or implicit stereotype)[1] is particularly important. As the name suggests, unconscious or implicit bias refers to stereotypes about people that remain hidden to the person who holds them. Unconscious biases can be extremely harmful in many circumstances, for instance, in healthcare[2], law enforcement,[3][4], education,[5] human resources,[6] and public communication.[7]

One well-known model for confronting implicit bias is the FLEX model, created by the IBIS consulting group.

The FLEX Model[8]

  • Tune into your emotions.
  • Recognize how your experience has shaped your perspective.
  • Stick to facts and don’t make assumptions.
  • Turn frustration into curiosity.

  • Recognize how their experiences have shaped their perspectives.
  • Consider how they might see the situation and what is important to them.
  • Think about how your actions may have impacted them.

  • Ask open-ended questions.
  • Listen to understand, not debate.
  • Offer your views without defensiveness or combativeness.
  • Disentangle impact from intent.
  • Avoid blame, think contribution.

  • Brainstorm possible options.
  • Be flexible about different ways to reach a common goal.
  • Experiment and evaluate.
  • Seek out diverse perspectives.

The more aware we become of our implicit biases, the more we are able to make decisions based on our conscious, intentional, and ethical principles.

To Watch

Dushaw Hockett, executive director of Safe Places for the Advancement of Community and Equity (SPACE), speaks on the TEDx stage about implicit bias:

You can view the transcript for “We all have implicit biases. So what can we do about it? | Dushaw Hockett | TEDxMidAtlanticSalon” here (opens in new window).

What to watch for:

Note how Hockett states his thesis claim clearly and directly: “I want to make an argument to you, I want to make a case to you, and the argument that I want to make is that the way that we currently think about, talk about, and act on issues of racial bias and other lines of difference in this country is woefully inadequate and it’s incomplete.” He even says his thesis twice.

Another aspect of Hockett’s speech to note is the way he cites and paraphrases other experts. At one point Hockett says, “Author and researcher Brené Brown draws an interesting distinction between guilt and shame. She says, ‘Guilt says, I made a mistake, and I can do something about it.’ Shame says, ‘I AM a mistake.'” Note how Hockett gives Brown’s credentials (author and researcher) and paraphrases her distinction between guilt and shame. We’ll cover citation and paraphrasing in more depth later in this module.

Measuring Implicit bias

By definition, implicit or unconscious bias is very difficult to measure, and often seems to contradict what a person consciously says and does. One attempt to help people become more aware of their implicit biases is the Harvard Implicit Association Test (IAT). The Implicit Association Test (IAT) attempts to measure the strength of associations between concepts (e.g., gay people or white people) and evaluations (e.g., good, bad) or stereotypes (e.g., lazy, intelligent) by tapping into automatic or unconscious processes. Note: the Implicit Association Test (IAT) isn’t a “bigotry test,” and the results for a given individual taking the test are not necessarily an accurate representation of that person’s unconscious biases.[9] Nonetheless, taking an IAT can be a good way of thinking through the concept and implications of implicit bias.

In the public speaking context, the greatest concern about biases—implicit or explicit—is that they can lead to a biased presentation of a topic. A biased presentation presents facts and arguments in a way that favors one side of an argument over another. If one is speaking to inform the audience about a particular topic, a biased presentation, or “hidden agenda,” can be misleading and unethical.

If the purpose is to persuade, the question of bias is a bit trickier. After all, the point of a persuasive speech is to favor one side of an argument. Here, the ethical question is largely about how to handle evidence. If you intentionally distort the evidence, or leave out significant evidence that contradicts your point of view, the resulting argument may be unethically skewed. As a rule of thumb, consider the quote attributed to the politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts.”[10]

conflict of interest (COI) is an ethical challenge that occurs when an individual or organization is involved in multiple interests that are at odds with one another. Typically, a conflict of interest (COI) arises when an individual finds himself or herself occupying two social roles simultaneously which generate opposing benefits or loyalties. Conflict of interest (COI) is especially problematic in situations involving someone in a position of trust—for instance a spokesperson, journalist, or politician—who has competing professional or personal interests. These competing interests make it hard to act on behalf of one interest without compromising the integrity of the other.

Any media organization has a COI when discussing anything that may impact its ability to communicate as it wants with its audience. Most media, when reporting a story that involves a parent company or a subsidiary, will explicitly report this fact as part of the story, in order to alert the audience that their reporting has the potential for bias due to the possibility of a conflict of interest.

There may be times where you may be asked to speak on behalf of a certain topic in which you have a professional interest or may benefit from financially. In those instances, the ethical speaker will either excuse him or herself from speaking. If unable to do so, he or she may simply disclose the nature of the COI so that everyone is on the same page.

To Watch

Aaron Carroll of Healthcare Triage gives a presentation on COI in the medical professions.

You can view the transcript for “Doctors, Money, and Conflicts of Interest” here (opens in new window).

What to watch for:

Note how Carroll uses a lot of facts and statistics to make his case about the prevalence of COI amongst doctors and researchers. Since this topic is such a contentious topic, Carroll seems to anticipate that most people in the medical professions would claim not to be affected by COI. Carroll relies on the weight of the evidence—a variety of different facts and figures—to show how widespread the problem is.

Keep in mind, however, that using this many statistics can make an argument hard to follow. As one viewer said in the comments on YouTube, the argument might have been easier to follow with more (or simpler) graphics illustrating the numbers.

Also, one more thing to think about when presenting online: opinions will differ about this video’s use of jump-cuts (the presenter jumps from one side of the desk to another). Are they annoying, or do they keep it visually interesting?


Try It


  1. Greenwald, Anthony G., and Mahzarin R. Banaji. “Implicit Social Cognition: Attitudes, Self-Esteem, and Stereotypes.” Psychological Review, vol. 102, no. 1, 1995, pp. 4–27.
  2. Marcelin, Jasmine R, et al. “The Impact of Unconscious Bias in Healthcare: How to Recognize and Mitigate It.” The Journal of Infectious Diseases, vol. 220, no. Supplement_2, 2019
  3. Weir, Kirsten. “Policing in Black & White.” Monitor on Psychology, American Psychological Association, Dec. 2016,
  4. Ross, Cody T. “A Multi-Level Bayesian Analysis of Racial Bias in Police Shootings at the County-Level in the United States, 2011–2014.” Plos One, vol. 10, no. 11, 2015, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0141854.
  5. Staats, Cheryl. "Understanding Implicit Bias: What Educators Should Know." American Educator 39.4 (2016): 29.
  6. Elias, Troy, et al. "A mixed methods examination of 21st century hiring processes, social networking sites, and implicit bias." The Journal of Social Media in Society 5.1 (2016): 189–228.
  7. Usher, Nikki, Jesse Holcomb, and Justin Littman. "Twitter makes it worse: Political journalists, gendered echo chambers, and the amplification of gender bias." The international journal of press/politics 23.3 (2018): 324–344.
  8. source: Interactive Business Inclusion Solutions:
  9. Lopez, German. “For Years, This Popular Test Measured Anyone's Racial Bias. But It Might Not Work after All.” Vox, Vox, 7 Mar. 2017,
  10. Moynihan, Daniel Patrick. Daniel Patrick Moynihan: a Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary. PublicAffairs, 2010, p. 2.