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Do people think ill of Jeff Sessions merely based on the sound of his voice?

Do people think ill of Jeff Sessions merely based on the sound of his voice?
© Anna Moneymaker

When President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpObama slams Trump in Miami: 'Florida Man wouldn't even do this stuff' Trump makes his case in North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin Pence's chief of staff tests positive for COVID-19 MORE mocked his former attorney general Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsBiden fact checks Trump on 545 families separated at border, calls policy 'criminal' Harris walks fine line on Barrett as election nears The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Trump's erratic tweets upend stimulus talks; COVID-19 spreads in White House MORE, the president adopted a southern dialect to mimic the former senator’s voice as he criticized Sessions for recusing himself from the Russian investigation. The implication was that because Sessions has a deep southern accent, he is somehow flawed or less intelligent.

When Sessions visited the Northwestern University campus last fall, he sparked student protests that accused him of bias, intolerance and racism. But was there an unconscious bias toward him already from some of his critics — even before he came — because of his southern drawl? 

Research at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications could suggest whether Sessions’ strong regional southern accent – which no doubt helps him in his current race for his old Senate seat in Alabama — might make people elsewhere in the United States automatically view him with some prejudice, irrespective of his views.

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As a faculty member at Medill, I thought more deeply about the visit and the repercussions, because Jeff Sessions intrigues me for these other reasons — the whole question surrounding how we tend to discriminate against people based on the sound of their voice due to gender, geography or race. 

The media can play into these stereotypes, as cable viewers saw, for example, when guests on Don LemonDon Carlton LemonSchwarzenegger: California GOP has gone 'off the rails' with unofficial ballot boxes CNN's Lemon, MSNBC's Maddow rail against NBC for Trump town hall: 'Embarrassing ratings ploy' CNN's Lemon: Asking Biden, Harris about 'hypothetical' court packing 'not a legitimate question' MORE's CNN show last month reacted to Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoEntire Nigerian police force mobilized after days of violent protests that have killed at least 69 Hillicon Valley: Treasury sanctions Russian group accused of targeting critical facilities | Appeals court rules Uber, Lyft must comply with labor laws | Biden: Countries that target US elections will 'pay a price' Treasury sanctions Russian group accused of targeting US critical facilities with destructive malware MORE’s accusing an NPR host of not knowing where Ukraine was on a map. 

One guest, GOP strategist Rick Wilson, described the “credulous boomer rube” audience he said is part of Trump’s base, and he adopted a mock southern accent to poke fun at the President’s supporters, suggesting they like to feel that “Donald Trump’s the smart one, and y'all elites are dumb." 

In my recent research, conducted in Nashville, I tried to find out how people felt about voices: male and female, black and white, local accent or national “NPR-style” voiceover. Does Jeff Sessions get damning critiques solely due to his subject matter or is there an additional bias from some because of his accent?

To start with, there are actually YouTube videos on his speech patterns. His southern accent is pronounced, and the speech patterns indicate his roots. Research shows many people elsewhere make judgments about folks with a southern accent and find them less credible.

When we listen to our smart speakers, we often hear the voice of an educated female: Think of Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, for example. The United Nations, however, has suggested that using women as voice assistants adds to gender bias. Why do only women voices perform the tasks, the UN asks? 

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My research focused on the question of what voice people want to hear when they listen to news and information. Would they like to hear a voice that matches their own voice or one that is different? Would their relationship to local news, technology, podcasting, radio, audible books, talking billboards and verbal political broadcast narrations change if the speaker’s voice mirrored the listener’s? 

More than half of Americans in 2019 listened to a podcast, up 7 percent from the previous year. One-third of millennials said they listen to five or more podcasts per week. There are 30,000 audiobooks available to borrow. Most television and cable stations have newscasts, and all air the news. 

When the storm hits your town, does the evacuation notice get voiced in the King’s English, as the character David Washington calls it in the movie BlacKkKlansman, or in the local accent? How should we begin to consider voice in the decisions we make to ensure that we reflect the cultural spectrum that is America?

The methodology for my research was as follows and set up to be very accessible at the Nashville downtown main library on a Saturday. 

There were eight computers with each having two stories by the same person available in audio in one of the following combinations: 

1) A black male in a local accent

2) A black male with an NPR accent

3) A white male with a local accent 

4) A white male with an NPR accent 

5) A white female with a local accent 

6) A white female with an NPR accent 

7) A black female with a local accent

8) A black female with an NPR accent. 

Note I have used NPR as a placeholder, the way people in the UK used to refer to a modulated voice as a BBC voice, based on the nationwide, public-affiliated news broadcast. We asked respondents what they would call the intonation, and they said words such as “proper”, “professional”, “Midwestern” and “different”.

The research showed listeners liked hearing women. More than 70 percent of respondents watched local news in Nashville. They liked the female voice of the voice assistant if they had a smart speaker, but the majority would be pleased if the voice assistant could have an accent similar to themselves and their families.

The newsreaders with the highest perceived credibility were the white woman with the local accent and the white man with the NPR accent. I asked about credibility and engagement without asking the listener to define the terms. The reader with the highest engagement was the white male reader with the local accent. 

The respondents were approximately evenly split between black and white.

However, white respondents found black readers significantly less credible than white readers. 

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There was no difference in credibility among black respondents who were judging the different voices. 

We will have to do the experiment in more places, but already the research has demonstrated there is a bias toward local identity in voice and there is an appreciation for female voices. 

But sadly, race still matters in how different people respond to how a voice sounds and to its specific articulation, at least in this moment in time. The longtime column on the use and abuse of language, Johnson, published in The Economist in 2018, noted that “accent prejudice isn’t just wrong; it’s irrational”. 

That is bias. We have it. We have to face it. Speech is a factor that doesn’t get its due. Very often it is southern or racial or ethnic, but we need to start acknowledging and dealing with it. It is way past time that we focused on the unconscious bias that responds simply to another person’s voice. We need to talk about this. 

Candy Lee is a professor at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University.