Racism and the Media

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Racism and the Media
Teun A. van Dijk, University of Amsterdam

Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona
Bad News: The media are part of the problem of racism
All studies of the role of the 'white' western media in the reproduction of racism arrive at the same conclusion: Many media are part of the problem of racism. Fortunately, more and more journalists today are aware of this and want change.
They know that media bias may be explicit and blatant, as is the case for the British tabloids, and that - more subtly and indirectly - the quality press is not exactly perfect either. In both cases the overall tendency is often the same: Foreigners, immigrants, refugees or minorities, in today's media like 50 and 100 years ago, tend to be portrayed as a problem. As Them rather than as part of Us.
Thus, the Others are stereotyped, marginalized and excluded in many ways in public text and talk: Through biased topic selection (typically crime, violence, drugs or illegal entry), headlines, pictures, lay-out, words, metaphors and many other negative properties of news and background reports, immigrants and minorities are systematically defined not only as different, but also as deviant or even as a threat. Whereas Their negative actions tend to be emphasized with all the discursive tricks of the trade, Ours tend to be mitigated, hidden or denied, as is the case for prejudice, discrimination and racism. And whereas Their economic and cultural contributions to the city or country are being ignored, Our alleged tolerance and the few good things we do for Them are being emphasized.
Competent minority journalists (also those fluent in the language used in these media) seldom get jobs. The prominent newspapers of Europe hardly employ minority journalists as reporters, let alone as editors. Thus, the majority perspective on ethnic news events remains dominant or even exclusive in the newsroom. Other than 'white' elite sources in cases of ethnic conflict or incidents are found less credible or less newsworthy, and tend to be ignored or quoted less.

These are established and well-documented facts confirmed by extensive research. Yet, there are still journalists who deny the fact that the media have any role in the continuation of ethnic inequality and racism. They are not alone. The denial or the mitigation of racism is characteristic of all white elites, also in politics, business, science, the police or in other public agencies. If racism is media news at all, it is usually attributed to others: to poor neighborhoods, to other countries, or only to the extreme right (such as Le Pen in France or Haider in Austria). And the role of the media itself in the perpetuation of racism never hits the headlines.

Good news: The media can be part of the solution…
Despite these repeated scholarly findings about the bleak role of the media in contemporary multicultural societies, there is also a more positive message.
Some journalists have become aware of this situation and advocate change among their colleagues. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has opposed stereotyped and prejudiced portrayal of immigrants or minorities for many years and has often denounced it as bad practice and lacking professionalism.
Journalism schools are admitting more minority journalists and start to teach how to write and broadcast in the media of today's societies. Especially on television, we finally begin to see more media workers of different origins.
Also in the media, the notion of diversity is becoming a criterion of professionalism and even of commercial success. Indeed, minorities are being discovered also as viewers, readers and clients, especially in the USA.
Ten years ago many media outlets might still have rejected the idea of an anti-discrimination code as a form of censorship. Today's editors are beginning to understand that journalists cannot be the only professionals in society without a code of ethics and without some form of critical monitoring. They also realize that the top-to-bottom law of effective social change also applies to the media: It depends on their leadership and good example whether reporters and audiences will follow.
In today's multicultural societies, the media play a crucial role in the communication of information and opinions about different ethnic communities. An increasing number of women and men in the media see this as a challenge to help shape such diverse societies. They are aware that immigration in a globalizing world is a normal phenomenon, and not an 'invasion' or a threat of 'waves' of 'illegals', as so many current metaphors suggest. Whatever their own ethnic background, these journalists naturally consult and quote the best informed sources and spokespeople, both from majority as well as from the minority communities.
Competent journalists report about the social and economic problems that immigrants or minorities may experience in a society where these have little power or access to scarce social resources. They know that prejudice and racism not only characterize some bigoted people at the extreme right, but can be found anytime and anywhere, also at the top. They are aware of the extraordinary power of public text and talk in shaping ethnic attitudes. They have learned how to manage the discursive complexities of news, editorials and background articles so as to help avoid the prejudices that still divide us. In sum, good journalists today know that the success of tomorrow's diverse society crucially depends on them.

(E-mail: teun@hum.uva.nl; Web-site: www.hum.uva.nl/teun).

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