Presentation for the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI),
Racism and the European Press
Teun A. van Dijk
discourses dot org
Version 5.0. November 18, 2006
research of the last
three decades has consistently found that the European news media in
and the written press in particular, have been part of the problem of
rather than part of its solution. The major findings of this research
summarized as follows (with the inevitable lack of detail and
exceptions to the
generalizations summarized here):
journalists of ethnic minority groups are discriminated against in
access to the press. The major newspapers of
2. Lacking diversity in news gathering.
A nearly exclusively white newsroom also contributes to lacking diversity in daily routines of news gathering, source selection, and quotation. Ethnic news events are construed from a ‘white’, European, perspective. News sources tend to be selected from among ‘white’ elite institutions: National and local politicians, the police, scholars, and lawyers, on the one hand, and civil rights workers and NGOs on the other hand. Thus, most leaders and other spokespersons of ethnic groups, even where eminently competent and relevant, tend to be excluded from the definition and evaluation of the ethnic events of European multicultural societies. If speaking at all, immigrants are heard as passive, anonymous victims. Ethnic experiences, expertise and opinions are by definition found to be less credible than those of ‘white’ sources, even in situations when the latter may be characterized as biased. Apart from the general characteristics of selective news gathering among elite institutions, one of the causes of this biased news production is that white journalists have less experience and expertise to contact and communicate with ethnic minority organizations and spokespersons.
As possible explanations, if not as excuses for the lack of diversity in news gathering, it should first be mentioned that it is often difficult to contact smaller minority groups and organizations that have less organized interaction with the press through news releases, press conferences, press agencies, and so on.
Secondly, the broader social and economic situation also implies that many reporters have to work under precarious work conditions, in which deviance from editorial policies and corporate constraints might expose them to sanctions. This also means that the responsibility of biased reporting should not be equally divided over all journalists, but — following our main claim of the role of the elites in the reproduction of racism — more specifically to (chief) editors and media owners. This is also the reason why we recommend below to change racism in the press first of all by addressing the top, as we also do for politics, corporate business, science and education.
should be stressed that racist reporting is not always intentional, but
often the consequence of other contextual conditions mentioned above
(deadlines, lack of resources, more difficult contacts with minority
organizations, etc.) in general, and lack of knowledge and education on
other hand. Unbiased reporting requires more explicit professional
details of text and talk, and especially about the consequences of
discourse on social cognitions (models, attitudes, ideologies) and
inequality. It is of course the task of leading editors to monitor
and opinion in view of the possibly racist effects of the discourses
3. Lacking multicultural professional education of journalists.
society requires multicultural professional education and on-the-job
journalists. Although some universities organize such courses, some
are open to training in specialized ‘ethnic’ expertise, and the
Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has consistently recommended such
overall situation remains one of predominantly monocultural
education and training. Against the background of the consistent denial
racism in the press, journalists are seldom critically educated to be
and to avoid biased news gathering, topic selection, style and
they are probably the only profession that is never criticized in the
they are not used to systematic public criticism, as is the case for
politicians and scholars! If at all, books of style only recommend
explicitly racist labels and do not deal with more subtle and indirect
bias. Results of scholarly research about racism (including
Eurocentrism, ethnicism, etc.) and the press are seldom used as
examples to be
avoided. Self-critical ethnic awareness training is virtually absent in
organizations. Some countries and newspapers have deontological
codes that also deal with ethnic coverage, but such recommendations are
generally flouted in practice, especially in the rightwing popular
in academic education and in on-the-job training there is scant
attention for the
possible influences of ethnically biased reporting on the formation of
prejudices of the readers and for the role of the press in the
racism in society.
Emphasize Our Good Things, and Their Bad Things
De-emphasize Our Bad Things, and Their Good Things
This polarization in the formulation of news events is an expression of familiar patterns of biased underlying mental models of ethnic events that are familiar in social psychological research on prejudice and intergroup conflict. The expression of such models in news reports has consistently been shown to have the following characteristics at all levels of news reports, editorials and opinion articles:
(a) Negative topics. Contrary to news about autochthonous citizens, news about immigrants, refugees and minorities is organized by a limited number of negative topics, namely
(i) Arrival and immigration of non-Europeans are defined as a fundamental problem, if not as a threat to the nation, and seldom as a positive development.
(ii) Integration of resident minorities is defined as problematic if not as impossible, especially because ‘They’ do not want to integrate — thus blaming the victim.
(iii) Immigrants and minorities are often associated with deviance, illegality, crime, violence or terrorism, and refugees and asylum seekers with abuse of social services.
On the other hand, topics that are relevant for immigrant or minority communities, or that reflect negatively on the dominant white ingroup and its elite institutions, tend to be avoided or downplayed, such as (i) white racism and discrimination, (ii) minority contributions to the economy, society, science and culture – except in such stereotypical domains as sport and pop music, (iii) experiences and the everyday lives of ethnic minority groups. To wit, racism in the press is hardly ever a topic in the press itself. Research findings about the role of the press in the reproduction of racism are consistently ignored and denied, and very seldom fairly or self-critically reported.
Perhaps most systematically lacking in the account of immigration and minorities are the numerous ways these contribute to the welfare of the host country and society. The press should not only be interested in drama and conflict, but also provide the positive messages that confirm feelings of stability and well-being among the readers. Thus, immigration can very well be systematically portrayed as a boon for the country, and not as a threat, as we also know from the positive economic effects of immigration, not to speak of the dynamic cultural and social diversity of multicultural countries. Similarly, it would make sense to regular picture in some dramatic detail what would happen to the country if indeed suddenly all or most immigrants would ‘go back’. Part of such more positive coverage would also be more attention for prominent or successful figures among immigrants and minorities, a more selective focus on the more moderate than on the radical Others, and broader attention for national and international initiatives of bridging the gap between ethnic communities or between whole ‘civilizations’.
Obviously, the selective coverage of ‘negative’ topics is not only an effect of media bias, but partly also caused by those who feed the press with such stories, primarily the mainstream political parties. Thus, the widespread political and media panic on immigration, refugees, terrorism and Islam is largely also due to the way the press covers politicians — to which independent, critical media should take more active distance.
descriptions. Within such
globally negative topics, news on immigration, minorities or refugees
formulated in discourse structures that emphasize the negative
of the ethnic outgroup and minimizes those of the white ingroup. This
for instance, by such labels as ‘scroungers’ or ‘parasites’, e.g., to
refugees especially in the rightwing popular press, by the general use
negative military or menacing metaphors such as ‘invasion’ or ‘waves’
the arrival of immigrants, irrelevant ethnic labels in crime reporting
well-known disclaimers in opinion articles (‘I am not a racist, but…’,
course we know the problems of Africa, but…’) . Conversely, active
white ingroup members in negative actions tends to be minimized, for
by nominalizations (such as ‘discrimination’ — where it is not made
clear who discriminates against whom). More
generally, then, their negative acts
are prominently displayed (front page, large article, large type,
precise detail, and in hyperbolic terms, whereas our
negative acts are ignored, excused or mitigated by euphemisms,
or attributed to small right-wing fringe groups (e.g., Neonazis), that
again to others. Besides the obvious
textual dimensions of media bias in the press, also photos (for
another boat of Africans arriving in the Canary islands, or of violent
Indians in the
(c) Selective quotation. As may be predicted from selective news gathering, ethnic minorities and their spokespersons are systematically less quoted than white elite sources, even when they would be more qualified to give their view or opinions of some ethnic event. And — unlike white sources — if minority spokespersons are quoted at all, they seldom are allowed to speak alone, so as to avoid that they are the only ones defining an ethnic event. Those of the Others that do not conform to the prevalent stereotypes (e.g., modern, tolerant, Muslim politicians and scholars) are seldom asked or cited. Similarly, dissidents of Our group who criticize dominant politics and media are routinely silenced or attacked as ‘ethnic’ traitors.
characteristic example: The press coverage of the Danish Cartoon
news and opinion articles on immigration and integration of Muslims
been negative, current coverage, especially of Islam and Arabs, is
influenced by the terrorist attacks on the
Whereas in this affair — and more generally in the coverage of Islam — the daily focus is on various aspects of Islamist terrorism, on the one hand, and Muslim ‘backwardness’, on the other hand — typically in the selective attention for the use of scarves (often misnamed ‘veils’ or sometimes even ‘burkas’ in the press) by some Muslim women, an attention never paid to the clothes of ‘our’ catholic nuns. There is no comparison with the scant attention paid to the fundamentalist religious right in the USA, despite its influence on the decision by the ‘neocons’ to invade Iraq, and hence its shared responsibility for the death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi citizens and U.S. military — vastly more than the victims of Islamist terrorism. Nor is the same critical attention paid to the abuse of power of the Catholic church over many important aspects of the everyday lives many hundreds of millions of people in the world — such as the misery caused to the women who are not allowed to divorce violent husbands or to have an abortion, not to speak of the deaths of thousands of AIDS victims who were infected by HIV because the Catholic church prohibits the use of condoms. In sum, in such biased reporting, not only do we find the usual strategies of ingroup polarization and self-glorification, but especially also a nearly blind eye for the many fundamental problems of ‘our own’ western or European society, politics, religion and culture.
Few recent news events more clearly illustrate the general strategy of positive self-presentation and negative other-presentation in the press: To define and condemn anti-Muslim cartoons, and hence a newspaper as racist or ‘ethnicist’, was simply inconceivable in this case. In other words, the coverage of this controversy was characterized by all the properties that are largely accepted as the definitions of eurocentrist prejudice and racism: Emphasizing Our white (European, western) moral and political superiority — freedom, tolerance, democracy, and secularism — and emphasizing and overgeneralizing Their backwardness, violence, dictatorships, and religious fanaticism — and silencing or mitigating ours.
5. Effects on the readers.
Although media effects are a very complex issue, it is not only plausible that biased reporting on immigrants, refugees or minorities has a negative effect on the ethnic attitudes of the readers, but such effects have also been demonstrated in empirical research. Moreover, critical rejection of biased media discourse may be expected only from those readers who have positive interethnic experiences or who already have an antiracist ideology. It has been shown that once biased ethnic models of concrete ethnic events have been formed, these may in turn be generalized to more general stereotypes and prejudices of the ethnic outgroups — and even to the formation of racist ideologies. Such ideologies may even construe the interpretation of neutrally formulated news events as biased mental models that are seen to confirm the basic ideology.
conclusion of these consistent research results is that the press, just
most elite institutions in
The recommendations that are based on this research are straightforward, and basically imply to heed its widely and repeatedly reproduced conclusions. More specifically, such research recommends the following guidelines and practices, to be systematically implemented in the everyday routines of news making — guidelines that have been formulated in many investigations, reports, meetings and fora:
Final (critical) remarks on racism and the freedom/power of the press
It goes without saying that the recommendations formulated above in no way should be interpreted as a limitation of the freedom of the press. On the contrary, they should be seen as a contribution to enhancing the overall professional quality of news reporting in multicultural societies. Following universal guidelines of the United Nations, nation states, organizations and institutions, world wide, are called to actively combat all forms of racism.
Such guidelines especially also apply to symbolic institutions such as the news media, which play a decisive role in the formation of the ethnic beliefs of citizens. Prejudice and racism are not innate but learned. They are learned from dominant public discourse, for instance in politics, textbooks, scientific publications, and especially in the news media, which are also the mediator of the other symbolic elites. In this respect, the media should also play a much more active role in the prevention, instead of the promotion, of social panics that have minor causes but that may have racist effects, as is the case for the controversy about the ‘veils’ of Muslim women. The tendency of much of the press — and not only the tabloid press — to dramatize and exaggerate in such cases is one of the major causes for the propagation of ‘ethnic panics’ that are potent conditions for the formation and confirmation of stereotypes and prejudices. In sum, journalists — as well as politicians — should be more acutely aware of the possibly negative consequences of biased text and talk in the formation of social attitudes. They should more actively criticize those among themselves who explicitly engage in discrimination, prejudice and racism — and not only at the extreme right.
a democratic society, powerful
institutions are accountable for their actions. Total freedom means
power, and hence is limited by the law, as well as by moral and
responsibility. Abuse of freedom by powerful institutions means abuse
This is as true for the freedom of speech and the press, as it is for
freedom of science and politics. There is general agreement about
freedom of companies in producing tobacco, medicine or food, or to
from polluting the environment. Corporate activity and production that
the lives and health of the population or that limit the basic rights
citizens is routinely put under scrutiny, if not controlled or
We readily accept the prohibition of
unhealthy or poisonous food. However, especially the symbolic elites
tend to radically
reject to even self-regulate explicitly racist media products (e.g. of
tabloids) that poison the minds of millions, and that have been shown
produce prejudices and promote racism, social inequality and political
instability. That is, we should be very much aware of the consequences
of not regulating racist ethnic coverage.
Since all freedoms of powerful organizations are limited by law, and
already the case for the freedom of expression and the press (for
libel laws — which typically also favor —other— elites), it should
examined whether or not (more) self-regulation of the press on very
points, such as the prevention of the reproduction of ethnic
prejudices, is an
effective contribution to social equality, and hence to democracy. That
may have to decide between corporate interests and elite prerogatives
one hand, and a more just society on the other hand. In the sometimes
balance that defines interethnic relations in multicultural societies,
may have dire consequences, as we have seen in the Holocaust and more
in the genocides in
Research shows that most ‘ethnic’ reporting in Europe is routinely characterized by sensationalist and negative coverage of the ‘invasion’ of immigrants, of ‘scrounging’ refugees, of the alleged ‘clash of civilizations’, the threat of Islamist terrorism and of Islam in general, among other preferred topics. At the same time the long history and the everyday reality of European racism — also in the mass media — tends to be ignored or mitigated — as is also the case in textbooks.
press cannot be free when its own
racism is taboo in its coverage, and when its critics do not have
access to its
op-ed pages. It is crucial to recall that
the freedom of the press was acquired not to marginalize, problematize
against powerless groups, but to defend them against the powerful state
dominant groups. A truly free press would be able to attack the
misdeeds of its owners or the racism of its colleagues, instead of some
Muslim girls or a few suicidal Islamist boys who feel increasingly
stop a war or to prevent the daily assassination of Palestinian women
children by the Israeli army — among many other condoned violations of
rights directed against Arabs and Muslims. A free press uses the label
‘terrorism’ for all political forms
of violence against unarmed citizens, also when perpetrated by states.
other hand, the need to criticize states for their terrorism, as is the
the Israeli oppression of the Palestinian people or of violence in
the alarming and increasing
forms of racism in Europe today, partly propagated by some of the press
hardly combated by most of the press, are not radically curbed, the
multicultural future of
Emphasizing the obvious value of freedom of the press without implementing the democratic and professional responsibilities that follow from the role of the news media in multicultural society, as recommended above, may be seen as self-serving protection of the power and the interests of the dominant ‘white’ group in society, that is, as a form of racism.
end this brief statement on
racism in the European press in a more positive tone, the good news are
exceptions to the rules, regularities and routines summarized above.
all, what has been said about most of the press does not always apply
and radio. Secondly, there are of course significant differences
newspapers. Much of what has been said above — such as the use of
negative labels — applies more generally and more seriously to the
popular press (especially the tabloids, e.g., in the UK, Germany,
Denmark) than to the — much smaller—
left-leaning liberal quality press. Some newspapers, for
instance in the
For critical comment and suggestions, I am indebted to Simon Cottle, Xavier Giró, John Richardson, Ruth Wodak and especially to Antonio Bañón for his detailed suggestions.
The scholarly literature upon which this declaration and its recommendations are based is extensive, and includes many studies in many countries and in several disciplines. There are also numerous reports, also by organizations of journalists, on the role of the press in the reproduction of (and the struggle against) racism. For brevity’s sake we only cite the following prominent monographs (and not articles), and only on the written press in western Europe. For examples, theory and many analysis, see also my other books and papers on racism in the press (see my internet sight for a list of publications).
Ainley, B. (1998). Black journalists, white media. Stoke on
Short biographical note Teun A. van Dijk
Teun A. van Dijk was professor of discourse
studies at the
Although this paper was
intended as a contribution to the ECRI session, I finally decided to
more general account of the relations between discourse and racism at
session itself, also because the observations, conclusions and
of this paper are hardly new for those who have been engaged in the
the role of the press in the reproduction of racism. More specific,
with respect to my own earlier work on racism and the press, is the
here of the topic of the ECRI meeting, namely how to struggle against
the press without limiting press freedom. During the actual ECRI
appeared that at least some participants appeared to be more concerned
not limiting the freedom of the press than with the freedom to be
against racism. Hence, also the critical perspective taken at the end
paper — also presented during the ECRI session, where I referred to
freedom as the “holy cow” of the symbolic elites, obviously because its
limitation most directly threatens their basic interests. Whereas
a general and positive value, its application in specific domains may
transform it into the sectional a criterion for the interests of
groups, as is also the case for the notion of ‘freedom of the market’.