Jihad: “Internal Struggle or Holy War”
Just that word can invoke images of terrorists, violence and polarization of the Islamic religion. Yet, this loaded word is still irresponsibly and casually used in news media outlets to paint a portrait of Islamic radicalism, while demonizing Muslims. In the last decade, the media has managed to educate and inform people about Islam and the Middle East, but it has also blurred the lines of religion and nationality, individuality and categories and created a narrow and repackaged image of Islam and Muslims. This is the power of mass media.
The Netherlands has traditionally been known for its values of inclusion, compromise and societal tolerance, but within recent decades racism and stereotyping has become more prominent in the news media. In the context of immigration, journalists, television programs and various media outlets intrinsically are a part and a reflection of the complex relationship between ethnic minorities and the cultural status quo of tolerance. Although it is the cultural norms and worldviews of Dutch society that continue to shape what is discussed in the public discourse, the media also influences and perpetuates stereotypes of Muslims, (non-Western) foreigners and immigrants. With its position and influence in society, the role of mass media has shifted from truth-telling and informing the public to also influencing attitudes, establishing cultural references and even perpetuating stereotypes commonly associated with marginalized populations. Ethnic, cultural and religious identities are particularly sensitive especially in the way “mass media represent, focus and give voice to different actors and incidents in society,” which “could have the unintentional result of strengthening a racist discourse instead of fighting against it” (European Research Centre on Migration and Ethnic Relations, 2002). These issues of stereotyping and polarization in reporting are further exacerbated in the context of Dutch tolerance, where crime, poverty, security, immigration and culture can be painted in black or white, rather than in nuance.
The Netherlands has traditionally been known for its values of inclusion, compromise and societal tolerance, but within recent decades racism and stereotyping has become more prominent in the news media.
From key events that served as a “tipping point” to the reception of immigrants and asylum seekers in The Netherlands, it is through the lens of the media that the majority of Dutch citizens have seen and read about these issues. By far, mass media is incredibly instrumental in shaping the conversation and culture in society, and because of this it serves as a powerful outlet of information. With the increasing multicultural society in the Netherlands, this article aims to explore Dutch media and its portrayal of ethnic minorities. This article also explores the question of accountability and transparency in mass media in reporting sensitive issues that may intentionally or unintentionally create stereotypes.
Ethnic Minorities in Dutch Media
In 1983 both the “Minderhedennota” (Policy Document on Minorities) and the “Medianota” (Policy Document on the Media) focused on the disadvantaged position of minorities in the national mass media. In a move to improve cultural diversity, the Dutch government felt that “a number of measures [are] justified that put minorities in a better position to aspire to emancipation.” (Bink, 1999) There are efforts to ensure that ethnic minorities are integral in the mass media, especially because these outlets of communication are a means to also assimilate minorities into society. In the past decades, cultural diversity in employment and visibility in the media have been given considerable encouragement, but still ethnic minorities in Dutch society feel that they are not fairly represented in mainstream media.
Stereotypes and misinformation has caused ethnic minorities to turn away from mainstream media and towards an “increasing use of transnational satellite and internet media for information”
A study by Mark Deuze and Annemarie van Lankveld conducted among journalists found that 2% of professionals have a non-Dutch background. Interestingly, the two percent non-Dutch journalists often found themselves working in specific “multicultural” editorial offices or in other specializations. The study showed that the majority of journalists are male, white and on average 42 years old, and have worked in the media for about 17 years (Ouaj, 1999). Thus, the discussion on ethnic minorities in the Netherlands is that the editorial culture is still far too “white.” Not only is this “feeling” of misrepresentation found in employment in news media among ethnic minorities, but also in the news content that is put out. Stereotypes and misinformation has caused ethnic minorities to turn away from mainstream media and towards an “increasing use of transnational satellite and internet media for information” (Bink, 1999). Muslims especially have turned towards global media to watch unfiltered breaking news in the Middle East such as the popular Arab news channel Al Jazeera. (Mira Media, 2003)
In a publication by the European Research Centre on Migration and Ethnic Relations (ERCOMER), published in February 2002, the way mass media reported on ethnic issues in the Netherlands from 1995 to 2000 was analyzed. The study discussed the relationship between the media and migrants on the basis of existing literature and general insights with the main topics focusing on the role of TV reporting, the attitude of journalists, media recruitment policies and the portrayal of Muslims (ERCOMER, 2002). Such topics like culture, education, religion and entertainment were rarely mentioned alongside racism or anti-racism. Just by looking at themes of television programs about ethnic minorities, the common topics of discussion and debate include: refugees and asylum seekers, immigration, racism and the extreme right and the problems of multiculturalism in inner cities. It is important to acknowledge that if ethnic minorities are only or often mentioned in debates, politics or other issues of contention, it is easy to associate and diminish ethnic minorities as a “problem.”
The oversimplification of stories, conflicts and culture in the mainstream media presents a narrow view of ethnic minorities, especially Muslims
ERCOMER also found that the public discourse on racism and anti-racism are more likely to be discussed or associated in the context of politics and extremism. Although racism and anti-racism were important issues, racism was largely reported in relation to right-wing extremism and racist violence, while anti-racism reports were mostly related to mass mobilization, protest meetings and demonstrations. This goes to show that the mainstream media produces news and stories that are indeed polarizing and overly simplified to the public.
This oversimplification of stories, conflicts and culture in the mainstream media presents a narrow view of ethnic minorities, especially Muslims, and alienates an increasingly culturally diverse population in the Netherlands. It has become a norm to see ethnic minorities associated with issues of immigration, crime, poverty, asylum and displacement and global security, but what exactly happened to create the media furor we see today when it comes to ethnic minorities in the Netherlands?
The Tipping Points
9/11: The Twin Towers
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, are the tipping point in the way Muslims were portrayed in the media. Before the terrorist attacks, Muslims and Islam were not perceived as a threat to society, but after the bombing of the Twin Towers in New York, the cultural beliefs, practices and traditions of Muslims were constantly questioned. In the case of the Netherlands, this was especially so for people of Moroccan and Turkish descent. Such issues like immigration, crime and security and asylum seekers in the Netherlands were picked up by politicians in the Parliament’s second chamber, such as Pim Fortuyn, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Geert Wilders.
The fear of terrorism was directly related to Islam and Muslims, which caused for a wave of negative and stereotyping reports of Muslims.
The simplification of Islam and Muslims during the reporting of 9/11 and how most news media reports only focused on Muslims when it involves crime, security or their culture, caused for a one-sided, negative framework in the way that Muslims were portrayed. The fear of terrorism was directly related to Islam and Muslims, which caused for a wave of negative and stereotyping reports of Muslims. The linking of Islam with terrorism “(..) complicated the legitimacy of symbolic representation of Muslim identity in the public spheres in Western society” (Byng, 2010, 10). In the Dutch media practices, Muslims were constantly questioned and criticized, whereby the practice of wearing headscarves was considered as the oppression of women, which caused for a new wave of stereotyping and oversimplification in media whereby Islam was perceived as a misogynistic religion. The generalization and stigmatization of Muslims caused for social unrest and division in society, whereby Muslims were constantly confronted about cultural and religious aspects, which often were incorrectly interrelated and caused for even more confusion within the multicultural society.
It was a turning point of the political landscape in the Netherland, in which populism took on the overhand and harshened language used by politicians with regard to Muslims and Islam.
Fortuyn and Van Gogh
The murders of politician Pim Fortuyn in 2002 and film director Theo van Gogh in 2004 shocked the nation and stirred up the debate about Islam. Both public figures were outspoken about immigration and integration policies in the Netherland – in particular with regard to Muslims and the influence of Islam and the Dutch identity (Besamusca & Verheul 2010, 2).
Pim Fortuyn was an anti-immigration populist politician in the Parliament’s second chamber who was outspoken about multiculturalism and the position of Muslims and Moroccans in society. He didn’t hold back in his statements on Islam and Moroccans. He was labeled as a far-right populist by his opponents and the media. Fortuyn wanted reform of the integration policy, which led to intense discussions and public debates, whereby he changed the discourse of public debates and the political landscape with regard to immigration and Islam in the Netherlands (Bodemann & Yurdakul, 2006, 150). It was a turning point of the political landscape in the Netherland, in which populism took on the overhand and harshened language used by politicians with regard to Muslims and Islam. The media picked up this development in the political landscape, which led to an increase of reporters framing Moroccans or Islam primarily negatively, such that the linking of Moroccans youths with extremism and radicalization, whereby these youngsters were portrayed as a threat for the Dutch society. In 2002, Fortuyn was assassinated by Volkert van der Graaf, who was known as a vegan animal rights campaigner. In court, Van der Graaf stated that his goal was to stop Fortuyn’s exploitation of Muslims as “scapegoats and targeting of the weak parts of society to gain political power.” The assassination of Fortuyn caused turmoil in society and the public debate on Islam was even more polarized.
Theo van Gogh was a public figure in the Netherland who was a film producer, a film director, columnist and an actor. On November 2, 2004, Van Gogh was assassinated by Mohammed B, and two letters were left on his body. One letter was a farewell poem and the other was a death threat directed to Ayaan Hirsi Ali – who at that time was a Dutch parliamentarian of Somali descent in the Parliament’s second chamber. Hirsi Ali and Van Gogh collaborated in the making of the short film Submission (2004), in which the position of women in Islam was questioned and criticized. Van Gogh was targeted because of “his extremely offensive public denunciations of Islam and also for his role in the making of the short film Submission” (Bodemann & Yurdakul 2006, 150). In this film, Islam was portrayed as a religion promoting violence against women, and it also presented “Koranic verses that seem to justify the mistreatment of women on the naked bodies of veiled actresses” (Bodemann & Yurdakul 2006, 150). The making of this film caused for commotion in the public debate about Islam and raised resistance within the Muslim community in the Netherlands, because the film was perceived as overall stereotyping and negative frame-working of the Islam as misogynistic.
The polarization of the society, whereby Islam was perceived as a threat, caused for a wave of negative, stereotyping associations in the media.
In the murder of Van Gogh, two themes stand out in the discussion, namely “religion and secularization, and gender equality.” Like Fortuyn, Van Gogh railed against what he saw as “the backwardness of Muslim culture, a backwardness that in his perception threatened Dutch society” (Bodemann & Yurdakul 2006, 150). Whereby, gender and sexual politics were important topics in his view on practices of immigrants. Some described Van Gogh as a freedom writer while others found him extreme in his statements about Muslims and the Islam. Whatever viewpoint one takes, it cannot be denied that Van Gogh did change the atmosphere of the public debate with regard to immigration, integration and Islam in the Netherlands. He was outspoken and didn’t hold back in his statements about Islam, which led to a new understanding, whereby Islam was framed as a negative influence of the Dutch cultural traditions and society. Some have said that the aforementioned tensions exist because of “an increase of criminal behavior of Muslim youth, radicalization and increased visibility.” Others state, however, that Muslims are subject to “a stigmatizing, stereotyping and sometimes plain racist language, biased media reporting and a disproportionate focus on safety policy” (Shadid 2009, 173.) The polarization of the society, whereby Islam was perceived as a threat, caused for a wave of negative, stereotyping associations in the media. Muslims were being portrayed as extremist, which caused a one-sided and biased stereotyping perspective and an overall negative framework.
Politician Geert Wilders, who is a populist politician and founder of the Partij voor de Vrijheid, picked up on the agitation with regard to Islam and Moroccans in society and played a tremendous role in continuing the portrayal of Islam as a danger for the Dutch traditions, culture and identity. He used the political and social unrest with regard to Islam for his political agenda, in which Islam is perceived as a religion that has no enrichment for the Netherlands and that immigrants from Islamic countries should be banned. His statements and vision about Islam, Muslims and Moroccans caused for further division in the multicultural society. There have been many objections on the discourse of the public debate – with regard to Islam and the way that Muslims were portrayed in the media. The oversimplification of Muslims in the media and no representation or development of inclusion in order to combat the negative stereotyping of Muslims is causing a distorted view of Muslims and Islam in the multicultural society and is still dominantly present in the Dutch media.
Black Pete and Tradition
In the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas is a very old tradition that is annually celebrated on the 5th of December. The tradition of Saint Nicholas is often perceived as the core to Dutch national folklore. Every year, Saint Nicholas makes his entry accompanied by black-faced helpers: “Black Petes” or “Zwarte Pieten.” The public debate with regard to the black-faced helpers of Saint Nicholas has been discussed for decades, primarily in progressive urban circles, whereby the opponents state that, “Black Pete is a caricature of an African slave carried over from colonial times – he is usually portrayed by white people wearing blackface makeup, bold red lipstick and Afro wigs”.
In October 2013, a United Nations adviser on minority rights described Black Pete as “a throwback to slavery.”
Since 2011 the discussion about Black Pete has got more intense and opened up to a broader public. In 2011, Quinsy Gario, who is a poet and activist born in the former Dutch colony of Curaçao, got arrested for wearing a T-shirt with the slogan “Black Pete is racism” at a Saint Nicholas parade in the city of Dordrecht. Gario stated that, “the tradition of Saint Nicholas perpetuates crude stereotypes and was arrested for public disturbance at the traditional annual Saint Nicholas festival.” Since this protest, Gario has been the face in the Dutch media for the Black Pete opponents and made various media appearances wherein he states his vision about Black Pete as a racist and stereotyping element of the Dutch Saint Nicholas traditions. In the media, Gario’s statements often have been labeled as subjective and incredible, as have many others who oppose the figure of Black Pete, who felt as if their worries are not being considered as equally important and therefore not being recognized as legitimate.
The Black Pete debate did not stay unnoticed in the international community. In October 2013, a United Nations adviser on minority rights described Black Pete as “a throwback to slavery.” Verene Shepherd, a Jamaican academic of the UN working group of experts on people of African descent, stated on Dutch television: “As a black person, I feel that if I were living in the Netherlands, I would object to it.” Shepherd’s reasoning caused for a reaction on Facebook from Black Pete’s defenders, who started the Facebook page “Pietitie” (Pete-ition) that stands for the continuation of Black Pete; an emphasis must be placed on the fact that this Facebook page has more than two million followers and therefore must be taken seriously. Public figures such as Anouk Teeuwe, who is a famous singer, stated on Facebook and Twitter that she is very much ashamed of the Black Pete tradition in the Netherlands and that it should change. Teeuwe’s vision caused for much commotion in the media, whereby she received many hate mails and death threats by Black Pete defenders and was also named as a “Niggerlover.” It is very astonishing to see how the reactions of Black Pete defenders have turned to offensive and racist statements and caused for division in society. De Telegraaf, one of the most read newspapers in the Netherlands, went even one step further and made a very distasteful comparison between Black Pete and Nelson Mandela, whereby it was stated that with the death of Mandela on the 5th of December, 2013, Black Pete also had passed away. How can it be possible that a symbolic person such as Mandela – who changed history, and who has done so much to combat Apartheid in South Africa and had such an important role as an advocate for various social and human rights organizations – be linked to Black Pete? It can be questioned that if the Black Pete tradition really has nothing to do with racism or discrimination, how come that so many racist arguments are being stated in the Dutch media with the discourse of this public debate?
There is a pending court case about the characteristics of Black Pete and whether it is a racist element of the Saint Nicholas tradition.
Up to now most politicians in the Netherlands remained silent with regard to the debate of Back Pete, which caused for a lot of frustration among the Black Pete protesters. Right-wing politician Wilders stated that it would be better to scrap the UN than Black Pete. Furthermore, during a press conference of the Nuclear Security Summit 2014, Prime Minister Mark Rutte was asked about Black Pete. He answered that “Black Pete is Black and I cannot change that.” Also, the mayor of Amsterdam, Eberhard van der Laan, offered carefully worded statements of support to Black Pete as a part of the old Saint Nicholas tradition, but he did say that the appearance of Black Pete eventually will change over several years from his current blackface. Because politicians neglect to recognize the arguments of Black Pete opponents, there is this feeling as if their worries are not being considered as a priority in the course this public debate.
At the moment, the discussion with regard to the features of Black Pete is still continuing. There is a pending court case about the characteristics of Black Pete and whether it is a racist element of the Saint Nicholas tradition. On July 2014 in Amsterdam, a judge – in a first instance – stated that Black Pete is a negative stereotype. The city of Amsterdam went in appeal; at the moment no further outcomes are presented with regard to the features of Black Pete, and the public debate is still in progress. The media still reports frequently about the developments around Black Pete, because it has such an important impact on the Dutch Saint Nicholas tradition, of which Black Pete seemingly is considered as an indispensable element. The latter can be argued since that traditions and cultural elements are never static but dynamic – especially within a multicultural society, and that should be taken in consideration as well. Therefore, as stated in The Economist it cannot be denied that, if the tradition of Black Pete was perceive as not racist by Black Pete defenders before, the discourse of this public debate has been the tipping point for the linkage of racism and Black Pete now.
Senior Fellow Cihan Tekeli perceives the term tolerance as problematic. He doesn’t accept it because the term tolerance is posing a framework whereby one is accepting someone else.
Inclusion and Diversity in the Media
The term tolerance has become misleading. It does not assume that there is equality among people. There is a power relation in the term “tolerance”: we can only tolerate someone if we are above them, because one can only be tolerated within certain boundaries.
Senior Fellow Cihan Tekeli perceives the term tolerance as problematic. He doesn’t accept it because the term tolerance is posing a framework whereby one is accepting someone else. Tekeli believes that the real question rather is: “Who am I to accept someone else? When you say allochthonous, you think about certain people from non-western background, and most of the time it has a negative framework.” Furthermore, the term allochthonous is mostly related with crime, whereby identity is related to a certain ethnic background. Tekeli finds it astonishing that the term autochthonous is almost never mentioned in the media and states that it can be questioned why there is such a focus on the term allochthonous and not on the term autochthonous. Therefore he believes that there is a selective usage of wording in the Dutch media.
Furthermore, he argues that there is not much representation of minority groups in the Dutch media, especially in newspapers. He finds this lacking, and if there is representation, mostly it is considered as one-sided or stereotyping. In order to change the way that minority groups are being portrayed in the Dutch media, it should be more diverse, because it is important that these different groups are being represented in the media in various ways.
Journalists are the first guardians of society and they should criticize social issues and at the same time also be self-critical.
Tekeli argues that in the media we don’t want fragmentation but integration. Therefore, if you want a public debate you need people who disagree, and that is good. But when people don’t come to the table to discuss issues with regard to minorities or integration, it is problematic because then there is no debate at all. Tekeli is conscious of the fact that it is impossible to represent everyone in the media, but emphasizes the importance of journalists trying to listen to different voices because they do have a responsibility for good journalism. Whereby, there should be awareness among journalists because they are the first guardians of society and they should criticize social issues and at the same time also be self-critical, but unfortunately, he argues, at the moment the latter is lacking in the Dutch media.
Social entrepreneur Thiëmo Heilbron initiated the website www.fawakanederland.nl, which presents success stories of youngsters with various ethnic backgrounds in the Netherlands. As a Dutch-Surinamese citizen born and raised in the Netherlands, Heilbron believes that there aren’t enough positive connotations and associations with the position of youngsters with diverse ethnic backgrounds in the Dutch media. Therefore, with his media platform, he wants to combat negative stereotyping images and provide a positive framework in the way that these youngsters are being portrayed.
As former mentor of the ECHO Junior Academy, he learned that in order to raise more self-awareness of young people with various ethnic backgrounds, it is important to have positive role models in the media so they can recognize themselves in a positive framework. Heilbron believes that, in the Dutch media, youngsters from diverse backgrounds are primarily portrayed in a one-sided and negative framework and that he wants change. Therefore, with his media platform, he aims to inspire youngsters with various ethnic backgrounds and provide a positive framework in the way they are portrayed. Every person is unique, nobody is the same, and there are differences but also similarities. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense that everybody should be the same, and it is a good development that problems – with regard to the position of youngsters with ethnic backgrounds – are being analyzed from different perspectives, whereby role models with various ethnic backgrounds are being included in order to combat stigmatizing, stereotyping and negative frame-working.
What Is the Role of the Media in Shaping Public Opinion?
The media has tremendous power when it comes to shaping public opinion. Indeed, the media play a central role in the process of ethnic categorization and in reinforcing and spreading negative stereotypes of these groups. Even though journalists may strive for objectivity, this aim is impossible to achieve. Instead, the words and general tone that are used by the journalist broadcast an opinion, whether it be conscious or unconscious. When someone decides to use the word “terrorist” instead of “freedom fighter,” for example, it quickly becomes clear which side of the debate he is on.
Taking a look at the media in the Netherlands, we see that ethnic minorities and Muslims are continuously represented by negative frames.
In reporting, the norms and values of society are mirrored and new norms and values are constructed. Indeed, writers have much influence on the way in which messages are put across, and how much value these messages are given. They use certain frames, and in doing so they highlight and select certain aspects of an event. This way, the text becomes more orderly and less chaotic. At the same time, however, other information is left out and considered to be insignificant. And this very decision of what is important and what not has a considerable impact on the way that the reader or viewer interprets and values the message. The headline “Dutch taxpayers’ money goes to Turkey” leaves a much more negative impression than “Dutch people from Turkish descent receive subsidies,” for example.
Taking a look at the media in the Netherlands, we see that ethnic minorities and Muslims are continuously represented by negative frames. Headlines about “Moroccan youth” and crime are common. Indeed, in the frames that are used to describe these groups, their Dutch nationality is often neglected, their ethnicity is emphasized and they are more often related to crime, dependency on social services, terrorism, unemployment and drugs than autochthonous Dutch people. Simultaneously, the religious background of these groups is oversimplified and considered to be the cause of this negative behavior. Socioeconomic factors are neglected, even though such factors are a much better predictor of negative behavior in societies. The result of the use of these frames is that minorities are being stereotyped and stigmatized. It is thus not surprising that many people from these minorities are not content with the way in which they are represented in the media. They do not feel like they are being taken seriously.
By deciding which article will be printed on the front page, which documentary will be shown or who will be the guest on a talk show, journalists and editors basically decide what is important and what is not.
Another way in which the media can shape public opinion is through the decisions that are made about what is published and what not. By deciding which article will be printed on the front page, which documentary will be shown or who will be the guest on a talk show, journalists and editors basically decide what is important and what is not. In this sense, the media regulate public debate. And in addition to that, they regulate which topics people pay attention to. Indeed, most articles or reports do not stand alone. Once an article has been published, attention is directed to the issue at hand. This issue may then be picked up by other media, people may become more interested in the issue and more articles may be published. As such, a spiral of attention is created.
A spiral of attention like this was also created in relation to the topic of Islam and migration. Whereas, initially, there were only several politicians who wanted to pay more attention to this topic, it was the intensive coverage by the media that led to an increase in attention from the public. As a result, other politicians started to prioritize this issue more as well. This, in turn, led to a further increase in media coverage. People simply started to speak more about Islam and migration, and so did the media.
Attention spirals can have a considerable affect on election results as well. This became apparent in research conducted by Vliegenhart (2007, 382). This researcher investigated whether there was a relation between media attention and support for political parties that focused on immigration issues. And surely, he found that more media coverage of immigration issues led to an increase in support for anti-immigration parties. Moreover, the increase in support led to a further increase in media coverage of this subject as well. The attention spiral was thus closely related to the support of people for certain political parties. Of course, the theme that was central to the program of the anti-immigration parties happened to be covered extensively by the media at the time. Had the media instead covered terrorism, inflation or another issue, another party may have been more successful.
We cannot say that there is one single medium that stigmatizes ethnic minorities all the time.
Naturally, not all media influence public opinion in an equal way. For instance, there is a difference when it comes to the type of medium (newspaper, TV, radio, documentary, etc.), how widely spread the medium is (e.g. local, regional, national) and the context in which the message is presented. Moreover, a distinction can be made between agenda-setting and agenda-following platforms. Agenda-setting platforms are platforms in which it is decided which subjects are addressed. Agenda-following platforms, to the contrary, are platforms that address topics that are already happening, and that follow what is happening at the moment. Put bluntly, we can thus say that agenda-following platforms report on topics that are already trending, while agenda-setting platforms have the power to make a new topic trending. However, we should keep in mind that agenda-following and agenda-setting platforms are not necessarily equally popular. As such, it does not automatically follow that agenda-setting media can influence public opinion more, because they can introduce new topics to the viewers’ eye.
Media: Accountability and Transparency
Surely, not all journalists consciously write articles that project people in a more negative way than they may deserve. Moreover, we cannot say that there is one single medium that stigmatizes ethnic minorities all the time. It is not that black and white. Rather, it is multiple media that stigmatize every now and then. Taken together, these media all add to the stigmatization of ethnic minorities in the Netherlands. So, although individually their contribution may be of little significance, collectively they can make a big difference. As a result, it is difficult to say to what extent individual media can be held responsible for negative stereotypes. Rather, we should take a look at the culture of journalists and editors as a whole. Indeed, most journalists are recruited from the autochthonous middle-class. Only 2% of the 14,000 journalists in the Netherlands have a non-Western background (Shadid, 2009, 182). Diversity in offices may be attempted, but the reality is that ethnic minorities are still underrepresented in the workforce. This means that these journalists have similar prejudices, ideas and visions as anyone else. They simply report in a way that is in accordance with the norms and values of the group that they are a part of. While working in such a context, it is unlikely that they will ask for a second opinion from someone from a different group.
Besides this culture, we should also keep in mind that the media are subject to a market mechanism as well. Like social historian Zihni Özdil stated, all media are companies. This means that journalists and editors cannot always take a radical position, because that could mean that they attract less readers or viewers. After all, the most popular articles and shows are those that seem familiar in content and style, and that are relevant to the viewer personally. By changing the themes and topics that the media cover, Özdil states, they risk losing customers. Whenever there is a public demand to change these themes and topics, however, this risk will be smaller. Moreover, media that are funded by, for instance, the government, are less dependent on (although not immune to) these market mechanisms as well.
To ask who can be held accountable for the negative stereotypes is thus a question akin to that of the chicken and the egg. Nobody knows which came first. It is clear, however, that the negative stereotypes are here, and that a vicious cycle has been created. As such, it is perhaps better to ask how we can break this cycle and improve the situation, rather than wonder who is wrong and who is right. The responsibility cannot be put with an individual, but is shared.
Not only is media influential in its dissemination of information – it is a powerful visual of who is included and who is not. If ethnic minorities are not fairly represented in mainstream news, they will create their own or tune in to other outlets. Sure, it is easy to tune in or tune out and choose other options aside from mainstream media, but the fact is that they remain and feel like an “other” in Dutch society.
To conclude, there is something that Özdil stated that really struck a chord with us. He said, “Tolerance is a power structure.” In our research and interviews, we saw it is not about tolerance and what this long-held value means to Dutch society today, but the practices that are not put in place for an already multicultural society. Media outlets do not apply an equity lens when they are hiring, producing shows, writing stories or creating content for radio. Looking through an equity lens is acknowledging differences and inequality, and it can help with identifying and removing barriers and accommodating differences. In mass media, it is very much about power and authority, and we have to start challenging institutions and asking questions. Because, at the end of the day, who gets interviewed? Who doesn’t get interviewed? What is the intent? And who gets to tell the story?
We would like to express our gratitude for Cihan Tekeli, Marijn Lansberg, Thiëmo Heilbron and Zihni Özdil for allowing us to interview them. Your insights and passion greatly inspired us and influenced our thoughts on this issue.