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The Irresponsible Gatekeeper? Media Discourse on the Immigrant Question in Denmark


“[The media] decide not only what to debate but how to debate.  They are the gatekeepers. So if the gatekeepers are not fair there can be no dialogue.”

Mustafa Hussain, Professor of Sociology, Roskilde University

“I felt strongly in 1937 that Germany was a split country. I feel strongly that Denmark is a split country today.” Thus spoke Jørgen Kieler in an interview conducted at his apartment on June 26, 2006. Kieler, a former resistance fighter who was active during the German occupation of Denmark during the Second World War, went on to speak about his multifaceted role in the resistance movement. Certainly, there was sabotage and much work done bringing Danish Jews by boat across to Sweden. Yet, there is a third element to the resistance movement not frequently discussed today: the role of the illegal press. “The illegal press was powerful,” says Kieler, especially during a time that held “above all, an ethical question.” 

While the context surrounding the media today is obviously a far cry from what it was during the German Nazi occupation, it is an interesting example to consider when critically examining the current actions of Danish media. Recently, public debate has become more and more focused on issues surrounding immigrant populations in Denmark. More specifically, the conversations are based on difficulties of how to best deal with the dilemmas of integration. While recent years have brought the question of integration into the light on a national level, it was the now rather infamously titled “Cartoon Crisis” that delivered it into an international forum. Denmark, a small country proud of its history of humanitarian action and successful welfare policies, suddenly bore witness to its own flag being burned in the streets of Iran and Egypt in violent protest to the country’s perceived racist tendencies.

Yet, whereas in its past the Danish media has been instrumental in voicing opposition to injustice, today it is the media that some accuse of committing injustice by misrepresenting immigrant populations and creating negative public sentiment towards minority groups. This report will focus on two primary questions. First, it seeks to explore whether or not media can rightfully be considered as a paramount gatekeeper to the successful integration of immigrant populations due to its perceived role in shaping majority perceptions of minority populations. Second, it enters into the more encompassing question of what responsibility, if any, the media has towards society at large. For purposes of clarity, it should be made apparent that here the term “media” is used strictly with regards to journalism and “integration” is being narrowly defined as entrance into the labor market.

Amidst a climate of scrutiny over the Danish government’s changing integration policies and in the wake of the crisis over the publishing of twelve cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, questions concerning the Danish media’s influence have arisen. Scholars, government officials, and members of society at large are asking the critical question, “does the media impact the way immigrant populations are perceived by mainstream society?” Furthermore, are these depictions helping or hindering the integration process? In a small democratic country of 5.4 million, where freedom of the press is a protected right, it seems safe to assert that media discourse has acted as a significant player in the shaping of mainstream attitudes towards immigrant populations. 

As part of a project developed by the European Commission called Building Europe with New Citizens? An Inquiry into the Civic Participation of Naturalized Citizens and Foreign Residents in 25 Countries, national experts from 25 countries in the European Union were asked to prepare reports on the “contextual conditions and state of research concerning civic participation of immigrants” (Goli and Rezaei, 2005). In Denmark, assistant professors at Roskilde University, Marco Goli and Shahamak Rezaei, were charged with the task. In the report they produced, titled “Active Civic Participation of Immigrants in Denmark,” Goli and Rezaei assert that in the past years the Danish media has consistently focused on four primary themes when dealing with immigrant populations: 1. The coexistence of Islam within the context of Danish values and integration values; 2. The issue of ghettos and population concentration; 3. The “shadow economy” and it’s relation to immigrants possibilities for socio-economic mobility; and 4. The labor market and immigrant children’s education (2005). The report also points out that the media has consistently focused on integration policy and discrimination at large. Other studies on the Danish media have been conducted as well.  One such is the media monitoring conducted by the European Network Against Racism, a research agency financed by the European Union. The results show that media coverage of ethnic minorities in Denmark is heavily biased to the extent that 77.2 percent of the coverage of ethnic minorities by 6 main newspapers is negative (Quraishy, 2005).

The European Commission report, as well as these statistics, illustrate that recently there has been a consistent focus on immigrant issues, which, regardless of whether or not it can be quantified as “positive” or “negative” attention, keeps immigrant issues in the public eye. This is a fact that one might imagine has aided in the development of an “us” and “them” mentality. Furthermore, these depictions of immigrant minorities has been powerful at shaping the development not only of pro or anti-immigration sentiments among majority groups, but it also has acted to create a self image for the immigrants’ perceptions of themselves, which leads to an entirely new debate about the role positive or negative self-identity plays in the integration process. 

While the European Commission report concludes that there is considerable polarization of the majority and minority populations, contributing author Mustafa Hussain, a professor of Sociology at Roskilde University Center and published author on works concerning the media and immigrants, took a more critical view of the media, establishing that “the Danish media have played an important role in the (re)production of a prejudiced discourse on ethnic minorities” (Goli and Rezaei, 2005). When discussing the issues of the media and integration in greater depth, Hussain elaborated on his previous findings stating that “Media has an impact on public attitudes… Their managers, their journalists, and even their shareholders are very committed anti-Muslim. It’s not that they are racist in the classic sense. It’s more that they are anti-Muslim in the ideological sense.”  Hussain was quick to add that he was certainly not referring to all journalists, yet he says that, “even if a journalist has all the right attitudes, they are a part of an organization,” and ended saying, “It’s organizational culture which states all.”

Rushy Rashid, author of “Et løft af Sløret” (“Lifting the Veil”) and freelance journalist, formerly employed by the Danish newspapers Weekendavisen and BT, echoes this perspective by stating, “The media in Denmark plays a really, really important role in the integration of immigrants.” Rashid, herself having emigrated to Denmark 25 years ago from Pakistan, continued commenting, “They should take responsibility [for their work].” 

However, not everyone agrees with Hussain and Rashid’s conclusions.  Kim Hundevadt, a journalist employed at Jyllands-Posten and author of “Provoen og Profeten- Muhammedkrisen bag kulissen,” or “The Provocateur and the Prophet-The Muhammad crisis seen from back stage,” which is about Jyllands-Posten’s publication of twelve cartoons of Muhammad and the ensuing conflict over them, provides one of the primary opposing arguments in the debate. When asked whether he believed that the media has an impact on the ability of immigrants to successfully integrate, Hundevadt responded, “You should not exaggerate the role of the media.  I think that there are more structural reasons. The Danish welfare system, the fact that the minimum wage is, I don’t remember the exact amount, but about 80 or 90 kr. This means that if you have to give this person about 15 US dollars an hour you are looking for someone with the most education,” adding, “There are also cultural problems. Some of the immigrants have been out of the job market so long. Some have not even been in it at all.” 

As the debate between journalists Rashid and Hundevadt exemplifies, the role of the media in the integration process remains highly contested, yet the work by both the European Commission and Hussain is quite compelling.  Also, the considerably tense social and political climate of Denmark speaks well to a conclusion that the media does, in fact, play a sizable role in informing public opinion on immigrant integration. What then, is it that allows the media to have such a presence in forming public opinion? 

One theoretical approach argues that the more separated groups are in society, the more leverage the media possesses. That is, the less integration that occurs, the more the newspapers will function as a mediator between the majority and the minority trying to integrate. In an article titled “Islam, media and minorities in Denmark,” Hussain (2000) writes, “In the absence of social interaction between the majority population and minority groups, the cognitive frame of reference through which members of the ethnic majority premise their arguments is largely based on mental models of ethnic events that are constituted by media- mediated themes and topics on minority issues in the daily news flow of the national media.” This point is central when considering that out of a population of 5.4 million a mere two hundred thousand, approximately, are of Muslim background. Furthermore, immigrant populations are often concentrated primarily in urban areas, meaning that many ethnic Danes living in rural areas have limited contact with representatives from minority groups. In Danish society, integration is lacking and it is quite obvious that a geographic distance accompanies the psychological divide between groups.

There is another factor to the argument that media as a mediator of dialogue increases analogously with the geographical separation of majority and minority groups. The diversity of news that an individual receives is this other important consideration. Logically, newspapers are more powerful if they are the only source of information a person receives. If only one newspaper is read on a daily basis, then a one-sided image is left with the person reading it. 

Here the question becomes, if the media does act as an important gatekeeper to immigrants’ integration, by the fact that it largely controls majority perceptions of minority groups, as evidence appears to support, what is their greater responsibility? Does the media have a duty to actively level the playing field for immigrants attempting to enter the labor market, or can we only expect them to continue peddling the stories about conflict that are known to sell? 

One way of answering these questions is to first examine the current debate as to whether or not ethnic background should be mentioned in news coverage. Guidelines on press ethics provided by the Danish Press Counsel (2006) state that background information should only be reported when absolutely necessary and relevant. Yet these are just that, guidelines and not rules, and as such it is left up to individual newspapers to decide what their personal interpretation will be.

Hundevadt, working for Jyllands-Posten, a newspaper that he himself concedes has a poor reputation when it comes to the coverage of immigrant issues, remarks that he feels there is not a responsibility towards immigrants but only a responsibility to report the facts. “We are responsible for finding the facts,” he says, “but not the solution.” In elaborating, Hundevadt explains that ethnic background is often a very important part of “the facts.” An example he provided was that of the reports on the recent case of the so-called “honor killing” of a Pakistani woman. Hundevadt points out that if ethnic background is not mentioned, then there is a potential for myths to be created and speculation takes over instead of truth. 

Hundevadt wants to leave the responsibility to each newspaper, saying that he personally is interested in balanced coverage. He states, “We should say that we have problems with this and that, but of course we should tell the stories of positive integration,” but still points out that conflict makes a good story. Jyllands-Posten and other newspapers Hundevadt says “are highlighting the conflict between immigrants and the rest of society.” Tøger Seidenfaden, the editor-in-chief of the competing newspaper Politiken, puts more emphasis on the responsibility of the media at large. He feels a change has taken place that has led to a bypassing of press ethics, which are supposed to secure for everyone a fair treatment by the media. The pressure behind this change might be explained as having come from the readers, who are reacting strongly to the perceived mass integration of immigrants, especially from Muslim countries.  Seidenfaden argues that this popular opinion is both affecting the way politics are conducted and also the way the media functions. Some newspapers, the argument goes, have forgotten their responsibility to fair coverage and are solely catering to their readers, neglecting the guiding press ethics. 

As an example of this neglect, Seidenfaden explains about the emergence of a double standard that has affected the way people think of immigrants with a Muslim background. He notes how some newspapers overtly state that they have no responsibility to anything but the bare facts. Yet, simultaneously, Seidenfaden feels that there is a bias in covering minority issues that leads to a harsh tone towards Islam and a much less offensive treatment when it comes to other religions such as Judaism: “Israel is being treated with respect in the media and no newspaper would risk being labeled anti-Semite. When it comes to Islam it is different; Muslims are getting a harsh treatment while the newspapers claim their right to free speech.” The two different opinions depicted here illustrate the central question: Facts are what the media should convey, but when is ethnic background a relevant fact and how can we know that the “fact criteria” apply equally to all groups, both majority and minority? 

In truly investigating this question it is important to consider what the real driver is behind the media’s coverage. Mustafa Hussain states clearly that, in his opinion, “It’s more of an economy today which runs the media than ideology and nationalism like it was 20 or 30 years ago... It has totally become a commercialized enterprise. They go out of their way to make money.” So then, does the debate boil down to the simple notion that conflict sells and so it is conflict that is covered? Are journalists just giving readers what they want, or are they producing what they believe society wants? 

Both Hundevadt and Seidenfaden speak to these questions in considerably different ways.  Hundevadt believes that the media has a responsibility to fair news coverage, which means that the newspapers should also provide positive angles on immigration even though that might not be what the readers of Jyllands-Posten wants. Seidenfaden seems to think that the negative coverage is a product of popular sentiment, but at the same time he wants the media to challenge readers and make people reflect on immigration and society from varying perspectives. It seems fair to say that newspapers should challenge their readers and not just cater to their opinions, but can the media tear down barriers or can they only build up and solidify already existing stereotypes and prejudices that stem from a majority segregated from the minority groups? 

Perhaps the only way to counteract a supposed negative effect of the media is to minimize its potential to affect integration by making the distance between people smaller, first geographically and then psychologically. It seems apparent that in the current atmosphere where, as Hussain puts it, “Just your name itself is an indicator of if you will be accepted in society and in the labor market,” there needs to be a paradigm shift on behalf of society. In recent years negative framing towards immigrant populations has marked discussions on integration. Immigrants, once welcomed into Danish society, are coming under more scrutiny as minority and majority tensions play out in the public eye.  At this point it seems a fair assertion to make that the media does, in fact, act as a powerful gatekeeper to the successful integration of immigrant populations and that Danish media discourse is largely responsible for shaping majority perceptions of minority populations. So, if the media can change public opinion so readily, why haven’t they? Like Kieler said of the situation in Denmark during the Second World War, this seems to be “above all an ethical question.” Perhaps it is because the media itself is xenophobic, or perhaps it is simply that the media is market driven and seeks to give readers what they desire. In either case, it seems about high time for a strong oppositional voice to counter the overwhelmingly biased sentiments being (re)produced in the Danish media today.




Works Cited

Goli, Marco and Shahamak Rezaei. 2005. “Active Civic Participation of Immigrants in Denmark.” Country Report prepared for the European Research Project POLITIS. Oldenburg, Sweden. www.uni-oldenburg.de/politis-euope. Accessed on 23 June 2006. 

Hussain, Mustafa. 2002. “Islam, media, and minorities in Denmark.” Current Sociology. 48(4), 95. 

Pressenævnets Årsberetning 2005. Pressenævnet. Copenhagen. May 2006

Quraishy, Bashy. 2005. ”Racism in Denmark,” ENAR Shadow Report 2005.


Interviews Conducted

Hundevadt, Kim on 21 June

Hussain, Mustafa on 27 June

Kieler, Jørgen on 26 June

Rashid, Rushy on 22 June

Seidenfaden, Tøger on 15 June


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Denmark Denmark 2006


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