Lecture. Part 1. Journalism and the Multicultural Society

To what extent, and how, should the media play an active role in the integration of ethnic minorities? This question has arisen from and resonated in debates concerning multiculturalism, immigration and integration.


Journalism and the multicultural society


In recent decades we have observed an increasing awareness of and more attention being paid to what purpose journalism should serve in a multicultural society. We have seen this in the newsrooms and journalism schools, in journalism research and in society at large.

Relevant questions are to what extent, and how, journalism contributes to prejudice and intolerance in society; and to what extent, and how, journalism contributes to integration in a multicultural society. Media researcher Mark Deuze (2005) claims: ‘Along with the digital revolution, multiculturalism can be seen as the main challenge facing journalism today’.

Very recently, there has been a shift away from a focus on ethnicity and culture alone to the broader concept of diversity. This also includes the useful approach of intersectionality whereby the interconnectedness of different minority/marginalised positions is acknowledged. How are we to handle different kinds of difference? When reflecting on the purpose of journalism in a multicultural society, it is important to focus not only on ethnicity as a categorisation principle, but to also see how this interacts with other possible discrimination factors. Understanding, and analysing the interplay between different minority positions is called intersectionality. Keeping this in mind, in this session, the main focus will, however, be on perceived differences connected to cultural variation.


Journalism, diversity and human rights


International human rights are the foundation of all democratic societies. It is often said that human rights and a free press cannot exist without each other. Freedom of speech means the freedom to both express oneself and to receive information. Nevertheless, this freedom also has its limits (cf. other sessions in this manual), and journalists everywhere in different ways have to balance their presentation of reality. In ‘classic’ democracies, one of the main aims of journalism is to protect the weak from the powerful and to be the advocate for those who have no voice. What should the role of journalists in a democracy be? (discuss with the students)   

To get closer to an answer, we need to reflect on the question of what a journalist is. Journalists are in the ‘interpretation business’ and are categorisation agents – they explain society to itself. A challenging dilemma is that journalism is both a good on the market and a guarantor of democracy and freedom of speech. What sells will influence the content of the journalistic products in different ways.

It is important to remember that, in line with the news criteria, journalism will always represent a simplified version of reality, such as conflicts, sensation and identification. This is particularly challenging when covering ‘multicultural issues’, which means representing a contested field in all societies.


Multicultural societies and the non-discrimination principle


At the core of international human rights we find the anti-discrimination principle. Article 2 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) reads:

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. 

This anti-discrimination principle is also found in all the international legally binding human rights treaties (often called covenants or conventions). By becoming parties to the treaties, the states assume obligations and duties to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights that are written down as articles in the documents. Every fourth or fifth year, the states must report to the convention´s treaty body - a committee of independent experts - about what they have done to implement their obligations. The committees analyse the reports and respond to the state with positive comments, criticism and recommendations. These reports are published on the webpage of the Office of High Commissioner of Human Rights. 

The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination is one of the core UN conventions that adresses discrimination issues. Today 178 of the world´s states have ratified the convention and by that, obliged themselves to report regularly to “The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD)” about their efforts to reduce discrimination. For a journalist interested in discrimination issues, it should be a natural thing to look into the government´s reports to CERD, but not the least the critics and recommendations  from CERD.    

Journalists need to know about human rights. This is also clearly stated in the UN World Programme for Human Rights Education. In 2004, the General Assembly of the United Nations proclaimed the World Programme for Human Rights Education (WPHRE) (2005 and ongoing) to advance the implementation of human rights education programmes in all sectors of society. In 2015, journalists and media professionals were included in the World Programme’s so called third phase (2015-2019). Article 39 reads:

“(…) media professionals and journalists play a fundamental role in the promotion and protection of human rights. Effective human rights education fosters their knowledge about, commitment to and motivation concerning human rights. Human rights principles provide essential guidance for their professional performance and the work of media outlets, which can only take place in an enabling environment in which access to information, freedom of expression and safety are protected.”

 The ideal of objectivity is still, in varying degrees, present in the self-understanding of journalists. At the same time, the objectivity ideal has been severely challenged in recent years, acknowledging that no journalism is free of values and all journalism is a result of choices at different levels in the production process, from choosing a topic, through choosing angles and sources and to the presentation of the final product. Journalists can thus play a vital role in changing societies. This is particularly important when it comes to promoting and informing about human rights in general and specifically about anti-discrimination, in all countries. Some journalists also define their role as including an activist dimension. There are several examples of this in most countries in the world.


Multicultural society – in theory and reality


What characterises the construction of ‘multiculturalism’ and its underlying values? ‘Multiculturalism’ can be understood both as a normative (and political) and as a descriptive concept. Normatively, the concept includes an appreciation and valuing of cultural diversity. This approach has a cultural relativistic foundation. Put simply, no culture should be seen as more valuable or ‘better’ than another. All cultural values and expressions should be understood on the basis of their own premises, within their specific contexts. Bearing this in mind, ‘multiculturalism’ is also used to describe the policies that were established to secure the existence of ‘new cultures’ following immigration (as in Canada in 1971). Following this approach, cultural variation is mainly seen as a benefit that will enrich the dominant culture; diversity is celebrated. The phenomenon of recognition, both at the individual and group levels, lies at the heart of this perspective. Critics of this definition of multiculturalism imply a kind of extreme tolerance that easily conceals the problems connected with immigration and delays the process of integration.

‘Multicultural’ might blur the heterogeneity of culturally diverse societies. It makes as little sense to talk about ‘people with a multicultural background’ as one group, as it does to use the label ‘ethnic minorities’. The differences may be larger within the ‘minority’ group than between the majority and minority. Such labelling also may suggest that there is an opposition between being part of a minority and being part of the majority. These kinds of concepts in different ways and to different degrees refer to othering processes and a division between ‘us’ and ‘them’, exclusion and/or inclusion. Having an ‘ethnic minority’/’multicultural’ background is not in opposition to being Norwegian/Russian and so on, but the understanding that there is an inbuilt opposition here represents a ‘hard-programmed’ idea. Therefore, it is important that journalists use concepts such as ‘immigrant’ (how long are you an immigrant?), ‘multicultural background’ and the so-called hyphen concepts (‘Norwegian-Pakistani’ for example) carefully and with a high degree of reflection.

An understanding of integration as a two-way process is useful in understanding the essential role of journalists in covering different topics in multicultural societies. Integration does not only imply that persons with a minority background should adjust to the majority society, but also that all inhabitants develop a cultural sensitivity in the understanding of other cultures and backgrounds. Journalists can be essential actors in these processes of possible inclusion and exclusion.


A multicultural mission in journalism?


One mission of journalism is to critically investigate the powerful and give voice to the powerless. This is also stated in the Norwegian Code of ethics. Can it thus be said that there is also a ‘multicultural mission’ in journalism? The role of journalists in covering multicultural society has embedded a possible paradox that they, through choices of stories, angles and sources, both can contribute to integration and/or articulate problems regarding immigration and integration issues. Journalism is also an arena for critical investigation and coverage of challenges connected to immigration.

It is well documented that the portrayal and presentation of ethnic minorities in the press, in general, must be characterised as skewed and inadequate. Journalists play a significant role in the construction of national identity – what does it take to be a real Russian, Norwegian and so in. Journalists construct reality.

The role of the government/official policy and the press (the newsrooms and the union) itself plays a significant part in this. More and more newsrooms, and journalism studies institutions, are aware of the importance of representation (in the workforce, at the journalism schools, in the stories).

Now the students are ready for the group work “When is it reasonable for a journalist to mention ethnic or national background?”


Gunn Bjørnsen, Head of Department, Faculty of Education and International Studies, Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences (Norway)

An online manual on intercultural understanding, ethics and human rights to be used by teachers and students in journalism education. Read more.

Email : post@journalism-edu.org

Find Sessions

© 2017 Menneskerettighetsakademiet. All Rights Reserved.

Please publish modules in offcanvas position.