Lecture 2: Media representations

“The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult.” (Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)


The need for anti-discriminatory practice


In addition to knowing the legal regulations governing discrimination, journalists are trained to be aware of potential discrimination. The IFJ Declaration of Principles on the Conduct of Journalists (adopted by the 1954 World Congress of the International Federation of Journalists - IFJ, amended by the 1986 World Congress) addresses the need for anti-discriminatory practice in two articles:

7. The journalist shall be aware of the danger of discrimination being furthered by the media, and shall do the utmost to avoid facilitating such discrimination based on, among other things, race, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinions, and national or social origins.

8. The journalist shall regard as grave professional offences <..> malicious misrepresentation.

In Russia, the gap between the legal regulation of journalism’s professional activities and the accountability of journalists is very narrow. Through Article 51, “Inadmissibility of abuse of the rights of a journalist”, the Federal Act relating to the Mass Media prohibits anyone from “using the right of a journalist to disseminate information in order to discredit a citizen or certain categories of citizens solely on grounds of sex, age, race or nationality, language, attitude to religion, profession, place of residence and work, and also in connection with their political beliefs”.

Nevertheless, earlier research has revealed many cases of the discriminatory practice of the modern mass media. According to Peter Berger and Thomas Lukman (1966), our knowledge of the social order defines our interactions with the social world. Reality is perceived through the prism of our attitudes towards social order and within the normative framework adopted by a journalist. Mass-media representations matter because the mass media are the source of indirect experience and social knowledge in the modern complex social world. And precisely because of the complexity of this world, journalists tend to simplify it for their audience.

As Elfriede Fürsich (2010) summarises, “the media create representations as central signifying practices for producing shared meaning (Hall, 1997). The representations are constitutive of culture, meaning and knowledge about ourselves and the world around us. Beyond just mirroring reality, representations in the media such as in film, television, photography and print journalism create reality and normalise specific world-views or ideologies”.


The media cover minorities in a limited way


News and entertainment media exclude minorities – non-white, non-elite groups and others – from coverage. If mentioning them in the news, the media cover minorities in a very limited way: “different, exotic, special, essentialised or even abnormal” (Fürsich 2010). For example, it does not matter which country is a host society and which is the source country of migration flow: the media representation of migrants (as well as indigenous people or marginalised racial groups) is always the same: they are framed by criminality, infectious diseases, filth, danger, ugliness and a low cultural level. Even when focusing on the problems of minorities, the mass media rarely give them the floor, excluding the voice of minorities from the story.

If the professional ethos of journalism pays attention to anti-discriminatory practice, why does the public still encounter serious cases of discrimination in journalism and how can journalists manage their bias?

In their daily routines, journalists rely on established knowledge to develop a particular set of actions and methods working on a publication. Previous research has shown that already in the information-gathering process, the angle is determined by the journalists’ knowledge and positions. Moreover, being the least reflected item of journalists’ routine work, psychological bias assumes greater importance in this stage of journalistic work (Smoliarova 2014). Of course, the psychological bias of a journalist is not the only source of media misrepresentation. Among other reasons we find “genre conventions (such as the inflexibility of character development in sitcoms), production practices (such as the use of news conventions under deadline pressure) and economic pressure (for example, the drive by commercial TV networks to attract a large mainstream audience)” (Fürsich 2010).


Responsible media that educate, engage and empower 


The more parts of the world are differentiating, the more significant this role of journalist as mediator becomes. “In a world of seven billion people, with a cacophony of voices that are often ill-informed and based on narrow agendas, we need responsible media that educate, engage and empower people and serve as a counterpoint to power,” UN Director General Michael Møller has said.

Trebbe and Schoenhagen (2011) have pointed out the importance of media representation for social integration: “Since social reality is permanently constructed in a collective process of communication (Berger and Luckmann 1966), being excluded from this process also means being excluded from the collective construction of social reality.”

Journalists are responsible for spreading knowledge about different social groups and their interests, and for setting up and facilitating social dialogue.

To successfully act as mediator, the mass media and editorial offices choose between two approaches: the paradigm of “arbitration” and the paradigm of “advocacy” (Bodrunova 2014). Within the arbitration paradigm, journalists are detached observers who might objectively cover “the truth of the real world”, whereas within the advocacy paradigm, journalists observe social space and are responsible for the communication of its parts.

Philip Meyer, Professor Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, depicts this contradiction briefly as:

“True objectivity is based on method, not result. Instead of implying that there is an equal amount of weight to be accorded every side, the objective investigator makes an effort to evaluate the competing viewpoints. The methods of investigation keep the reporter from being misled by his or her own desires and prejudices.” (Meyer 2014)

It should be noted that prejudices as a psychological mechanism do not lend themselves well to reflection. They are part of the social representations and “represent our most important, but often the most unexplained, beliefs” (Myers 1983, Social Psychology). It is natural for a person to take them "as a matter of course".


Objectivity and balanced representation of all social groups


When the aspiration for objectivity is fulfilled on the level of daily routines, anti-discriminatory practice can be implemented also on the structural level. One attempt to preserve the facilitation of public dialogue is the public service broadcasting system, which has the mission of providing balanced representation of all social groups. The principle of diversity in the newsrooms is applied to counteract ethnic (Geissler 2010) or gender (Reich 2014) discrimination, as well as to contribute more diverse media coverage. Accountability journalism and self-regulation of journalists as a professional community (Fengler et al. 2014) prove to be powerful instruments for monitoring and punishing discriminatory practices in the media.


The students are now ready for the follow up group work.


Anna Smolyarova, Associate Professor, School of Journalism and Mass Communications St. Petersburg State University (Russia)

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

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