‘Got an angry Muslim for me?’

What does it mean for news reporting, when all journalists look alike?

Which stories do we miss as an audience?

In ‘Got an angry Muslim for me?’, investigative journalist Zoë Papaikonomou and organizational anthropologist Annebregt Dijkman examine why Dutch news media still fail to become more culturally diverse.

Zoë Papaikonomou

‘Got an angry Muslim for me?’ authors, Annebregt Dijkman and Zoë Papaikonomou (Photo: Hajar Scholten)

In the fall of 2015 Diana Matroos, a famous news anchor for RTL – a commercial Dutch television network – publicly shared her experiences as a journalist of colour working on the editorial floor of RTL’s main news program. In a large national newspaper, she described the account of seeing – by accident –an email stating that she could not host a popular news program. The reason for this was that the color of her skin, combined with that of her colleague (also black), would be ‘too much’ for the Dutch viewer. Also, she was the focus point of jokes referring to Black Pete, the helper of the Dutch Santa and a racist caricature which dates back to the Dutch past of slavery.

Matroos’ experiences go viral and her bravery of speaking out is widely applauded. However, it is striking how Dutch press points the finger primarily toward RTL. They report about Matroos’ experiences as an individual case, instead of discussing the broader problem of the lack of cultural diversity in newsrooms. Ironically this is the exact reason why Matroos chose to bravely share her experiences.

The Dutch debate about cultural diversity in mass media primarily focuses on representation: the lack of bicultural journalists in media and sometimes even worse, on their supposed lack of professional quality. In our book we shift this focus entirely toward journalistic mechanisms and editorial culture.

It would be too easy to think that representation in your workforce is enough. To be truly diverse, the entire staff needs to be able to think and work diversely. In other words, they need to be inclusive.

Over the course of two and a half years, Annebregt Dijkman and I interviewed over 60 journalists, opinion makers and experts. We covered their experiences working in news media, focusing on journalistic mechanisms and the editorial culture. We also discussed many good ideas and practices, through which journalism can become more inclusive. Also, we observed the editorial culture of De Correspondent, a Dutch online in depth news platform that announced a public diversity search in 2015. By bringing so many professionals together, we were able to unmistakably show that we are not talking about individual cases alone, but that there are strong structural forces working against diversity in journalism.

Mechanisms in journalism opposing diversity

From our interviews, we deducted several recurring mechanisms that oppose diversity in reporting. Firstly, we noticed that important topics are being missed because of the lack of knowledge and different perspectives on the editorial floor. Interviewees gave examples of trying to convince colleagues of the importance of their subject, but on many occasions biting the dust, because the specific topic is beyond their colleagues’ scope. Secondly, we heard many examples describing ‘othering’, for example, in the manner of reporting about Ramadan. An extreme case being reporters transforming into cultural anthropologists, fasting for a day in order to contemplate the ‘exotic group’ – Muslims in this case – from a distance. Thereby, completely ignoring the fact that there are many Dutch Muslims and that they are part of their audience as well. Other mechanisms we distinguished are:

  • A preference for diversity topics such as migration, that are problematically framed because this often confirms the prejudices on the editorial floor;
  • Limited networks of journalists resulting in a lack of viewpoints in covering topics;
  • Producing guests with extreme views and putting them opposite of each other for a fiery debate, which results in short-sighted, superficial reporting. (Our title ‘got an angry Muslim for me?’ stems from a story involving a journalist receiving this exact question from a colleague looking for opposing opinions to cover a topic on Islam);
  • The continuous focus on differences in diversity topics;
  • Lack of knowledge about diversity topics such as migration and colonial history;
  • Incorrect use of terminology;
  • Our interviewees gave many (shocking) examples of framing groups, especially Muslims, and its consequences.

The editorial culture

One of the first things colleagues from a diverse background experienced working in journalism, was the immediate focus on their cultural and/or religious background. This often resulted in being officially or semi-officially appointed to be the ‘diversity expert’ of their team; the person to go to with every topic or question related to diversity. The opposite is also possible. For instance, being kept away from diversity topics, out of fear of framing the bicultural journalist in question. Although our interviewees have many different feelings about previous examples, the general conclusion is that it would be preferable for higher-ups in media, to ‘just ask’. Do not expect your new colleague to be the ‘diversity expert’, just get to know him or her and together discover what is (going to become) their area of expertise.

Other things we discovered concerning the editorial culture opposing diversity, are:

  • The journalistic integrity of bicultural and/or religious journalists is doubted more readily. They are often expected to be more biased in their reporting when the topic covers aspects of their religious and/or cultural background;
  • The normality of direct, harsh sometimes discriminating and/or racist humor;
  • Competition in an underpaid profession;
  • Diversity topics being considered as less interesting than, for example, politics or economics;
  • Diversity not being viewed (by managers) as a necessary skill set for journalists;
  • Working inclusively is seen as optional, not as a standard way of working;
  • Lack of confidential advisors or peers to share experiences with.

Inclusive journalism

We joined together the many positive and negative experiences shared in our book, into seven steps to ‘inclusive journalism’ and provided many practical tips to implement them.

  1. Realization: Accept that you are not yet an inclusive media organization and that you must become inclusive to be able to perform your task.
  2. Start: Accept that you must force diversity and inclusion in the beginning and make sure you actively involve your staff in this process.
  3. Produce diversely: Be open to other stories and increase your knowledge of diversity topics.
  4. Network: Diversify and increase your network.
  5. Reflect: Reflect on the way you interact with your colleagues.
  6. Manage: Every organization needs excellent, empathetic, inclusive working managers, and media companies are no exception.
  7. Stay sharp: change takes time and demands constant vigilance. Always keep investing in knowledge, networks and continuity.

‘Got an angry Muslim for me?’ Front Cover.

Zoë Papaikonomou (1982) is an independent investigative journalist and media lecturer at Diversity Media. After studying History and Arabic Language, she worked as a news reporter at Amsterdam Television (AT5). Afterwards she was a lecturer in Journalism at the University of Windesheim.

www.diversitymedia.nl

Annebregt Dijkman (1979) was trained as a lecturer in Islam at the Educatieve Faculteit Amsterdam and as an organization anthropologist at VU University Amsterdam. She works as an independent consultant and researcher for the Dutch government and organizations involved in radicalization and violent extremism.

www.sherazade.nl


www.hebjeeenbozemoslimvoormij.nl (website of the book, in Dutch)

‘Heb je een boze moslim voor mij?’ Over inclusieve journalistiek, Amsterdam University Press, April 2018

https://nl.aup.nl/books/9789462988781-heb-je-een-boze-moslim-voor-mij.html (to buy the book)