European media has a racism problem

by Christina Lee
Jun 24, 2020 in Diversity and Inclusion
Black Lives Matter protests in London

While the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing mass protest movement in the U.S. led to a reckoning of institutional racism in the media, Europe has been business as usual. 

Last week, German broadcaster ARD hosted an all-white panel of male experts to discuss racism and police violence, including a columnist well known for commentary like, “Corona-fear: Am I racist if I don’t want to sit next to Chinese people on the subway?” In Denmark, a government policy of punishment for people living in state-defined immigrant “ghettos” gains more coverage abroad than in the rest of Europe. 

The role of the media is to be unsparing in examining society and itself, including when it comes to inequality and discrimination. Why hasn’t European media been up to the challenge? 

[Read more: Tips for reporting on anti-police violence protests in the U.S.]

Lack of accountability

Much like the culture of newsroom misogyny that broke into the open during the #MeToo movement, the racism towards Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) journalists  has pushed many people out of the field. A 2016 study from England showed that the country’s news industry was 94% white, while in Germany, where 25% people have at least one migrant parent, that holds true for only 6% of editors, according to a 2020 study by Neue Deutsche Mediamacher. 

“For too many years, I’ve had too many conversations with people who say their careers have been ruined or curtailed by racism in newsrooms and the media in this country,” says British journalist Marverine Cole, award-winning director of BBC radio documentary “Black Girls Don’t Cry” and director of journalism at Birmingham City University. “The stories are horrific across broadcasting and print.

For example, in Belgium, journalist Cécile Djunga went viral in a video where she spoke of the racism she faced as one of the country’s few Black voices in the media. Last year in Germany, employees of state-financed broadcaster Deutsche Welle came forward to complain of a culture of racism and harassment in the newsroom. DW denied this claim, which points to a lack of acknowledgement and accountability by news organizations, which Cole suggests is widespread.  

“A lot of these organizations hide the bullies,” says Cole. “I know of cases where [abusers] have been moved to another part of the country and they carry on. And they don’t get punished at all.”

In a field where jobs are scarce and numerous people work on freelance contracts, it is risky to come forward and potentially lose jobs or assignments for pointing out discrimination. 

[Read more: Covering the U.S. protests? Provide unbiased reporting]

Word choice

The absence of consequences for racist behavior happening behind the scenes, and the lack of people of color in positions of power, is reflected in a press that frequently repeats racist and dehumanizing stereotypes, or fails to account for historical context.

“The media doesn’t call out institutional racism,” says Miriam Aced, assistant director of the Berlin-based Center for Intersectional Justice. “It is viewed as something person A does to person B intentionally and with bad will. The fact that racism is structural, historical and institutional is not understood.

But racial profiling, police violence and hate crimes continue to be major issues in many European countries, directed against people percieved as outsiders. In France for instance, a new report by Human Rights Watch documents how Black and Arab youth are subjected to frequent police abuse, and across Europe the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed widespread racial profiling and targeted harassment by police in at least 12 European states, according to a brand new report by Amnesty International.

“The narrative we see is that racism is something that happened in the past that was a static event like colonialism, the Holocaust or the slave trade, but there’s no understanding that it has a continuity to it,” says Aced.

Not only does the media leave out historical context, but the language they use actually has major consequences on the public’s perception of current events, like the refugee crisis, which came to a head in 2015. “A lot of the media, particularly in 2015 but even to this day, in their coverage and in the photos and language they have used, maybe unconsciously, have fueled a narrative of invasion and fear,” says Judith Sunderland, Milan-based deputy director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch.

She adds that the misuse of language like “illegal immigrants” to describe people seeking asylum, as well as a framing of people migrating as having wildly different cultural values, has produced coverage that explains migration as a threatening, emergency scenario, rather than an everyday phenomenon that has been going on in Europe for hundreds of years.

Activists have hesitated to point out that the media’s discussion around migration is racist for fear that such wording could cause people in the political middle to tune out, or even turn towards the right.

“Now the debate has been blown wide open,” says Sunderland after the widespread protests against police brutality emerged in the U.S. and started conversations about race in newsrooms around the world. She recently published a piece comparing deaths at sea in the Mediterranean to deaths from police violence in the U.S.

Creating new spaces

The journalism industry in Europe has some major work to do to create more inclusive newsrooms, and more inclusive coverage, but not all journalists are willing to wait around for newsrooms to fix these problems.

“What’s beautiful is that some people who have worked in these places and been pushed out or have not had a great experience are setting up their own beautiful and excellent digital spaces, like Gal Dem, Black Ballad and Melanmag,” says Cole. “They’re from young, vibrant, exciting voices who thought, ‘You know what? We’re just gonna do our own thing.”

“We can no longer wait for these institutions to do the speaking for us, we have to tell our stories ourselves,” adds Aced. 

But such projects require resources and funds to build — funds that often go to bigger newsrooms. Many of the biggest project grants are for already established publishers with a proven track record, though this may be changing. Although a glance at the funding recipients for Google’s Digital News Innovation Fund shows well-established names like Der Spiegel, de Volkskrant and Il Sole 24 Ore, there are also funds for “prototypes” trying out new models. But to have the knowledge and the skills to apply for, and receive such grants, it helps to already have some big name experience behind you and your network.

Whether it's getting funding for a new journalism project, receiving an investigative journalism grant or getting published in a big newspaper, the people in the decision making roles are mostly white and are looking for journalists who have already established themselves in these same big-name networks, composed of mostly white journalists. It can be very difficult for newcomers without name recognition to break in at all,  let alone when discrimination comes into play. 

To create an even playing field, Europe’s media elite needs to take a step back and consider how institutional racism, in society and in their own newsrooms, has shaped which stories get told, how they are told and who is trusted to tell them.

Christina Lee is a freelance writer and editor, who leads Hostwriter's Ambassador Network.

Main image CC-licensed by Unsplash via Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona.