Lecture. Part 2. Journalism and the Multicultural Society

Journalists’ experiences and attitudes


Journalists with multicultural backgrounds are likely to experience a kind of pressure or paradox in relation to their future work, namely being viewed as representatives of their ‘group’ or ‘their community’ rather than media professionals (Wilson 2000, Mikkelsen 2009). Wilson describes this pointedly through a quotation from African-American journalists discussing this paradox: ‘Are we journalists who happen to be black, or are we black journalists?’

This ‘burden of representation’ can mean that they are expected to follow the values and practices of the editorial office, but all the while there is an expectancy of a special interest for stories on the multicultural society or minorities. This burden can be reinforced through similar expectations from minority groups. For example, an expectation that these journalists should act as a voice for certain interests, or that they are actively working to challenge established journalistic practices that often have a negative focus on minorities.

A longitudinal study shows (Bjørnsen 2012, Bjørnsen and Graver Knudsen 2016) that journalism students in general find the coverage relating to ethnic minorities to be limited and narrow. The majority of journalism students in Norway find that the coverage contributes to prejudice and that the newsrooms they have worked in have too little awareness of their role in the multicultural society. The students have also become more sceptical to immigration during the 2000 to 2012 period.


License-funded public broadcasters and migration issues


License-funded public broadcasters are in a special position when it comes to general expectations as to how to conduct their business. They are usually subject to political guidelines to ensure that basic democratic values are fulfilled, like mirroring the country’s demographics and reaching out to every segment of the population.

The differences in how countries deal with migration must obviously be understood in the context of varying migration patterns in each country. The development of public broadcaster policies in the various countries reflects national values that contribute to a better understanding of the role of the media in different multicultural societies.

Here follows the case of the Norwegian public broadcaster, NRK (idea: choose a broadcaster or a newsroom in your own country as a comparison). As the oldest and only license-funded public service broadcaster in Norway, NRK (Norsk Rikskringkastning) has played a unique role and bears a special responsibility for how the media in Norway deal with immigration issues today. For example, issues relating to ‘national identity’ are explicitly expressed and regulated through NRKs programme requirements, bylaws and the NRK charter. The public broadcaster plays a vital role in the construction of national identity, and one of NRK’s prominent goals is to ‘strengthen the Norwegian language, identity and culture’ (section 3-3 in NRK’s bylaws). What ‘Norwegian’ identity and culture really mean is, however, not blatantly obvious taking into account the diverse composition of the population in Norway today.

The multicultural programme obligations can be viewed as focusing on the main goals for Norwegian public service broadcasting. The ambition is to reach both large and small/narrow audiences, to contribute to strengthening Norwegian identity and to serve a democratic function which ensures that all voices are heard. Nonetheless, there are built-in dilemmas in these aims.

NRK has a long and broad history of conducting their programming with the representation of the Norwegian populous in mind. NRK Sami Radio (a channel targeting the Sami segment of the population) has become like a miniature NRK, with multiple local offices and daily broadcasts covering most aspects of society on TV and radio, as well as online. It is useful to understand NRK and multiculturalism in a broader perspective of diversity and in relation to experience gained from coverage of the Sami people, focus on the New Norwegian language and providing services for the hearing-impaired. Moreover, the battle for gender equality within NRK bears a striking resemblance to the current battle for a multicultural profile, and may contribute to a better understanding of the issue as well.

Besides Norway, other interesting media-company country examples are Canada (CBC) and Great Britain (BBC). These major media companies have had their own diversity and equality policy for more than 20 years. At the BBC, an ‘equal opportunities employment policy’ was implemented already in 1983 and in 1999 over 8.1 percent of their workforce had an ethnic-minorities background.

There have been numerous initiatives in the industry in all Nordic countries, typically connected to policies and relevant programming within the public broadcasting system (NRK, DR, SVT), that must satisfy legal requirements to reflect all of society and support equality. The most extensive example in NRK is the ‘FleRe’ project (short for ‘multicultural recruitment’). Since 2007, NRK has offered intensive training and long internships (from 6 – 12 months) for journalists with ethnic-minority backgrounds. Though criticised by some for creating a B-team of journalists and being unfair, the project has largely increased the number of journalists with minority backgrounds working for NRK.


Quota system for recruitment to journalism education


During the first decade of this century journalism schools in Norway realised that they were lagging behind the development in the media industry when it came to recruiting journalists with a multicultural background. Several editorial offices wanted more journalists with minority backgrounds than the educational institutions had to offer.

In 2006, a quota system was introduced at the journalism programme in Oslo. At the time, journalism education was among the studies with the fewest students with minority backgrounds (3-4 per cent), and the argument was that the recruitment of journalism students should reflect the new composition of the population. An argument for using a quota system is that with more minority journalists in the media, perspectives and descriptions might change and thus create a more nuanced and differentiated media landscape. However, when new journalists start their work, they arrive at editorial offices with already established structures. These may be clearly expressed or tacit, but they are often firmly adhered to, a sort of culture that ‘sits in the bones’. What is considered news, what priorities are made, what angles stories are presented from, can be deeply rooted and difficult to change. There will always be a mutual influence between editorial practice and the individuals, of all backgrounds, who work there.

Journalism education obviously plays a vital role in promoting intercultural competence and the cultural sensitivity of the journalists of tomorrow. However, to which extent this is a prioritised focus in the training programmes varies widely.   


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

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