Mass media and the representation of foreigners and minorities

Czech society is ethnically still quite homogenous, which means that most people have a minimum of immediate experience with foreigners. The media is largely responsible for providing information about foreigners or minorities. However, the picture painted by the media of reality is not reality itself – the media is forced to simplify what is a flexible and colourful reality.

The dialogue “Roma people steal” shows that this simplification of matters can lead to a reinforcement of the existing stereotypes of the members of various cultures. The problem is partly the fault of the media (as Olga points out), but also that of its readers and listeners, who uncritically accept this media “hyperreality” as reality itself (Pavla’s question being a case in point). The result is that people who have never met a foreigner in person have a (negative) opinion formed of them in advance.

  • What is...?

Mass media: The resources of mass communication which transmit information from the communicator (the giver) to the addressee (the recipient). At present, there is much talk of large media organisations, from which media professionals disseminate standardised information to a heterogeneous and diffuse public using technological resources. One of the basic categorisations divides the media into the press (newspapers, magazine), electronic media (radio, television), and new media (the internet).

Media representation: In contemporary society, the media participate in the creation of reality. “Reality does not precede news bulletins and is not reflected in them, but is created only when defined by them. […] Until reality has been interpreted or defined from the point of view of social interaction, it is unmanageable, i.e. it does not actually exist. The status of reality is acquired only by those slices of reality which are confirmed by media representation.” (Reifová, 2004). Put simply, although we regard the surrounding world as a self-evident, given reality, it is a social construct, a reality which comes into being, is in a constant process of being constructed and maintained by the human interactions which are played out in it. The media are a key actor in this process, and participate in the creation of our everyday life. The basic process of the operation of the media is the selection of topics, events and actors. But as a result of journalistic routines (standard procedures for the creation of a message), there is often excessive simplification and generalisation, including the repetition of established stereotypes within a given culture. This practice is further supported by the endeavour of the media to attract the most attention, based on an entertaining method of presenting events (known as infotainment), personalisation, “tabloidisation”, dramatisation, and a sound-bite approach to the presentation of messages. For this reason, it is important to know which representations the media is offering us in its contents, since this is the reality in which we live.

The Council for Radio and Television Broadcasting: Established by Act 231/2001 Coll. as an administrative authority which looks after state administration in the sphere of radio and television broadcasting and received broadcasts, the Council oversees the preservation and development of a plurality of programmes on offer and information within the sphere of broadcasting and received broadcasts, ensuring that their contents are independent and performing other tasks stipulated by legal regulations.

Public opinion: There is no generally accepted definition of the term ‘public opinion’. The term is most frequently used a) to describe the totality of opinions and evaluations which members of the public express regarding a certain topic; b) to express the concordance of opinions between members of the public attained by mutual discussions; c) in the sense of the promulgation of opinions which people express in public in respect of others and which can differ from their private personal opinion.

  • Topic

Life in contemporary society offers more and more information regarding the most varied topics. The media plays a key role in this process and participates significantly to a paradoxical situation in which certain social phenomena reach the consciousness of the consumers of the media, before such consumers have a chance to compare their “media” experience with their personal experience.

This representation or opinion of an uninformed person regarding a certain problem, created in advance, corresponds to the level of the availability of quality information regarding this problem. For instance, if the Czech media provides information regarding Ukrainians, especially in respect of criminality or illegal work, and does not show the more civilised aspects of their lives, it reproduces stereotypes which act as a significant impediment to the problem-free acceptance of this group in the CR. In order to break down these established ideas of a certain group, it is necessary that it be represented in the media more flexibly. If, apart from dry statistics regarding the numbers of Ukrainians held without work permits, a newspaper reader can read a report on the life and problems of specific persons, they will much more easily rid themselves of ideas of Ukrainians as being a faceless mass of labourers. Individual stories help uncover the “banal” truth that foreigners are simply people like us.

This flattening out of the image of certain groups or social phenomena in the media is given by many different factors, above all by the very basis of the media itself, which attempts to simplify the multi-layered texture of reality in order that it can be conceived of in the form of a newspaper article or television report. Such simplification is essential, and without it a television news bulletin would appear like a constant parallel picture of as many places as possible on the planet (though even this method would simplify the view of the world, not least by the selection of the location of the cameras).

The extent and form of this simplification also depends on editorial methods (editorial routines), the personalities of the journalists, the widespreadness of stereotypes and collective myths, and many other factors. For this reason, it is not possible to ascribe the stereotyping elements in the information provided on the members of minorities or foreign communities to the hidden racism of journalists, as is sometimes done.

If we examine examples of the frequent types of “defects” to texts and other media contents which lead to a deepening of prejudices, we discover that the journalists themselves are frequently the unconscious victims rather than the creators of stereotypes and routines. An example in this respect is the reasonable attempt made on the part of journalists to avoid specifying the participants in a certain event with an ethnic label, which then sometimes leads to certain originally neutral expressions becoming a permanent synonym for a certain ethnic group. (Who do you think of when you hear the phrase “non-payers” or “maladjusted citizens”?) The resulting situation takes us back to our starting point and adds information to an ethnic label to the effect that members of this group do not pay their rent are problem cases, tend to be terrorists, etc.

Another example is the somewhat paternalistic concept of the provision of information to citizens which results in emphasising the subordination of the members of a minority within the society’s hierarchy, and reinforces the social and value structure of majority society to the detriment of minorities. And so, if the media takes up the issue of the members of a minority, there will often be a certain unspoken symbolic hierarchy at work which consists of the fact that a (white) social worker speaks of the Roma population living in a problematic street, a (white) policeman speaks of refugees coming over the border, a (white) director of asylum facilities speaks about asylum seekers, a (white) teacher about children, etc. Journalists are led above all by the need to acquire information with the least effort, which is simpler from a person using a similar social code, even though the result is the unequal status of the members of minorities in the media, and thus society at large. However, on the other side of the problems relating to the media’s representation of reality is the willingness of media consumers to accept uncritically the media’s reality as their own, and to adapt it to reality. Baudrillard writes that “we live in a world in which the highest function of a sign is to make it possible for reality to disappear and yet at the same time to disguise this disappearance … the media these days does nothing else.” These days, people are not sufficiently aware of this fact. A systematic media upbringing and encouraging children (and adults) to critical reflection of media messages is still not the norm or even a sufficiently functioning aspect of education. The dissemination of the magical phrase “but that’s what it says in the newspapers” is a dangerous step in society, which allows itself to be manipulated, either by the media or anyone else who, by means of sufficiently convincing means, causes reality to disappear.

  • Stories and examples

Example 1

The attempt by the media to break apart stereotypes and to present the individual fates of the members of minority groups and foreigners frequently and paradoxically leads to the creation of various stereotypes. One example could be the established cliché regarding Vietnamese children who attain outstanding results at school. Are there really no children of Vietnamese origin who receive only Cs, Ds, or Es?

Refugees often have to fight with stereotypical methods of representation which, at the same time, are caused by an attempt to explain their everyday life. In a moderated discussion with seven asylum seekers awarded the status of refugee in the CR on the topic of integration and the representation of refugees in the Czech media, the following criticism of journalists was to be heard.

“When someone mentions the culture and tradition of refugees, for journalists this almost always ends up in the kitchen. It doesn’t seem to occur to anyone to speak about Armenian, Georgina, or Russian literature, nobody asks you about it. And so, refugee culture and tradition becomes food.” (a 27-year old Armenian woman)

“Even though we are one family, we experienced a large difference in the approach taken by the Czech media, which wanted to present us somehow to the Czech public. They always wanted my husband to speak of something horrific which he experienced in Belarus. But then when they approached me (I have two children), they always wanted to present me as the model refugee who can be shown off like a cute little dog: “Do you like it here? And what about your children, do they like it too?” Nobody was interested in us as normal people with similar problems to Czechs, except maybe a few of them.” (a 33-year old Belarusian woman).

Example 2

As has already been said, use of the word non-payers in the Czech media is simply a politically correct form of a wider, lay discourse about Roma people. In the text given below, the terms “Roma”, “non-payers”, “maladjusted citizens”, upon closer examination, are treated very freely. If you randomly exchanged these words, the significance of the text would remain the same. This means that within the framework of the discourse on non-payers, it is “agreed” that terms like Roma, non-payer, maladjusted citizen or troublemaker are synonymous, that they have the same semantic content.

Source: Kladenský deník
Date: 10. 6. 2004
Headline: The Roma may again turn nomadic

The children of Vrapice are afraid to travel to school, since older Roma children allegedly throw insults at them on the bus. The Roma from mobile caravans are supposed to do something about their children, but refuse to. I don’t live in Vrapice and I can’t judge who is in the right. However, one thing is certain. The problems began when the town council allowed non-payers to move in. This is confirmed by the bus drivers, who the locals say are afraid to act against trouble-making children. The locals do not want the “maladjusted citizens” in close proximity, and so drew up a petition against their relocation from Průmyslová Street. However, this was not valid and the Roma were temporarily moved into the mobile caravans. But they don’t like it here, they complain about the conditions and would like to leave Vrapice. However, the town council does not know where and when to relocate them. The question is whether they will find somewhere for the families in question where they will not bother anyone, and where they themselves will be satisfied with their conditions. There is an offer of a boarding house in a former meat factory, but this has a limited capacity. In the end, the Roma may start to live nomadic lives on the outlying parts of town.

Example 3

A textbook case of discriminatory references to minorities in the press are articles from crime stories, which cite the nationality or ethnic group of the persons involved without any clear connection to the merits of the entire event. And so, such stories are full of Roma stealing from grannies on housing estates, and Ukrainians creating disturbances in pubs, though no attention is drawn to the Czech identity of all of the other muggers, burglars, victims and murderers. It should be said that the situation has improved somewhat over the last few years, and the frequency of blatant examples has dropped. A more cultivated journalistic environment is given by the fact that the large dailies have accepted and abide by codes of ethics which regard the question of discrimination as one of the utmost importance. For instance, MF Dnes states the following in its code of ethics: “MF Dnes avoids any prejudicial and pejorative expressions linked with race, nationality, gender, religion, political opinion, sexual orientation, or professional and social status.” Even so, it is still possible to come across articles like the following:

Source: Blesk
Date: 4. 4. 2006
Headline: They have begun looting

The first suspects of looting! “In Matiční Street, a Roma man got out of the car. He had five rabbits in his vehicle and couldn’t explain where he got them,” said Pavel Bakule, Chief of Police in Ústí nad labem. Děčín intervened in Přípeř: “People were taking furniture and other things to garden houses located on a higher level. A group of Roma wanted to loot them,” said the director of the local police, Marcel Horák. If those held are found guilty, higher sentences await them, which are permitted by the state of emergency.

Source: Deník Směr
Date: 6. 4. 2006
Headline: A Vietnamese driver yesterday flew past the radar like a flash of lightening

A police patrol spent yesterday stopping drivers on the roads in Teplice. The controls, which were accompanied by German police, were aimed at ensuring compliance with speed limits. “Our police travel to Germany on fact-finding missions, while colleagues from Dipoldiswald work alongside us. This exchange of experience takes place within the framework of cross-border cooperation which has been agreed upon by the inspectorates of both parties on either side of the border,” said the spokesperson of Teplice police, Ilona Novotná, regarding one of the controls. During joint controls, German policemen stop Czech vehicles which are breaking the speed limit in the section being measured. After introducing themselves, the police ask to see the driver’s documents and explain in Czech to the driver that they were travelling too fast for this section of road. An official record is drawn up by a Czech policeman who accompanies his German colleague. Yesterday morning, one of the control sites was a car park in Tuchlov, on the road from Teplice Bílina. Records show that the fastest speeds were notched up a car carrying two Vietnamese businesspeople, the driver and a passenger. The radar caught the vehicle travelling at 149 kilometres per hour. The speed limit is exceeded by virtually every tenth driver.

Source: Šíp
Date: 18. 7. 2006
Headline: The cause was vodka

Teplice – A Ukrainian (24) who drowned in the fishpond in the Chateau Garden in Teplice over the weekend had obviously overestimated his fitness. After drinking half a litre of vodka, he wanted to swim across the pond, but didn’t make it to the other bank.

  • Sources


Baudrillard, J.(2001). Dokonalý zločin. Olomouc: Periplum.

Reifová, I. (ed.) (2004). Slovník mediální komunikace. Praha: Portál.

Radostný, L. & Růžička, M. (2006). Terénní výzkum v hyperrealitě. Poznámky k mediální konstrukci sociálně vyloučené lokality. In: Hirt, T., Jakoubek, M.: "Romové" v osidlech sociálního vyloučení. Plzeň.

Jirák, J. e.a. (2003). Nečitelní cizinci; Jak se (ne)píše o cizincích v českém tisku [Hard to Make Out Foreigners; How Foreigners Are (Not) Written about in the Czech Press]. Praha: Multikulturní centrum.

Pospíšil, F., Šináček, M. & Vochocová, L. (ed.) (2003).Očernění: Etnické stereotypy v médiích. Praha: Člověk v tísni.

Homoláč, J., Karhanová, K. & Nekvapil, J. (ed.) (2003). Obraz Romů v středoevropských masmédiích po roce 1989: Sborník prací. Brno: Doplněk

Kaderka, P. & Karhanová, K. (2002). Obraz cizinců v médiích: Zpráva o projektu za rok 2002. Praha: Ústav pro jazyk český AVČR.


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