The Journalistic Drama

The Journalistic Drama 
English version (translated by Simon van Woerden)
This essay has been edited and updated from the original Dutchversion which appeared Saturday, December 27th, 2014 in the Dutch daily newspaper NRC Handelsblad. In this op-ed piece I discuss the case of Perdiep Ramesar, a journalist of another Dutch Daily, Trouw, who was laid off in November after his colleagues and an external review board found that in at least 10% of his stories sources were unverifiable. This unfortunate incident – quite similar to the situation The New York Times faced in 2003 when Jayson Blair resigned over plagiarizing and faking some of his stories. In my opinion editorial I put the Ramesar case in a broad social context: namely that of journalism as an almost exclusively 'white' profession in an otherwise colorful multicultural society.

The opinion editor of the NRC had requested the piece earlier in the week - asking for my thoughts on the problematic issue of diversity within journalism (something I myself had hinted at in an interview with Trouw on 22 December).

In brief, my opinion - which I render below in the version I originally submitted, translated and slightly edited by freelance reporter Simon van Woerden - considers journalists as well-meaning, hard-working and ambitious professionals - functioning within a journalism that is the domain of a limited social elite, who by their own homogeneity no longer thoroughly criticize themselves and each other. This is mainly reflected in the often spasmodic way journalism deals with the multicultural society - both in the newsroom and in the news. In this manner I attempt to raise the issue of privilege, as obtained by socioeconomic class (within which white skin color is a form of capital). This was not to attack journalists, but to remind them of their social responsibility. Awareness can lead to useful self-criticism and more empathy for others - be it a colleague or a news source.

The many reactions to this piece, which came via email, my blog (where the piece got over two thousand hits), Facebook, and Twitter, can be divided into two groups. On one hand there were those who stated enthusiastically that all this finally needed to be told, it was "heartfelt", "striking", "clear" and "very strong." On the other hand, I received responses, generally from (white, male) working journalists, who accused me of writing "colossal crap", "nonsense", "bullshit" and "bar banter."

These strong responses point to the still going strong success of an opinion section of a newspaper: it gives people the opportunity to stake their claim in a high-profile debate. On the other hand it is a pity that people do not look for arguments and evidence in the content, but directly move to battle positions. That's understandable - and as the author of a newspaper article, I am also not so naive to think that I could effectively encapsulate in 800 words an uncomfortable analysis pointing people to their privileged context.

Apart from this, I should, if I respect the implications of my own analysis, note that these reactions would not have existed - or would have been quite different - if I were someone other than the highly educated old white guy I am. The question is even if I had not been that old, white man, would I have been asked to write the piece? I may have a say now, because of my position in the field and the capital that comes with it. My field, the university, is of course also a domain that is not exactly burdened with a wealth of diversity.

Many critical comments on my article took issue with my characterization of journalists as being part of the 'upper class' or an 'elite' within society. That sounds simplistic (and indeed it is - it is after all a newspaper op-ed, not a scholarly publication). Why is this characterization still correct? First of all, by 'upper middle class' I mean to say that journalists are part of a "professional-managerial class" as elaborated in the studies of Andre Gorz and Barbara and John Ehrenreich. This class is similar to the top layer of society: highly educated, shaped by (and giving shape to) the dominant culture, in terms of values and expectations of self-realization and achievement belonging to the middle class. At the same time, these professionals also have one foot in the working class because they themselves have no control over the means of production of the industry in which they work. Access to this class is open in theory - these are professions where often no formal barriers to entry exist, or to which the entrance requirement seems neutral (such as obtaining a degree in a program for which student grants and loans are available): journalism, science, education, the arts, film and television, the advertising world.

In practice, for the creative industries in general, work in the media in particular and journalism even more specifically, it holds true that these occupations have become less and less accessible over the past twenty years. Previously, these modes of work were already fairly exclusive - until the beginning of the nineties of the twentieth century they were all sectors dominated by white men. This changed later on: there was more space for women, and later for journalists with minority backgrounds. Through the coalescence of several factors - technological innovation, commercial decline, a defensive management culture and the emergence of university level master's degrees as an alternative to the journalistic trade schools - this progression has now come to a halt. The growth of women and minorities in the creative industries has stagnated. Permanent jobs have almost disappeared from the profession, and generally unpaid internships and other forms of free labor now determine access.

All this is accompanied by rising cost of entry into journalism: a trade school diploma is a bare minimum - for jobs in the national quality newsmedia, in practice a high-level university education is required. Student grants have been uniformly cut, their duration has been shortened and they have been converted into loans (in The Netherlands these did not used to be loans, unlike in many other countrie. The vast majority of newcomers in the profession start as a freelancer or otherwise independent journalist. For them, tariffs have declined structurally over the past decade. In The Netherlands in particular, almost half of freelancer journalists depend on the income of their partner, and 60% have monthly earnings well below the minimum wage. Newsrooms are still creating positions, but more often than not these  are temporary structures designed as more or less informal internships, often with little or no pay (particularly in broadcasting and new media). These developments are not unique to journalism. In the US, where I worked from 2003 to 2013, most students andnewcomers (in journalism and other professions) have not been paid a dime for their internships - while an internship is virtually the only way to enter the profession.
These developments makes journalism less accessible to everyone. In fact, it is now the playing field of a wealthy class: those who can afford to work for years or even for the majority of their careers below or around the minimum wage; those who, as a young person, can maintain themselves on an income of a few hundred Euros/Dollars per month (while living and working in the largest and therefore most expensive cities, as this is where the main news media organizations are located).

In my earlier studies among media professionals in journalism, advertising, film,television and video games in countries as varied as the United States, South Africa and New Zealand, I noticed something that I now see in Dutch journalism: journalists are increasingly being exploited by an industry that no longer invests in them. Access to the profession is thus becoming more exclusive. It is becoming impossible, particularly for people in the lower socioeconomic echelons of society, to participate in such professions. In England and elsewhere, this "elitism in the professions" is a source of justified concern about decreasing social mobility in society. Worldwide, we also know this phenomenon from the pioneering work of the French economist Thomas Piketty.

In my op-ed piece I attempt to put this social inequality on the map as a macro level context for the Ramesar affair, besides micro level factors (personal considerations and motives) and meso level factors (editorial context). Please contact me if you are interested in the original data sources for my arguments (see also the links under the original Dutch version of this blog).

Op-Ed for NRC Handelsblad (December 27, 2014)

The dismissal of journalist Perdiep Ramesar from Dutch daily newspaper Trouw caused substantial turmoil in Dutch journalism. For years Ramesar wrote stories about the multicultural society based on fabricated sources. Colleagues had suspicions, but did nothing. Guidance was lacking, supervisors alternated rapidly. Besides personal circumstances of the journalist in question which remain inscrutable for now (as he has refused to speak out on the matter), the context of this scandal points to a both classic and dramatic problem for journalism.

On Monday, November 10th, 2014, journalist Perdiep Ramesar was fired from newspaper Trouw after an internal investigation by the editorial board showed that he had regularly committed a cardinal sin of journalism: using fake sources. An external inquiry was set up which committee presented its report on December 10. It confirmed what editors already suspected: a substantial portion of Ramesar's stories could not be verified. On the sidelines of his dismissal and the publication of the investigation report there were immediate references to his Hindu background - although not as a cause of his behavior, but as an explanation of the way his articles and his presence in the newsroom were handled.

In an exemplary reaction, the Green (GroenLinks) politician Tofik Dibi bloggedon December 22 that the twofold explanation for the scandal can be found in the enormous need of Dutch news media for "juicy stories about the multicultural society", and in the fact that Dutch media have an overwhelmingly white editorial staff.

Dibi is right: newsrooms in the Netherlands are white. Representative studies among journalists in the Netherlands show that two percent of staff are of immigrant origin (compared to twenty percent in Dutch society). Less than four percent of all graduating students of journalism in the Netherlands have a non-western background. End of story - or so it seems: there is little or no diversity in the media, forcing the handful of minority colleagues into the almost impossible position of carrying the burden of representation for the entire multicultural society.

However important, the concern for the extremely low number of minority journalists working in Dutch newsrooms represents a limited view on diversity. It uses a mirror principle: the assumption that a newsroom with a composition similar to that of society necessarily produces more diverse news. Although a more diverse editorial staff is indeed necessary when it comes to daily confrontations with diversity, research invariably suggests that a news organization's culture has a much stronger impact on news values and selection processes than whether or not there are minorities such as women, young people or people with minority backgrounds present. This begs the question: what is really going on at Trouw and in journalism at large? How is such a uniform and one-sided culture maintained in a profession that otherwise claims to work in the service of the public? The answer: journalism is (just like other professions in the creative industries, including science) the domain of a relatively small social elite - people who can afford to choose a career in journalism.

At present, editorial vacancies are mostly filled by hiring people on extended internships and work experience contracts for a minimal fee, and by creating temporary contracts (from several months to a year) with no reasonable prospect of a permanent position. The proportion of freelancers in The Netherlands has risen from 13 percent in 1993 to about half of all newsworkers in 2013. Recent research by the Dutch Association of Journalists ("Nederlandse Vereniging voor Journalisten" or NVJ) shows that rates for freelancers have fallen sharply across the board over the last decade. More than half of the independent journalists earn less than minimum wage, according to the Social Economic Council ("Sociaal Economische Raad" or SER).

Newsrooms are furthermore experiencing an accelrating dynamic of reorganizations and reshuffling, buyouts and layoffs, new owners and managers, innovations and budget cuts. No position remains unaffected, people throughout the organization feel the uncertainty about the future. Partly because of this, the profession (much like the arts and the creative industries generally) has become accessible only to highly educated people with their own sources of wealth, rich parents, and no family or friends to take care of.

Just as in society as a whole, the real tragedy that affects journalism is one of rich versus poor: the profession is the playground of a wealthy class of people that share the same above average socioeconomic status. In such a context, no one effectively scrutinizes each other - not in the least because people tend to steer clear from fundamental self-critique. This is evident from the study on the culture of the newsroom at the Trouw newspaper where Ramesar worked: there was "no tradition of deeply questioning each other", and the culture was characterized as ranging "from credulous and obedient to indifferent and apathetic" (quotes directly taken and translated from the formal external report). This, and the exceptional position of a minorty reporters in a completely white newsroom, meant that no one was fundamentally debating one another. And that is exactly what is at stake when one speaks of diversity: not neatly reflecting a mirror of society, but actively experience and perceive the (wonderful) messiness of diversity. Not only in the streets of particular neighbourhoods (poorer communities often formed the decor for the articles leading to Ramesar's demise), but everywhere - including inside the newsroom.