On Tuesday February 10 (2015) I will participate in a debate with researchers Marieke de Goede, Francesco Ragazzi, Jolle Demmers, and Julien Jeandesboz to discuss the role of the media, Islamophobia and
the temptation of vigilantism in Europe in the aftermath of murders at Charlie Hebdo in Paris on January 7th of 2015. The debate takes place at SPUI25 in downtown Amsterdam, The Netherlands (this is a debate center operated by the University of Amsterdam).
My contribution to this debate focuses on two particular issues: the attacks on journalists as exemplary of the mediatization of society, and the problems white, middle-class Western news media have covering an increasingly diverse, complex global culture in their societies.
The Charlie Hebdo attacks signal the significance of singling out media in general, and individual
media professionals in particular, as victims. See also the horrific
beheading videos featuring freelance journalists by jihadist groups (since 2002). This fits in a
broader 'mediatization' of society, where media as
institutions have become central to the way we live our lives and, in
particular, how we see ourselves and each other live. As Zygmunt Bauman commented after the Hebdo attacks: "In our media-dominated
information society people employed in constructing
and distributing information moved or have been moved to the centre of
the scene on which the drama of human coexistence is staged and seen to
A second observation deals specifically with the
role of journalists covering such events: the problems western media
have effectively (and with nuance and credibility) covering topics such
as religion (in general, Islam in particular),
minorities, migration, and class struggle. As a report by the Dutch NRC Handelsblad on February 3, 2015 showed,
Dutch newsrooms employ almost no minority reporters and are otherwise
extremely homogeneous, failing to address and reflect the complexities of
Looking forward to the debate and seeing you there.
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
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
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
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
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.