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Role of the Media

Prime Minister’s of the United Kingdom most recent decision to reject strict legislative regulation for media workers who are too “scandal-scooping” to recognize the right for privacy (Faulconbridge & Williams 2013) largely demonstrates the general Western line of thought concerning public exposure rather than such vague notion as a “freedom of speech”. It is far from the discovery that media now gains more and more control over our quotidian lives – from our personal preferences for various products and to our political and racial creeds.

Influence of modern information carriers can hardly be overestimated and derives from several reasons, chief among which, – as some scientist tend to believe, – is its memorability. The psychological study performed by a group of researchers from the University of Warwick showed that people remember posts on social media much better than faces or phrases. In the first part of their experiment, psychologists compared the results of participants’ capacity for memorizing Facebook statuses, sentences from books, and human faces. It showed that learning process of microblogs was more intensive than of others – “a magnitude comparable to the difference in memory strength between amnesics and healthy controls” (Mickes et al. 2013). Finally, analyzing cognitive functions in memorizing headlines, sentences, and reader’s comments, researchers came to conclusion that the extraordinary memorization of microblogs is due to the naturalness of speech because they were written spontaneously and represent the “natural emanations of the human mind”, wherein the books and articles are constituted with polished writing.

Nevertheless, the vast majority of Western people tend to rely on traditional media sources (TV, newspapers, radio) more eagerly than on digital ones. A recent survey conducted by digital service provider of traditional and online radio “Triton Digital” examining data received from 24,000 media user via the internet has concluded that television is the most-trusted medium with over 45% of votes, newspapers with 20% of votes in its favour take the second place and are then followed by radio (18%). “Digital media” – said in the survey, – “lagged far behind” (Media influence insight 2012).

Nowadays, media is combined with both complexities of information technologies and clarity of presentation of information. Impact of information and communication technologies (ICT) in our everyday lives even for the last decade has grown immensely. UK commission on employment and skills (UKCES) assessed this sector in 2012 displaying its contribution to the nation’s economy of nearly £69 billion in gross value, thus making it one of the most profitable segments of the budget (Information and communication technologies: sector skills assessment 2012).

Innovative technique of transferring and receiving data these days plays a vital role in our civilization – from warfare and world economy and to an individual mindset. The media has become an integral part of society, shaping the general perception of all events.

Ethnic Minorities Represented by Media

In 2011 a research performed by “Clearcast” advertising services showed that only 5% of television advertisements appeared with actors from ethnic minority groups. Thus, according to the report, among 35,000 commercials only 1130 were using actors from ethnic minorities, considering that Black, Asian, and other ethnic minorities constitute more than 17% of the UK population (Sweney 2011).

Numerous studies concerning racism in media representation reveal the whole scale of this problem. Dr. Nazeef Ahmed in his column at The Independent blogs shared the results of his studies on this issue: after interviewing media workers from The Daily Star, The Guardian, The Daily Mail, The Independent on Sunday, The Daily Telegraph, The Times, BBC World TV, and Channel 4/ITN, he came to the conclusion that racism is deeply bounded with practically all mainstream media. Ahmed finds that this trend correlates “with a steady rise in Islamophobic sentiments over the last decade and that this, in turn, has contributed to an escalation of racist attacks on British Muslims” (Ahmed 2012).

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Employees of Media Sector

British journalists are in a desperate need of sensitivity and diversity training and journalism of better hiring practices. “Why are Britain’s newsrooms still so hideously white’?” asked a headline in The Independent on Sunday nearly 10 years ago (Cole 2004). Not many things have changed since then in the mainstream media.

In 2000, a group of senior broadcasters and other media executives and practitioners founded the Cultural Diversity Network dedicated literally to changing the face(s) of British media. The Independent mapped the staffing changes of “quality” and tabloid newspapers. They were these: on the Birmingham Evening Mail seven out of 93 editorial staff were from minority ethnic backgrounds; on the Bradford Telegraph & Argus, two out of 65; Leicester Mercury, four out of 120; Manchester Evening News, six out of 112; Oldham Chronicles, one out of 34; Yorkshire Evening Post, none out of 68 (Cole 2004).

These numbers do not reflect the proportion of ethnic minorities in the population of media consumers. Some newspapers serve communities with ethnic minority populations of 10 to 40 percent. However, these areas are covered by mainly white reporters “with little understanding of the cultures and religions of the communities they were reporting…” (Cole 2004). Roger Borrell, editor of the Birmingham Evening Mail, recalling his arriving there to take up his post in 2001, said that all of black people who worked there were just caretakers.

Editors of these newspapers claim that they receive too few applications from members of ethnic minorities and attribute this in part to the scarcity of minority ethnic students on journalism courses. These are some figures in a time of increasing celebration of ethnic diversity and concern about interethnic tensions.

Background of Racism on Media

It has already been established in the first part of this work that we rely heavily on the media to inform us about the world at large. At best, present mainstream media offer integrity, illumination, reflection, and information. At worst, it is weak reeds that succumb to distortion, sensationalism, and misrepresentation. Too often, it manufactures minority criminal stereotypes. Thus, it might prove useful to analyze and describe such media representations, drawing on anthropologist Mary Douglas’ theory of the “rise and fall of imputed filth” (Douglas 1999). In her work on comparative religion, Douglas (1999) posits that dirt is essentially disorder and the elimination of dirt represents a positive effort to organize the environment. Because of its potential to violate the order, this “dirt/disorder” “symbolizes both danger and power” (Douglas 1999). In the broader social context, disorder and danger are attributes that tend to be assigned to those on the fringe of the dominant social system. Since any thread “tends to strengthen the lines of division in a community” the supposed dangerousness of marginalized people often serves as a pretext for further marginalization (Douglas 1992), e.g., “belief in [the] sinister but indefinable advantages [of Jews] in commerce justifies discrimination against them – whereas their real offence is always to have been outside the formal structures of Christendom” (Douglas 1999).

This might imply that those who are deemed “filthy” do not comprise a fixed category, and the accusation of “filth” shifts from one target to the next. If we trace “general mood” of the media in the UK, we will see that it speaks in support of this thesis. Moreover, if we accept that accusations of “filth” are bound to shift, we observe that the accusations are visited disproportionately on ethnic minority people, supported by the legacy of racial hierarchies. Such hierarchies equate majority cultural ancestry with “civilization” and “rationality”, while those of “other” racial and cultural origins are regarded as inferior.

In 1876, Cesare Lombroso claimed that ethnic minorities possessed the same characteristics as “habitual delinquents”. Thus, by the late nineteenth century, the link between “filth” and ethnic minorities was already well established. Over time various ethnic groups have been portrayed as “filthy” via the label of deviance. In the UK, this has frequently included African-Caribbean and Asian groups. It has also included ethnic and religious groups commonly (though not always accurately) thought of as “white”, such as Irish, Maltese, Russians, Jews. Note that “Jews” constitute the only religious group in that list, which otherwise focused on national origins.

There is an unspoken hierarchy of minorities, often linked to the length of time in which an ethnic community has inhabited the host country: In less than half of a biblical lifetime, Toronto’s Italian community has all but completed the transition from “ethnic group” to the mainstream. What is most fascinating about the transition is that it came about not in a flurry of assimilation, but through a total re-definition of “mainstream,” a reworking of the criteria that go into making a Torontonian (Gault 1984).

When Italian Torontonians became Torontonians of Italian descent, they achieved a new kind of political and social status. These days, the media often carry reports claiming that Jews living in the US are not only “normal” citizens, but “privileged” ones in the US society, given special treatment by the Christian right that dominates the presidency of George W. Bush.

It is a judgment strikingly out of kilter with the experiences of most Jewish immigrants to North America, including the personal experience of one of the authors. Her family arrived in the US at a time when Jews and other minorities were excluded from playing tennis at Forest Hill, the US equivalent of Wimbledon, as well as from the prestigious “Ivy League” colleges and other institutions of career-building and higher learning. The “preferential” treatment her family experienced in the first half of the twentieth century included not only such exclusion from universities, colleges, social and recreational organizations, clubs, and professions but verbal and physical abuse, sometimes at the hands of adherents to the very faith that dominates the Bush White House. The journalists need to decontextualize their observations. There are political reasons for current relations between governments (not “American Christians” and “American” or “Israeli Jews”, but two governments with Christian and Jewish politicians in them). In oversimplifying the categories, the media not only distort the news but contribute to conflicts between people and among nations. Discrimination based on religious, cultural, and other identifying categories remains a part of daily life, passed on from one group to another, with the least powerful being often those most recently arrived.

Society loses by fostering such exclusion-by-category. The protests against “affirmative action and other enforced change ignore the reality that improving media portrayals may require a generation or two of inclusion-by-category. Amin Maalouf calls “identity” a “false friend”, encouraging divisive allegiances that foster crimes “in the name of religious, ethnic, national, or some other kind of identity (Maalouf 2000). Similarly, Harold Isaacs asks:

How can we live with our differences without being driven by them to tear each other limb from limb? This is at bottom a question of power, of the relative power or powerlessness of groups in relation to one another. If there is any substance to the now-universal demand of all groups for some more decent equality of status in all societies, how might this demand be met? What new politics might meet these needs, what new institutions? What new pluralisms? (Isaacs 1989)

Isaacs’ questions are indeed the questions of our time. Identity politics has led to rigidifying boundaries. An alternative is to encourage a “soft” or permeable boundary system of intersecting identities and affiliations. In practice, this might look something like Stuart’s proposal for journalism education in Aotearoa (common Maori name for New Zealand), which would produce: truly bi-cultural journalists, both Maori and Pakeha, who can report comfortably from both cultures. This means making Pakeha reporters aware of Maori processes and perspectives, of teaching them about Maori culture, while teaching Maori reporters to be able to use Western communications processes and teaching them Pakeha culture. Each approach must happen in a way, which allows the students to maintain their own identity. Both involve different approaches to teaching.

In ancient Greece, the word ethnikos: meant “heathen” or “pagan”. It evolved into the Greek ethnos and in the mid-nineteenth century began to take on the meaning of physically observable “racial” characteristics. In the US at the time of the Second World War, the term “ethnics” became “a polite term referring to Jews, Italians, Irish and other people considered inferior to the dominant group of largely British descent” (Eriksen 2002). The Oxford English Dictionary published the earliest English language dictionary definition of ethnicity in 1972, but the US sociologist David Riesman had used the term at least two decades earlier (Glazer and Moynihan 1975). According to Eriksen (2002), early twentieth-century social theorists erroneously assumed: “that ethnicity and nationalism would decrease in importance and eventually vanish as a result of modernization”, industrialization, and individualism.

That never happened. On the contrary, “ethnicity and nationalism have grown in political importance in the world, particularly since the Second World War…” (Eriksen 2002)

In the course of this work, it would be preferable to emphasize the political and power discrepancies that characterize minority-majority relations. Minority status is more than simply a numerical or a cultural issue.

Sometimes the “experts” perpetuate these issues. Over the centuries, Jews have often been refugees and seekers of asylum; but “Jewish” refers to a Judaism religion and Jews of many ethnicities and nations (divided into two main categories of Sephardic – Middle Eastern, Spanish, Portuguese; and Ashkenazic – European origins) practice their faith in many different ways. Across the globe and time, refugees and asylum seekers of various cultural origins are constructed as folk devils. The frequently heard epithets of “dirty Jew/Gypsy”, or any other stigmatized group make Douglas’ point all too literal. Once accusations of “filth’ are leveled, they are exceedingly difficult to get rig of. The media are not just innocent bystanders or neutral observers; they are culpable. It is useful to reflect upon the thesis mentioned above in media representations of ethnic minority people.

“Filth” is not stratified solely along racial lines. Douglas (1992) notes that “after 1170 vagabonds, beggars, and heretics were the category charged with leprosy [a disease that amounts to a proxy for filth], while the rich and powerful suddenly seem to have become practically immune.” While there may well be an element of “class” stratification at work, socioeconomic status often serves as a proxy for ethnicity. While the target of the accusation may vary, the purpose is generally the same – to bring the “filthy” under restraint. Following Douglas, let us consider how symbolic criminalization has constructed ethnic minorities as “filthy’ and therefore dangerous with the help of the media.

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Case Study

Maori representation by Pakeha image-makers has been influenced by dominant discourses, which have constructed limited notions of who we are, derived from colonial representations of Maori.

Stereotypes of Australian Aborigines and First Nation people can be compared with those of Maori, indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand, when these stereotypes tend to fluctuate between the extremes of Noble Savage and good-for-nothing petty criminal. However, neither of each represents the uncompromising truth. For example, in the United States, the stereotype of the drunken, suicidal, lazy, primitive, and criminal “Indian” is as popular today as it was in the nineteenth century when Native Americans were perceived as irresponsible, childlike, “drunken Injuns”. Newspapers of the time tended to celebrate in racist parlance the apprehension of Native American “offenders” (Ross 1998). The same phenomenon persists in modern newspapers’ treatments of Native Americans who are criminalized for upholding their traditional fishing rights. When Native Americans fish “illegally” in order to maintain traditional rights enshrined by treaty, newspapers invariably focus on their “criminal” culpability and irresponsible behaviour. “Natives” are characterized as over-fishing and creating a black market compared to governments and companies, portrayed as managing fisheries carefully (Ross 1998). During the pioneering days of film making, African Americans and Native Americans “were vilified of portrayed as being racially inferior by American film maker” in practically the whole genre of Hollywood “Westerns” (Mita 1996). In Australia, media representations of issues and events pertaining to Aboriginal people have increased considerably since the 1960s. These representations have been predominantly negative, over-emphasizing drunkenness and crime, and offering biased and inflammatory views. In the aftermath of the infamous headline “Aboriginal gangs terrorize suburbs” (West Australia 1990), portrayals of aboriginal people as threats to law and order were linked to battles over land rights (Sercombre 1995).

In their seminal text Policing the Crisis (1978), Hall et al. analyze the 1972-1973 moral panic around muggings in the UK, linking it with a crisis in the capitalist economy that gave rise to increasingly hostile confrontations between police and ethnic minorities. The panic was sparked when an elderly white man was stabbed to death in the course of a robbery by three young people – one African-Caribbean, one Maltese, and one of mixed origins. Newspapers were quick in portraying muggings as a quintessentially “black” crime. High-ranking police officers and politicians such as Enoch Powell lent their weight to this view. Indeed, long before the panic erupted, the police had linked mugging predominantly to African-Caribbean youth and had mobilized resources to combat it (Agozino 2003). The official consensus, which held that settler communities offended at lower rates than the majority population, changed dramatically in the mid-1970s with the accumulation of unofficial police statistics documenting higher arrest rates for African-Caribbean youth in London.

Following close on the heels of this development, Margaret Thatcher was elected in 1979 to her first term as Conservative Prime Minister. She expressed public sympathy with the whites who feared being “swamped by the alien culture” and promised to bring in more law and order. One of the effects of Thatcher’s policies was that over-policing of ethnic minorities provoked riots among black and minority ethnic communities in several British towns and cities in the 1980s. The riots were extensively and often irresponsibly reported, helping to cement beliefs about “black criminality” in the public imagination.


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In the nineteenth century, Aotearoa (Maori name for New Zealand) threats to the ideal of the crime-free society did not come from Maori. At that time, Maori were regarded as Noble Savages and any thread they may have posed was mitigated by the widespread belief that they were a dying race. The threat was from “undesirable immigrants”, “strangers”, and “outsiders” who in those days were largely Pakeha (Pratt 1992). Urbanization of most of the Maori population after the Second World War brought Maori and Pakeha into widespread contact for the first time since the mid-nineteenth century, and negative representations of Maori intensified correspondingly. In addition to their labour, Maori (and Pacific Island people) brought their cultures with them to the cities – mostly into areas of urban decline. In the North Island cities Aukland and Wellington, such areas became identified as “problem” places. With the economic downturn of the early 1970s adding major unemployment into the mix, Maori and Pacific Island people came to be perceived as threats to law and order (Spoonley 1994). The media found a scapegoat, providing a satisfactory outlet for majority readers’ frustrations in the face of a weakening economy and rising unemployment.

In all of these examples, the minority group challenges its assigned marginal status by claiming a right of possession that is currently denied. The media response to such challenges is often to impute “filth” and thus make the case for continued discrimination against the minority group, based on its perceived disorderliness of dangerousness rather than on the facts.

It is interesting to note that very few ethnic minorities have escaped media imputations of “filth”. For Chinese minorities in many Western nations, criminal stereotypes has followed almost the reverse trend from the nineteenth-century “yellow fever” racism to “model” minority status. “Yellow fever” measures are evident in efforts to prevent Chinese from emigrating to Western countries and after their arrival in the assignment of a range of deviant labels. Chinese were depicted as incorrigible gamblers and opium addicts. Their hard work in gold mining, railway building, and other industries was dismissed as a second-class and sometimes dishonest occupation. Frequently, racist legislation denied them fundamental rights, e.g., Chinese Americans were prevented from testifying in court cases involving Whites as were African Americans and Native Americans (Ross 1998). However, nowadays, Chinese are widely regarded as a model minority through stereotyping that renders them diligent, inward looking, tightly knit, and self-regulating. Other minorities such as South Asians in the UK have also managed to acquire these traits, which (before 9/11, at least) help to shield them from criminal justice surveillance.