Dutch Journalists Alter Their Coverage of Migrants: In the Wake of a Politician's Murder and the Rise of Populist Politicians, Journalists Start to Report Routinely on Societal Issues Related to Migrant Groups

By Van der Heijden, Yvonne; Mathies, Evert | Nieman Reports, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Dutch Journalists Alter Their Coverage of Migrants: In the Wake of a Politician's Murder and the Rise of Populist Politicians, Journalists Start to Report Routinely on Societal Issues Related to Migrant Groups


Van der Heijden, Yvonne, Mathies, Evert, Nieman Reports


Neither in society, nor in the media has the multicultural society been a hot topic in the Netherlands until recent years. It wasn't an issue that the Dutch took particular interest in discussing since groups of immigrants from different cultures had settled successfully in this country for centuries. In the 16th century, Jewish merchants from Spain and Portugal settled here. They were followed by Puritans from England, who as Pilgrims in 1620 sailed to the New World, and then by French Calvinist Huguenots fleeing persecution in France.

In a small country with wealth creation dependent on international trade, it always has been a matter of common sense for Protestants, Catholics and Jews to coexist. Our country's strong historic tradition of religious tolerance also made it easy to ignore the consequences of the huge influx of people with different cultural backgrounds after World War II. The first wave in the 1950's were Dutch with postcolonial roots from the Netherlands Indies, Suriname, the Netherlands Antilles, and Aruba. They brought an exotic tropical culture with them, but they spoke Dutch, so communication was not a serious problem. That was different with the second wave of immigrants--then called "foreign guest workers" who--came from countries around the Mediterranean in the 1960's and 1970's.

Guest Workers Arrive

Tens of thousands of "guest workers" invited to work in low-skilled industrial jobs arrived from Turkey and Morocco with cultural values alien to the Dutch. They came mostly from the poorer parts of their countries, were devout Muslim believers, and were close to illiterate. As is common practice here, these migrants set up associations that took care of organizing cultural events, and these became consultative counterparts of the government. At that time, and still years later, nobody in the Netherlands realized what enormous impact these immigrant workers would have on this society that was based on Jewish-Christian values. Until the rise of flamboyant politician Pim Fortuyn, who at the turn of the 21st century denounced Islam's intolerance and gained an intense following in doing so, migrant issues seldom got front-page coverage.

Until then, the nation's lack of interest in issues associated with racism and cultural diversity had been grounded in the horrible experiences of World War II. The large-scale murder of Dutch Jews had made a taboo of ethnic divisiveness, and this contributed to a delay in the emergence of a debate about immigration and integration. In 2001, Fortuyn's political message and rising popularity broke the taboo. But as had happened in 1982 when the extreme right-wing Centre Party (CP) propagated xenophobic and racist ideas and won a seat in Parliament, journalists (and politicians) again did not know how to handle what was happening.

A Wake-Up Call for Journalists

In the early 1980's, increasing support for extreme right-wing organizations, culminating in the CP's entry into the House of Representatives, served as a wake-up call on the topic of racism for the Netherlands Association of Journalists (NVJ). Disinterest in migrants' lives had changed to negative imaging of ethnic minorities in the media; migrants were now being portrayed and treated as inferior people. Some newspapers printed the full names of foreigners who were arrested contrary to the usual practice of using initials in reports on those who are detained by the police.

To raise interest in the migration issues and tackle unfair reporting on migrants, the NVJ set up a working group called "Media & Racism" in 1984, which developed a proposal for a code of journalistic conduct in the coverage of migrants. The draft code, however, faced strong opposition among NVJ members for whom journalistic freedom is sacred. During an emotional meeting, they rejected this new code and decided to stick with the code of Bordeaux, which was adopted in 1954. (1) In their opinion, this prior code provided enough ethical guidelines applicable to migrant issues. …

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