The representation and participation of immigrants in the media was a recurring theme at the Integration and Immigrants’ Participation, held last month in Reykjavík. The issue has received renewed attention in recent months in relation to coverage of a number of criminal cases in Iceland in which it was emphasised that the crimes were committed by foreign nationals or those of foreign origin, something which spokespersons for immigrant groups have condemned. They argue that it is unnecessary, reflects prejudice and reinforces stereotypes.
ABSENCE OF MEDIA POLICY ON CULTURAL DIVERSITY
Helga Ólafs, one of the organisers of the conference, is writing her PhD dissertation on media representations of immigrants in Icelandic newspapers. According to Helga Ólafs, the absence of a media policy in Iceland on cultural diversity is a contributing factor.
“Diversity policies have been in place in Europe since the 1960s. The fundamental principle of the Nordic public service system is to embrace the entire population, but in order to fulfil that principle, the Icelandic national television needs a policy regarding cultural diversity,” she says.
“In the Nordic countries policies have been set forward due to pressure but the fact is that there is almost no pressure in our society and the discussion limited, according to my research, to mostly revolving around whether to mention nationality in crime news.”
Helga Ólafs says that Morgunblaðið adopted a set of guidelines (the only paper to officially do so) in 2002 following an incident when nationality was mentioned despite it being irrelevant to the story.
43% DECLINE IN COVERAGE OF IMMIGRANTS
Still, Helga Ólafs and other speakers at the event say that discussion about immigrants lacks diversity and is often linked to crime. In fact, there has been a 43 percent decrease in articles on immigrants from 2007–2010, according to a content analysis of the Icelandic mass media by Media Watch.
Furthermore, they argue that immigrants overall have very little presence in the media. “What is a bit troubling is that there are so few immigrants in the media. They are really seldom interviewed and there are very few articles written by immigrants,” Helga Ólafs says. “Additionally there are no immigrants working in the [Icelandic language] media apart from one on [television station] ÍNN.”
She explains that the decline in coverage can be partly attributed to newspapers shrinking and immigrants returning to their country of origin following the economic crash.
Nonetheless, Helga Ólafs says hiring people with immigrant backgrounds in the media would be one step towards the media better reflecting multicultural society. “It would be very positive to have an immigrant on the screen and also for Icelanders to get used to listening to foreigners speaking Icelandic with an accent,” Helga Ólafs says.
“[But] we must keep in mind that diversity is not only being able to count the number of ethnically different faces on screen. The important question is how they are portrayed, how they are part of the story.”
LANGUAGE IS A BARRIER
Helga Ólafs points out that the language is a barrier particularly when it comes to television not just in immigrants being hired to work in the media but also when it comes to the media interviewing them.
Helga Ólafsdóttir, an MA student in Anthropology at the University of Iceland, who has also conducted research on the topic, agrees with Helga Ólafs.
“Immigrants are hardly ever spoken to as just normal members of the public and one of the reasons for this is the Icelandic language,” she says.
“There is a strict language policy at the national television station, which is actually quite limiting for Icelandic journalists too because they get lots of criticism if they don’t use the language correctly or even if they interview people who lack some knowledge of Icelandic or use it in an ‘improper way,’ so many are scared of interviewing immigrants, I think, because of their accent or because the person might not be understood so they will get lots of emails asking ‘why did you interview this person?’”
NARROW REPRESENTATION OF IMMIGRANTS
Helga Ólafsdóttir adds that when immigrants are spoken to it’s usually in relation to problems and in cases where they are spoken to because of special knowledge or interest, they are still asked where they are from despite it being obvious that they live in Iceland. “It always has to be emphasised, ‘you’re a foreigner,’” she explains.
Similarly, Helga Ólafs says that the representation of foreigners needs to be broadened. “Minorities are all too often treated as issues, not as people,” she says.
A LOT OF WORK TO BE DONE
Frettablaðið Editor Ólafur Stephensen, who acted as discussant in one of the sessions on media, agrees that there is a lot of work to be done.
“In many ways we have reflected the fact that Iceland is becoming a multicultural society, but we’ve been pretty much focused on the negatives and on the problems of integration and changes in society,” he says.
“We need to shift our focus away from portraying people who are born elsewhere and who have moved here as a departure from the norm to portraying them as normal people living here. That is probably one of our important tasks ahead—to reflect how people of foreign origin are living here in Icelandic society. We want to do better because we want to reflect all groups of society.”