In ten cases out of four, when Roma are shown on television, it is in connection with a criminal offence. Meanwhile, the media only rarely cover cases that have a negative impact on them. Thus, according to a study by Gábor Bernáth and Vera Messing (“Final research report on the portrayal of Roma communities in the mainstream media”), we only rarely hear or read about cases of Roma suffering from discrimination in education, healthcare, and the job market; or about poverty – the cause of the better part of the problems of Roma. The generation of materials that promote prejudice and stereotypes about Roma has become a widespread practice; insinuating and indirect messages are common, along with the acceptance of unsubstantiated pre-fabricated news items. Where have we come from and where are we headed? In this interview with Gábor Bernáth, Márta Varga asks what would be needed for the normalization of this relationship between media and society.
Márta Varga: The two of you have been monitoring and studying the media for nearly 15 years. Has the situation deteriorated over the years? Has prejudice increased in the media?
Gábor Bernáth: We have never seen such a degree of criminalization in the portrayal of Roma in the media as we do today. Of course I wouldn’t encourage journalists to not report on certain crimes, but when one-third of all coverage on gypsies over a certain period has to do with crime, then this means that the media doesn’t have much else to say about them. If it did, then these ratios would be more balanced.
MV: If I’m hearing you right, then what you’re saying is that news about Roma is generally about crime, while the media does not – or does not want – to cover other issues that affect the everyday lives of Roma. What is the reason for this?
GB: There could be many reasons for it, but I would like to just return to the issue of how Roma are portrayed in the media. What I mentioned before is just one part of this. The other characteristic aspect of the portrayal of Roma is that content on everyday discrimination has completely vanished. Sociological studies and other research have shown that discrimination is part of the everyday reality of a significant part of the Roma community. Yet, journalists have nothing to say about this. The proportion of articles on poverty that arrive from above, from the “communiqué-empire” remains very high. That is, the government and various organizations work very hard on promoting how they do everything to help Gypsies, but meanwhile there is no content that shows how limited the extent of this misery is nor how Gypsies help one another. So these three elements come together to form the whole picture: we get most of our information from the media, which claims that crime rates are high, that shows poverty that the poor have brought upon themselves, and that despite all this help, living conditions and other indicators don’t improve, while discrimination is not considered a cause of anything. Thus the blame for everything can be shifted onto the Gypsies, or onto the poor. Of course this necessarily a simplification of the whole matter…
But why has the “Roma as criminals” stereotype become more prevalent? What do you think is behind this?
GB: There are several reasons. It is even possible that crime rates have increased in certain areas, although it would be difficult for anyone to prove whether “Gypsy crime” has increased. I certainly hope that we will continue to live in a country where no one will be sentenced with so little proof. Of course we would also have to prove that there is a correlation between the Gypsy community and crime. So I think it is conceivable that there are some background causes that are connected to a rise in crime rates. Although it appears that the facts are not entirely clear on the matter. For example, the Chief of Police in Miskolc (a town in Eastern Hungary, an area which generally has a higher proportion of Roma inhabitants) was trying to prove that meanwhile crime rates even in, let’s say, the Avas housing project in Miskolc hadn’t gone up, but in Gyöngyöspata we saw the same scenario. These claims aren’t true, but they hit their mark just because they are credible. And you can see in politics, not just under the current government but under the preceding one as well, that they are always playing on criminalization. There is also a kind of criminalization that will actually generate the increase in numbers.
What do you mean exactly?
Let’s say that if they just start throwing every juvenile offender into jail for a first offence of shoplifting, then automatically the measures imposed will follow the increase in numbers, which will serve to justify the measures.
There appears to be a dichotomy here, that enhancing a negative image seems to benefit politics, the justice system and the media, while a positive image doesn’t. What is the situation with culture for example?
GB: Culture, which used to be the only positive aspect of the publicity offered to Gypsies, is a very whitewashed area. So there is still just as much coverage of cultural matters, but today half of these have to do with celebrities. There are very very few reports that show living Roma culture, and of this small number, the overwhelming majority are short minor news items about some dance troupe or other that had a performance in some village…and within this model, we also don’t learn more about celebrities than we did historically about Gypsies. That is, they do not build their careers by emphasizing their Roma heritage – take for example Caramel or Ibolya Oláh.1
This might also be because they don’t necessarily promote it.
GB: That’s true, but if you take the example of Győzike2, who used to really play on this repertoire – for example, he was trying to get himself elected as a voivode (Gypsy leader). Now the only thing about this model that was publicized was that he had to sell his car to pay off his tax debts. So the latter is part of life, but being chosen as voivode is not, so celebrities also try to fill up their image and to always think of new reasons to get themselves talked about in the tabloids. Even he doesn’t use this repertoire anymore…Maybe this is an interesting indication, I don’t know.
You mean that you don’t know why it’s like this? Why he doesn’t use it?
GB: Yes. Though I don’t know if this is a general scenario or not.
But what would it mean if it were general, and what if it were unique?As though Győzike would not be doing Roma a favour by emphasizing his heritage, but that for celebrities it would have been useful if it had been emphasized more. The question is rather that of who is authentic, who can both Roma and non-Roma identify with – right?
GB: Indeed, that would be the question, but I would stick to the facts, and there aren’t any. We don’t know how Gypsies see Győzike. I only have my own perception, but that isn’t relevant.
In 2011, when you took your research sample from online and print news providers and from the programming of commercial and state-funded television, there were a few major criminal cases involving Roma and Roma leaders.How much did this contribute to forming a generalized image of “Roma as criminals” in the media?
GB: It’s true that during that period there were a few major cases that drew a lot of publicity. One was the criminal case against Orbán Kolompár, the president of the National Gypsy Minority Self-Government, and then there were the hearings on the Kozma murder and Gyöngyöspata3. Regarding Gyöngyöspata, it’s important to realize that the paramilitary groups that showed up there started claiming that crime had risen in the community because of Gypsies. This statement was picked up by the media without any critique, counter-arguments or relativization whatsoever. The media thought that if they quote them or edit in these statements, that satisfies their obligation to divulge information. In other words, the basic journalistic ethics or rules of human interrelations – based on which they should have asked: “do you really mean all of the Gypsies living here?” or “who do you mean specifically?” – were not put into practice. Very frequently, journalists feel that all they have to do is to quote both sides, and the reader can decide which one to believe. I think this is a misconception of what balanced coverage means.
Over the past 15 years or so, along with the appearance of the extreme right political party “Jobbik”, putting down Gypsies has become increasingly socially acceptable both in politics and in public forums.Have the media followed this trend as well?
GB: There’s no short answer to this, but there is definitely a correlation. A media image emerges from a certain community in which there are speakers, and these speakers have various degrees of access to power and thus to publicity as well. Accordingly, the government, officials and persons in powers have a greater role and have more access and more authority with regards to any one statement. If they talk like this, then this statement will almost automatically find its way into the media. Why should I care what the chief of police of Miskolc says to his wife when he’s at home? We know all this because it appears in the media. This is a direct correlation. But it is possible that certain professional standards have eroded sooner in the media as well. Many people claim that the events in Olaszliszka were the catalyst that opened the floodgates in the media, so it’s not only politics that drives this.
What do you mean exactly?
GB: I looked at how the media looked one week before and one week after Olaszliszka4, and I have never in my life seen so many general-type questions from journalists, along the lines of “well now let’s make up our minds about what to do with the Gypsies”, as I did then. Of course the problem isn’t that journalists are forcing the situation of Hungary’s biggest marginalized and excluded group, but discussing this issue in the context of Olaszliszka can only make it worse. Maybe they wouldn’t do it today, but at that point it opened the floodgates. Then the media also became very polarized, and we can also see that the “Gypsy issue” has become a political topic. For example, one daily paper, Magyar Nemzet, made a political statement to the effect that there has never been any prejudice towards or discrimination against Gypsies in Hungary, and that if so, it was of such a minor degree that it is not even worth mentioning.5 They openly took a stand that was completely contrary to the results of academic research. And from then on, for a journalist, “this thing” of how to write “pre-truths” instead of trying to present reality – which is of course a complex matter. Now many more people have started to theorize on what should be the general, uniform solution to the problems of the Gypsies, and that is a dangerous thing. What I sense is that since Olaszliszka, journalists openly take a stand on the issue: what should we do now? or, why doesn’t someone just come and fix the whole thing?
Without going into details of the Olaszliszka case, but one fact that was completely ignored by the media was that a child of the family in question had been hit by a car a few years earlier, and had died from the accident.So far as I know, the offender in that case was acquitted.Of course this doesn’t justify what happened, but it does add a certain nuance, doesn’t it?Why was this left out?
GB: “…does this add a certain nuance?!” I find that indefensible. But there’s an important quote from black journalist and activist Carl T. Rowan: “a minority group has ‘arrived’ only when it has the right to produce some fools and scoundrels without the entire group paying for it.”
In the summary to your study, you wrote that the deterioration in the quality of media is mostly due to a lack of time and money.But the many pre-fabricated materials that are released ex post facto, and the absence of fact-finding and data – those who suffer from all this are the ones who are already the most vulnerable. What could be done despite all this to ensure more fairness in news items and other articles?
GB: Yes, it is always the excluded groups who suffer in these cases, in part also because constantly seeing a degraded image of their community in the media contributes to damaging their own self-image as well.
There is little research on this, but what there is shows that these stigmatizing images generally shown to them by the media are very harmful. But these same images from the media are also the ones that influence for example an employer who refuses to employ Gypsies, officials who discriminate in administrative matters or this child protection person who is incapable of talking about Roma except in terms of stigmatization. Their decisions will be made accordingly, and others who are support them will go in that direction as well. So what should happen is for an honest dialogue to begin on the topic, about what happens when people don’t have any money or what are the effects of what journalists are cranking out… After that, a series of important questions should be raised and treated as professional issues, not as “let’s talk about the Gypsies”. Such as, how, at a professional level, to deal with reporting prejudiced speech. How can such things be counterbalanced, and what are the professional standards that should apply. What could for example be dealt with in connection with balanced coverage is that, in articles regarding certain groups, what percentage of information should come from the mainstream institutional system and what percentage should come from the affected group.
I suppose it doesn’t help that the Roma civil rights organizations that used to thematize publicity have now disappeared.What have been the consequences of this?
GB: They used to be effective in influencing their image in the media, but even then the media didn’t cover cases of discrimination for example. But there are programmes across the country that help to provide basic necessities, and these are not visible either. They do not get any publicity, and thus are also not able to show to what degree Gypsies are working for their own survival. And of course no one really does believe that you can live on 28,000 HUF (about 100 EUR) or 47,000 HUF (about 165 EUR) a month, do they?6 Of course the majority of these people are forced to work on the black or grey market. But for some reason, because the propaganda is effective, we still think that these people are sitting around twiddling their thumbs, waiting for handouts, and that in some cases they even drink up the whole amount on the day they get it.
How can serious researchers on this issue link up with media actors and leaders? What I see is that there is no dialogue.Great work and research is being done, but none of it reaches a wider audience via the media, and it is completely absent from mass media.
GB: You would have to ask the decision-makers and editors about that, they are the ones who need this material the most. Of course it is primarily the people who are excluded who need it, and journalists. As for myself, what I can do is to offer my services.
And have you done this?
GB: Yes, in several places. If Magyar Televízió (the Hungarian state-funded television network) invites me to come and talk with their journalists about all this, I’ll go.
Are you planning to have broader trainings for journalists?Or have you thought of setting up some kind of a forum where leading newspapers and people from the mass media as well could post questions and share their dilemmas?
GB: That would be very hard to set up as an outsider. I’m not sure that it should be called training, maybe a series of dialogues instead. That I could imagine.
But you think that this should be launched by editorial staff instead.How do they find out about you and your research partner? Media are visible but you are not.
GB: Lots of people were sent a copy of this analysis and lots of them wrote about it as well. Of course maybe they didn’t write about it enough, or it didn’t reach their stimulus threshold and so they ignored it, I don’t know. But anyone can set up a joint forum, I’m open to that and would take part in it as a researcher.
The majority of news editors at electronic and online media content providers work with whatever information is sent in to them.They generally rewrite the news that they get from news agencies a little bit, or maybe make an interview or a news story based on press releases.In most places, there’s no time to follow up on research, and usually no interest in doing so either.Maybe it would actually be worthwhile to make a shorter version of a 50-page study and use that as a means to start a dialogue.I think journalists would be open to that.
GB: We sent a shorter version – published some time in March – to media researchers and we arranged for two journalists to raise awareness, but we did not do anything more to publicize it. Perhaps CivilMedia could play a role in this respect.
In what other respects do you think it could play a role? Perhaps in restoring balanced coverage? And if so, how?
GB: I am one of those who does not reject legislative instruments right off the bat. It would be very strange indeed if journalists were never called to account for their mistakes, while everyone else, from doctors to railroad engineers, has to answer for their acts. I think some sort of regulatory structure should be in place to deal with the most extreme cases. The aim should not be the expiation of journalists but to use the cases as an opportunity for dialogue within the profession that will encourage journalists to pay attention to these issues. I believe that the Media Authority can play a major role in dealing with extreme cases, which would also constitute a starting point for a dialogue which the media could then continue to pursue on a professional level.
Dialogue with whom? With itself? Researchers, NGOs?
GB: Partly with itself, which would of course include all sorts of “stimulus material” from the experience of NGOs, and of course especially from the experience of the most vulnerable groups. There are all kinds of techniques from this, from a documentary road trip to a sort of testimony-based press conference, held for example by a homeless person. Of course that person wouldn’t organize it by him or herself, but we would organize it for them. In this respect I could see mediating organizations, such as CivilMedia as well, that could organize consultations within the journalism profession regarding certain issues. We see a few areas in which, at the moment, it has no idea how to handle democratic openness.
What areas are those?
GB: For example, quoting extreme speech. How does the media today deal with that? It would be worthwhile to take these things from the level of emotions and bring them to the level of rationality, where they could be debated.
And what else?
GB: Another one is how to interpret balanced reporting. Should we count out the minutes, that two people from the majority population spoke for two minutes, and two from the Gypsies also spoke just as much and just as long? or should we see for example some Gypsy leader chosen by I don’t know whom to speak on behalf of all the Gypsies? This raises the question of how we would like it if, following the same logic, the president of Hungary were to represent the opinions of Hungarians in any issue, as after all he has visible, democratic legitimacy. A third issue is – since when is one opinion representative? Who can represent the views of an entire community? How, and under what restrictions?
All of these issues require subtlety, sensitivity and expertise.It is as though you are assuming that this pool of knowledge is shared by the academic elite, researchers, journalists and editors.Probably the majority of journalists do not even understand what you are talking about.They are competing with one another to see who gets the scoop, and in dealing with issues that arise on the fly, like whom to quote and whom not to quote in a certain news item, and they have to come up with immediate, sometimes improvised answers to these questions.They make decisions and don’t necessarily consider the consequences.It’s not out of bad faith, but because they can’t evaluate these consequences.
GB: I don’t think that they don’t understand, maybe just don’t always use it. Often there isn’t even a chance to use this expertise. As for the questions of how there could be more time in the media for more in-depth fact-finding and background, for more thoroughness, you would have to ask the owners of media networks. It is possible that the publication or the secondary publication of research is not sufficiently emphasized by researchers. Or, as you mentioned earlier, that there should be a three- or four-page summary of a 50-page study that journalists would have time to read too. Yes, it’s conceivable that something like that should be done. This for example is the kind of thing that even civil society can do, or even academic researchers as well, especially in topics that have a very strong connection to publicity. I accept that.
His two young daughters were in the car while he was being beaten. Charges were brought against eight offenders, three of which were condemned to life sentences in jail. 5 Magyar Nemzet: “exclusion is actually a departure from the mainstream, prejudice is founded on past judgments and it is the inevitable task of the Roma community and a major challenge facing it, to convince the majority population that these [prejudices] have become false through the passing of time. There has never been anti-Gypsy racism in Hungary, or if there has been or is any, it is so uncharacteristic and is of such an insignificant level that it is not even worth wasting any words on it.”) 6 This is a reference to amounts of social aid given by the government, and to a recent controversial statement by a Hungarian MP that anyone can live on 47,000 HUF/month.]