Commentary: Czech media choices justify their means
On Sunday, 30 March, TV Nova broadcast a reportage about violence in the Czech town of Tanvald. Allegedly, several mothers had called TV Nova's editors to tell them their children had been attacked by the children of "inadaptables".
While the word "Rom" was never used in the reporting, everyone who saw the piece understood that is precisely whom it was about. I've lost count of the number of times I have had to sit down at the keyboard to comment on a journalistic enterprise such as this.
TV Nova is not alone. I have reported in a similar vein on other media outlets, including ones that are considered serious.
The difficulty, of course, is that if the events actually took place as TV Nova reports, than any effort to analyze this kind of reportage seems to downplay the harms suffered by the alleged victims. Every call for journalistic ethics seems like a call for censorship and an effort to sweep these problems under the rug.
What actually happened? According to the mothers, who are relaying the news second-hand, five girls assaulted their daughters and wanted money from them.
One victim allegedly suffered a contusion between her vertebrae and a sore jaw as a result of the attack. Even though the commentary in the reportage used the phrase "said to have occurred", the report as a whole gives the impression that TV Nova is certain of what precisely took place.
This impression of accuracy is enhanced by footage of figures reenacting the assault as described. Police have refused to comment on the incident.
Relatives of the alleged aggressors are also not commenting. The reportage was augmented by a less extensive statement by another mother not involved in this incident, who briefly describes how "locals" beat up her son for no reason, and also relays the information that while many such attacks have been taking place in Tanvald, the families of those afflicted have not reported the incidents to police.
It's hard to comment on an event when we don't actually know what really happened. It may have occurred exactly as the mothers of these alleged victims describe.
On the other hand, what happened could have been something completely different - or as history has taught us, nothing of the sort may have occurred and the story could be 100 % fabricated. That important point is something no honest journalist should ever forget.
However, even if all of the descriptions of these incidents were true down to the last detail, it still does not mean it is in the public interest to report on them in this way. Just because something is true, because it actually happened, is not enough of a reason to write about it in the newspapers and report it on television.
This affray or assault only became interesting to TV Nova when editors sensed it involved ethnic tension. Brawls, attacks, pub fights and other forms of violence are unpleasant phenomena, but they are by no means extraordinary here.
Naturally, such violence occurs between ethnic Czechs as well. If TV Nova were to send a camera crew out to every such incident, they wouldn't be able to fit them all into the news, to say nothing of the fact that there would be no room for anything else.
Of course, TV Nova does not send a camera crew to every brawl and assault and does not even know about most of the violent acts that do take place - no one calls up their editors to report them. Such incidents become interesting for TV Nova once they sense ethnic tension is involved.
Immediately, such a story is news! Maybe the editors aren't even aware of how powerful a weapon they are wielding when they choose what stories to cover.
Editors create our very social reality through their choices. How does that work if what they are reporting is the truth?
It works by their ignoring comparable events (which unfortunately occur every day) simply because no Romani people are involved in them. After all, not everything can fit into the news and choices must be made.
If an alleged perpetrator's ethnicity becomes the key to that selection, then the media are not revealing the truth to us, they are manipulating us. Why, after all, are these news items about Romani people so attractive?
The answer in this particular case may be that while listening to what supposedly happened we also heard the message that the parents of the alleged aggressors "are lounging around on welfare to which we all contribute." Viewers are definitely glad to hear that perspective and will turn Nova on again to hear it in the future.
Or maybe it's because the victims (or in this case, their relatives) know certain reporters will be interested in their story, which is why they phone them up. A symbiosis is thus created between the journalists, the victims, and the viewers.
This is nothing surprising for a tabloid television station, but even their desire for high ratings should have to remain within bounds. This also doesn't mean I am calling on journalists to avoid "Romani" topics.
An interesting reportage or even a series could be produced about tensions in Tanvald, but they shouldn't so shortsightedly fan the flames of anti-Romani hatred. Let's imagine if journalists began focusing in this way, for example, on doctors.
In that scenario the media would publish reports in which dissatisfied, embittered patients would discuss what had happened to them and every single error committed by any physician would be front-page news in the daily papers, to be repeatedly discussed in radio and tv news reports. After several months of such a media "massage", people would be afraid to go to the doctor irrespective of whether everything (or almost everything) in the media was true (or almost true).
What will the effect be of this multi-year concentration on the sins of the Roma? The weather is warmer, the anti-Romani marches are beginning again, and people's discontent may once again enjoy this seemingly painless escapism.
Romani people will once again be living a bit worse off than before, and the number of conflicts will rise. The situation, which really is not good, will deteriorate.
The notion that ethnic and social problems can be resolved through marches or through further marginalization of Romani people is misguided. On the country, that approach will only intensify them.
The number of attacks here could still increase until one day even TV Nova won't be able to cover them all on the news. The media's unbridled desire for sensationalism could then result in real racial and social unrest.
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