Jarmila Balážová: The Czech media have neither the desire nor the time for the truth
Jarmila Balážová has been working as the press spokesperson for the Czech Human Rights Minister since March. Prior to that she was a correspondent for Czech Radio 6 who moderated the programs "Focus on Human Rights" (Zaostřeno na lidská práva), "Studio STOP", "Dissuasion" (Rozmluvy), "Focus on Youth" (Zaostřeno na mladé) and "Science Talk" (Hovory o vědě).
Prior to her radio career Balážová specialized in film and television, working as a dramaturge and moderating programs on Czech Television and TV Nova. She has won several awards for journalism, including the Karel Havlíček Borovský Prize in 2006.
In addition to her journalistic work, Balážová established the Romani monthly Romano voďi (Romani Soul) in 2002 and edited it until this year. She is also the chair of the Administrative Board of the ROMEA public benefit corporation.
Balážová graduated from the Faculty of Social Sciences at Charles University with a degree in journalism. She has now given an interview to MediaGuru about how the media cover human rights.
Q: Do you believe the Czech media cover the topic of human rights sufficiently?
A: I believe there are significant gaps in our media's coverage of the topic of human rights, in all of its breadth. I understand that in news reporting, and in the competition dictated by the speed of internet reporting, information is delivered in an accelerated way today, under time pressure and with few staff involved, but there are many media outlets here that could go deeper. I'm really sorry that human rights in the Czech media are often reduced only to the right to self-determination, to social rights, and that there is no discussion of the right to human dignity or the right to form one's own opinion, etc. People in our country, when listening to something or reading about human rights, have the feeling that it's all about someone else, they don't realize it concerns each and every one of us. For example, the topic of social housing doesn't just concern a narrow segment of the Romani population, but is affecting more and more families of all kinds, especially single-income families or senior citizens. Each of us during our lifetimes undergoes certain periods when the topic of human rights is of concern to us, whether you are a child, a 30-year-old woman trying to combine a personal and a professional life, or a 50-year-old person looking for work. We could cover one topic after another like this. In the context of the media, however, you won't learn much about that. The image of minorities in the media is something else entirely, and in most cases, representatives of minorities are placed in the role of either defending themselves or constantly explaining themselves.
Q: Why do you think that is?
A: Lack of energy, time, and maybe even lack of courage on the part of the media, political courage, there are always many factors. Currently we live our lives in abbreviations. There are fewer people in newsrooms who have the time to dedicate themselves to these topics and the power to investigate them in-depth. Moreover, during this era of internet media, everything has accelerated, journalists are under constant time pressure. It's happened more than once that if a reporter asks someone for comment and doesn't get an answer within three hours, the story gets published anyway. A general awareness is being created here that is based on ignorance, on lack of information, on lack of personal experience. We are all experts at making quick judgments, no one has the desire or the time to seek the truth anymore, which in my opinion should be the primary responsibility of the media.
Q: How do the Czech media write about the Romani minority? Have you observed any change over time in their media image?
A: In my view the media image of Romani people has not changed much over time. On the one hand it is negative, more harsh because of the rise and spread of socially excluded localities. In the last few years Romani people are reported about as if they all lived in ghettos. One-third of Romani people living on the edge of poverty are determining the media image of the entire minority, and it's a pathetic image. One the other hand there are also journalistic efforts at the opposite end of the scale, at publicizing good examples, examples of intelligence, examples of good practice. The center ground, which is where most of the population lives, is usually missing from the media. There are attempts by some media to go more in-depth, as part of special coverage, but in general the media are failing in the area of the Romani issue from a systematic perspective. On the one hand they do their best to be correct, while on the other hand they publish very generalizing articles. However, the worst thing is that generalizations and imprecise information are turning up today even in the serious media. On Czech Television you have, in addition to the genuinely good programs, stuff with the format of "You Have the Floor" (Máte slovo), which may get good ratings, but is a terrible tabloid that presents all topics as black-and-white and simplified. You will find a similar principle at work in many other kinds of broadcasting and in the press. The difference between the serious media and the tabloids is being elided more and more, and that is most obvious in how headlines are being written. In their effort to grab the reader, the media are adapting themselves to the current mood of society. Then, thanks to this shift, we get absurd questions like "What should the Roma themselves do for this or that...". If you were in a studio as a non-Roma - as an expert, say, on the topic of homeless people - it would never occur to anyone to immediately ask you about what your personal responsibility is for that group of people. If you are Romani, the association is automatic.
Q: What do you say to the statement by Pavel Novotný of Extra.cz that if he uses the word "Rom" in a headline more people will click on the article?
A: In his own inimitable way he has precisely named a common practice that almost all newsrooms work with, including his. The headline "Roma from Strýčkovice terrorize village" evokes a certain feeling and a certain view of reality. The same goes for the phrase "Roma gang". What about the fact that in reality, this was a case of one family, four brothers altogether, two of whom were already in custody when this scandal broke and another who had been diagnosed as mentally ill? For 14 days, the articles about this just recited pure emotions, no facts, no logical questions. I don't want to make light of the situation of the people who have to live in that neighborhood, but to produce news articles about this case for 14 days, and to continue reporting a "gang" on the scene when the perpetrators have been arrested just incites a certain mood, it doesn't help the neighbors, it doesn't help anyone. It's just manipulation of the facts and a lack of information. The media should feel responsible here to do their best to draw a truthful picture, not to unnecessarily scare people where there is no reason to do so. That approach just plays into the hands of political populists who launch crusades, accompanied by the media, into these neighborhoods while the local mayors almost die of heart attacks.
Q: What steps are you planning to take within the Human Rights Ministry to improve reporting about human rights, or to improve the media image of Romani people in the Czech media?
A: I am convinced that if it is only the politician responsible for the human rights agenda, or the politician with an agenda closely related to it who are the ones speaking up, then nothing will improve. We need more politicians willing to seek a real way forward to improving people's situations instead of just profiting from them. Such a politician immediately loses political support and voter approval, but that is the only way to resist, to provide a counterweight to the escalation of negative emotions in society. At the end of the day, the police interventions during [anti-Romani] demonstrations and marches really cost a lot of money that could be made better use of in the regions. So our task is to try to bring the ministries together, to give them arguments to use on these issues. The recent visit by three ministers to the Šluknov district and their pragmatic statements to the media are, I think, a good example. I also hope for and am willing to bet on more discussions with journalists. At a time when Okamura is constantly working with the argument that there is not enough work for people here, it is the task of the media to place the issue of migrant labor in context. If people here are working under the table, the media should also ask the employers providing that work about it, not just view the issue through the lens of the employees. Facts, numbers, examples of good practice, pragmatic aid, questions for actual solution, seminars, sharing information, not avoiding unpleasant topics - I would definitely like to contribute to all of that. In addition, within the next three months I would like to (and I am already working on) initiating a media working group comprised of professionals that would include journalists, publishers, and representatives of academia and advertising. The group would, on the basis of regular monitoring, develop analyses, concepts, and strategies and offer them to the media. Its main function would be an effort to develop discussion of issues on the basis of expertise, to communicate human rights topics responsibly, and to reach out to the media, which has long approached certain human rights topics in a populist way. I will try to communicate with university journalism departments about this too, and I know that interest in such collaboration exists.
Q: Are you also thinking of an information campaign to draw attention to human rights topics?
A: Naturally. It's a question of money and time. Right now I can tell you about two upcoming campaigns. The Agency for Social Inclusion now falls under the minister's agenda, as does the agenda on equal opportunities for men and women, which is being handed over to us from the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry. Both will be financed by the Norwegian Funds. The Agency for Social Inclusion will prepare the launch of a campaign for September and is naturally considering working on social networking sites, refuting hoaxes, etc. The equal opportunities campaign will focus on the topic of domestic violence as well as work-life balance. The aim is to reach out to a broad spectrum of society, to various age groups. We will do our best to connect these campaigns to one another, to raise many social issues and produce some interesting data about this society. Most public opinion polls show we are xenophobic but have less to say about the causes for that state of affairs and whether this really is about fear, hatred, ignorance, etc.
Q: How exactly do you intend to focus on educating journalists?
A: Within these campaigns we are counting on holding seminars at journalism faculties. Over the course of a semester, students would be able to analyze the media and collaborate with others as part of the media group. The hard nut for us to crack continues to be the regional media, but I believe the situation there can be improved. Entertainment formats have proven totally successful at educating the broader public. For example, the reality show "Vyvolení" (The Chosen), where the contestants have included a gay man, a female prostitute, and a Romani man, have show that these three real people completely contradicted the general notions about their groups - they were the people to keep the house cleanest and were the most principled of anyone. When their housemates bullied them, the public felt the need to vote the bullies off the show. Another rewarding format is that of talent shows during which people have more time to get to know the contestants better and to evaluate them according to something besides their ethnic origin or sexual orientation. There are also cartoons or sitcoms. For example, in the US a famous serial called "The Cosby Show" had a very positive influence on changing perceptions of African-Americans there. Then there is how minorities are presented, we should look for people who are not directly connected only with the topics of foreigners, Roma, sexual minorities, etc. Anyone can be in an Avon march, right? Suddenly society is more familiar with that topic.
Q: How do you approach these problematic Facebook profiles calling for hatred? Is it possible to do something about this when the company is based in the USA?
A: I hope we will succeed in establishing cooperation with the cybercrime department, with which Zuzana Baudyšová [director of the Our Child - Naše dítě Foundation] has long collaborated. Moreover, I believe prosecutions should not concern just the people who create such profiles, whom you often will never apprehend because they have set it up abroad, but also the people who "like" and share them.
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