Unheard, Unseen & Unread

Migrants remain invisible in the Austrian media: A discussion at the British Residence

“Migrants in the Media” panel Mar. 30.

“Migrants in the Media” panel Mar. 30. L to R: consultant Macey, BBC‘s Chapman, Prof. Hausjell, mod. McNamee, Lohmeyer of Die Presse, and Unterberger of ORF | Photo: British Embassy

Paul Macey has no patience for all the excuses, all the longwinded, contorted explanations as to why there are so few journalists with a migrant background in the mainstream media. In Britain, his voice of conscience is heard as a steady prod to the powers that be, and things are beginning to change.

“It’s about time!” he told the audience for the panel discussion at the residence of British Ambassador H.E. Simon Smith on Mar. 30. “It is extremely important to employ a more diversified workforce in media companies,” said Macey, managing director of The Creative Collective, a media and training consultancy. “It’s about accuracy” and being able to report “straight from the shoulder” on an issue or event.

In Austria, the struggle has just begun; and there is deep disagreement as to both causes and solutions. Michael Lohmeyer, an editor at Die Presse, for example, thought hiring initiatives would be ineffective:

“It does not make any difference in the reporting, whether or not the workforce is made up of various cultural backgrounds,” Lohmeyer countered. “The problem is in the underlying culture; this is what has to change.”

It was an emblematic exchange in the discussion, entitled “Migrants in Mainstream Media: Comparing British and Austrian strategies for increasing diversity in the media,” organized by the British Embassy in combination with M-Media, an Austrian association of ethnic newspapers, broadcasters and online news organizations, to address the almost complete invisibility of Austrians with a migrant background in the mainstream media here.

In addition to Macey and Lohmeyer, the panel included Jonathan Chapman, BBC Newsgathering Assignment Editor, Prof. Fritz Hausjell of the Institute for Communications at the University of Vienna, and Klaus Unterberger, the ORF Delegate for Public Value. It was moderated by Prof. Dardis McNamee of the Research Faculty in Media Communications at Webster University Vienna and Editor in Chief and Publisher of this newspaper.

The media in the UK and Austria have different perceptions of how to serve these populations. Given an ever-greater diversity in both countries, the organizers hoped to stimulate discussion and encourage change.

Such a discussion was long overdue, said Ambassador Smith in his introduction. Current migration movements are a challenge but at the same time also an opportunity. Migration is increasingly defining European societies today, and this means that institutions need to adapt.

As introduction, McNamee reminded the audience of Austria’s long history of integration, particularly in the waning years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, “when army officers had to be able to make commands in eleven languages.” Emperor Franz Josef had spoken with pride of his “Vielvölkerstaat” – many-peopled land.

“People tend to forget this,” McNamee said, “and it may be time to shake Austria out of its state of continuing hibernation.”

Macey argued that changing hiring practices – even if it means quotas – was fundamental to any meaningful change:

“People have to see us,” he said. “In the U.K. we’re still outside the mainstream. There is still this notion that we are the other, even for those born and brought up in the U.K.” Only by putting more minority journalists on the scene, and minority editors assigning the stories, can a long lasting change occur.

With Austria and the EU becoming increasingly interlinked, pressure continues to grow for businesses and governments to rethink their stance on immigration. Furthermore, with the growing presence of the UN and other International Organizations (i.e. IAEA, UNIDO and OPEC), the city is accommodating an increasingly larger multicultural community.

The event was very well attended; every seat in the ballroom was full and visitors who had not signed up ahead of time had to be turned away at the door – a measure of the strong interest and the importance of public discussion.

Macey’s remarks were among the most powerful of the morning. During his almost twenty years of experience in media, he encountered very few colleagues willing to integrate the work force. As a black journalist in Great Britain,  he was refused an assignment to write about a reggae festival called Sun Splash, because it had been “too peaceful.”

His boss called it ‘Gun Splash.’ No matter how good, a lively cultural festival with no violence was simply not a story.

Prof. Fritz Hausjell reported on his study the involvement of migrant populations in Austrian broadcast media (the “ORF TV Consumption Study” commissioned by the ORF).

“TV is still the most important form of media for migrants,” Hausjell said, but Austrian migrants are “not satisfied with the way they are portrayed” and that existing programs are “about them rather than for them.” With about 19% of Vienna’s population made up of immigrants, the ORF now recognizes that it needs to consider them as part of its mainstream audience.

Both Macey and Hausjell stressed that it is difficult for people with a migrant background to find a job in the media world. And even if they found one, it is very difficult to become fully integrated into the professional community. The BBC’s Jonathan Chapman said that the British broadcaster had set the goal of having 12% of employees from minority or ethnic backgrounds.

“However, it is even more difficult to reach the 7% quota in the senior management layer,” Chapman said.

Is he herewith saying that reaching these targets just means complying with given instructions by the BBC board? It seems as if for him it is just about reaching certain targets rather than bringing diversified points of views into the media world. Reaching quota targets alone, without taking other people’s views’ into account, seems unlikely to alter mindsets in the long run.

During the Q&A session, a UN employee from Ghana said he had “never read anything positive about African people in the Austrian media in the 20 years that I have spent in Vienna.

“Every African man is referred to as drug dealer,” he said.

Had he actually read the papers carefully during those 20 years, McNamee asked? A student also challenged his claim. Later, at the buffet, he had admitted that the remark was simply to provoke a response. However, the feeling was understandable. According to an article from Der Standard (June 7, 2007) the percentage of crimes committed by foreigners have stayed relatively constant over the past several years. Foreigners committed only 28 to 30% of the crimes in Vienna over this time.

Lohmayer described his first assignment as a young journalist to report on a robbery. The police told him that the perp was most likely that a foreigner. Witnesses described “a man with dark skin,” which they immediately assumed meant someone from a Mediterranean or African country. Later they learned it was an Austrian ski instructor, with a deep tan.

The ORF is trying to counter these images with programming, including a mini-series about migrant youth called Tschuschen:Power. [see accompanying story, p.11].

At the same time, the station is about to cut back the successful Heimat Fremde Heimat (Homeland, Foreign Homeland) from weekly to monthly, to save money, although comparable Austrian programming – like Konkret – have not been affected. The show is popular with migrants, and the decision suggests the group is considered a low-priority niche audience.

“There is little funding for the migrant issues the ORF wanted to pursue,” said Klaus Unterberger, not addressing the funding priorities themselves. And even with little money, panelists suggested, one can create a good show.

And why are there no migrant journalists working for the ORF?

“I don’t know,” Unterberger replied, “In my opinion it is time to do so.”

Bringing about lasting change in the people’s perceptions will not be easy, the panel agreed.

“Everyone is responsible,” Macey concluded, “whether employee, board member, or audience.” In an interconnected world, in which countries and peoples coalesce, he said, it is increasingly necessary to look for compromises to include migrants, not only as journalists but also as an appreciated and respected audience.

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