What happens when people are denied a voice?

By Mike Jempson

Taking part in two Europe-wide projects about challenging hate-speech directed against migrants and refugees brought to mind conversations with a Portuguese colleague some years ago, which led to a booklet about bringing more diverse voices into the media’s agenda.

It is sad that so little has changed over the last five years, and that the extract below still served as an apposite theme for both projects designed to encourage journalists to rethink the way they frame migration and counter hate speech. These are issues which are defining the shift to populism across Europe. We ignore the message at our peril.

‘You are sitting outside a cafe among a mixed social group discussing the latest big issue. Everyone has an opinion, and ‘facts’ to back up their convictions, but there are constant challenges from others who think their views offer a better analysis and solution. The topic may be something that affects us all. The debate is spirited; everyone seems to be enjoying the wrangle so much they do not notice their coffee has gone cold. And they do not seem to notice you. 

‘You have your own version of events, and an opinion to match. And this time it is based on personal experience rather than high theory. But no one wants to hear it. Every time you try to intervene, someone else butts in. This is worse than frustrating. The more you try to be heard the more annoying it becomes. It is as if you are invisible. It is as if they do not want to hear what you have to say. 

You had thought you were among friends who accepted you as an equal, but the evidence seems to suggest that, for them, you do not exist. Your bewilderment quickly turns to resentment and then to anger. They do not know what they are talking about – but you at least know how the issue has affected you, directly and painfully. In effect they are debating your life as if the personal does not matter. ‘Don’t they care?’ quickly becomes ‘They don’t care!’ 

‘You push back your chair, rise to your feet. Still no one seems to notice. Do you stalk off, silent, offended, and massage your self-esteem among others who share similar experiences? Or do you tell them how stupid, and hurtful and ridiculous they are? Such words come out of your mouth, but they are as jumbled up as your own emotions. They make sense to you but to no one else. As if that weren’t bad enough, a few of your colleagues seem to have heard you. One glances across at you and points a finger and grins, some turn and join in his patronising dismissal, but others carry on with their heated debate. What are you going to do? Sweep the cold coffee cups from the table, staining their fashion-clad laps? You know this would be as pointless a gesture as their arguments. 

You are close to tears by now. You are angry and humiliated. You grasp the back of the chair. Should you swing it into the air and toss it across the room? If they cannot see what they are doing, cannot hear how insulting their fine words really are, cannot think what it means to exclude the one person present for who whom the issues are real – then damn them to hell. 

‘This is a sort of dilemma the mainstream media present daily to society’s minorities. There are plenty of ‘experts’ available to tell the world about the problems of society’s most vulnerable but little room for the voices of those directly affected by exclusion. 

So many voices are missing. The voices of immigrants, asylum seekers, refugees, Roma, people with disabilities, gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender. Add them to the voices of those living outside major urban centres and the voices of those living in poverty, extreme poverty and indigence. And do the voices of children, women and the elderly merit as much space as the mainstream male? 

‘Production routines, determined by time and space restrictions, have played a big role in these omissions. But sometimes the missing voices are all around the journalists and their editors. They are right in front of them when they cross public places or go for a coffee. This is the real deal; you arrive, you see your friends, you greet them and sit with them at the table. But there some who are ‘strangers’ to you. You acknowledge their presence but they do not seem confident enough to raise their voices. They must have an opinion, but seem intent on keep theirs to themselves. Do they feel intimidated by the company they are keeping? If so why?

‘As journalists, even over coffee, we have a duty to be alert to what is not being said. We are the ones who should broach the subject with those who are ‘different’, those who are ignored, the ‘strangers in our midst’. Their opinions are as valid as those of people with whom we are already familiar. Encouraging them to speak and challenging their views as we would any other’s is the first step towards inclusivity. To pretend they do not exist does a disservice to them, to journalism and to society. It allows the far-right to peddle their poison without antidote.

‘Currently many professionals all over the world are asking themselves: how can we save journalism? Let us formulate the question differently: can journalism be saved if journalists are, literally, detached from citizens, cut off in their own virtual world? It is hard to deny that greater investment in diversity will bring in new themes and angles and voices, and maybe new audiences.

‘Despite the crazy speed of communication these days we must not lose sight of our essential task ‘to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing’. Only well-informed decisions are truly free.’

‘Greater diversity in news coverage, in every sense, may broaden democracy, but journalism of depth and humanity requires investment. Can social media alone offer a remedy to having fewer journalists out there, on the ground, meeting people and asking questions? We doubt it. Citizens have a right to demand more of the print and broadcast media – more effort, more investment, more coverage, more voices.’ 

Extract from ALL THE VOICES / TODAS AS VOZES: Diversity and the  Media by Ana Cristina Pereira (Publico, Portugal) and Mike Jempson (MediaWise, UK), Movimento SOS Racisme 2014

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