Journalism and the challenge of racism in sport

By Yuk Lan Wong, Campaigns and Projects Officer, European Federation of Journalists

Sport and the media share one common feature - they both exemplify the notion of fairness. In sport, the capacity of an individual to succeed is determined by the pure talent that one is born with regardless of his or her race or ethnicity. Accountable media and journalists always strive to tell the truth through fair and accurate reporting.

Like sport, journalism at its best can bring people, whether from different cultures, ethnicities or religious backgrounds, together and champion the common values shared in our society. But in a world where ethnic conflict, racial strife and terrorism linked to extreme nationalism have been a feature of political life, our common values can easily be shaken by the use of political propaganda through the media. It is not only in times of war that media face the challenge of intolerance.

Racial violence in our communities, characterised by terrorism incidents, the influence of far right political parties, widespread religious intolerance, prejudice and discrimination against minority groups are all part of the daily news reporting.

Mass sporting events like the Olympics can become breeding ground for racial prejudice and be used by extreme right-wing political parties to instil populist and dangerous ideas such as the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany where anti-Semitism was widespread. More subtly, it also revealed how racism was deeply entrenched in American society, when speculation on whether Adolf Hitler refused to shake the African-American medallist, Jessie Owen’s hands, was exploited through the American media to project specific propaganda. Under such circumstances, the media can become a weapon of intolerance with journalists used to provide political propaganda. This underlines why discrimination within the media should be wiped out, that journalism should put populist and dangerous ideas under proper scrutiny, and why journalists should be alert to the danger of discrimination being furthered by the media .

Regrettably, racism is still a reality, particularly in sport. Although the situation has improved over the years, racism in sport is a recurring problem. Despite Europe-wide ‘Kick it Out’ campaigns, racist chanting at football matches still occurs, although at nowhere near the levels it reached in the 1970s and 80s, when black players were often greeted with monkey-noises and bananas. Nowadays, journalists have become more sensitive to the issue and quick to react to unacceptable behaviours. The racist slur made by Tiger Woods’ ex-caddy, Steve Williams, was quickly picked up by journalists and led to immediate action taken by the International Federation of Professional Golf Tour and public apology by Williams. Another incident reported by the media on the alleged racist remark made by the England captain, John Terry, led to an official investigation by the Football Association and more public debates on racism in sport. These incidents show that the media can help set the standards for what is acceptable in societies, and steer the public debate in the right direction. To date, many media organisations and press councils have introduced self-regulatory guidelines [1] and ethical codes regarding the use of discriminatory language and provisions for the protection of ethnic and minority groups.

“Initiatives that aim to set guidelines for the media, discuss cases, encourage debate and discussion among stakeholders are the way forwards to counter discrimination in media, but not regulation.”

Nevertheless, racism can still be heard, read and seen in mainstream media. The racist comments made by a British TV presenter, Ron Atkinson, are another case in point. In 2004, Atkinson was accused of racism by making a comment about a black football player in an off-air conversation. Although Atkinson was forced to resign, many football supporters and fellow sport commentators excused his remarks as “heat of the moment” or “a slip of the tongue”. The incident showed how racism is deeply entrenched in sport.

It is not only racism that needs to be tackled. Discrimination based on sex is another prevailing challenge to overcome in sport and the media. We still remember the “gender test” scandal undergone by the 18-year-old female athlete, Caster Semenya, during the 2009 World Championships, due to the intense media obsession about her sex. The media started to speculate about her “masculine characteristics” and “powerful running” which did not fit with stereotypical and narrow representations of female athletes.

Earlier this year, the sexist comments made by British TV presenters, Richard Keys and Andy Gray, show that sport is largely reflected from a masculine perspective. They were immediately sacked after they made sexist remarks about two female match officials and a leading female football executive by challenging their competence based on sex. This not only underlines the male-oriented discourse in sport in which female athletes are often challenged. The prompt action taken by the broadcaster raised the problems of whether they were given a fair hearing, and whether this was a case of genuine humour. This clearly demonstrates the need for more professionalism, training and clear editorial guidelines on what is acceptable or unacceptable.

The challenge of discrimination in sport not only requires a culture of change within the industry; the media and journalists should also be part of the change to reflect diversity and equality in sport. To achieve this, the media and journalists need to play their part to ensure people get the information they need, without lashings of bias and prejudice.

Initiatives that aim to set guidelines for the media, discuss cases, encourage debate and discussion among stakeholders are the way forwards to counter discrimination in media, but not regulation. Although ethical codes will not solve all the problems of intolerance in media, they help journalists to take responsibility and they encourage journalists to act according to their conscience.

Over the years, the International/European Federation of Journalists (IFJ/EFJ) launched many international campaigns and worked with journalists’ unions, civil society, European institutions and policy-makers to promote ethical journalism. In 2008, the IFJ/EFJ launched a flagship programme - Ethical Journalism Initiative - to promote ethical journalism. The initiative is built upon the belief that a media that is ethical in general terms is also capable of using the necessary responsibility in exercising freedom of expression.

Under the initiative, journalists’ unions launched initiatives to promote diversity and equality in the media. The National Union of Journalists of the United Kingdom and Ireland established a Black Members’ Council to campaign for race equality in the union and in the workplace and tackle racism in the media. It recently produced Guidelines on Race Reporting. In 2008, the Federazione Nazionale della Stampa Italiana developed the Rome Charter, a code of conduct for reporting on asylum seekers, refugees, victims of trafficking and migrants in the media. In 2009, the IFJ/EFJ published a study on media diversity in Europe in partnership with the European Commission and Media Diversity Institute. This year, unions in Greece (Journalists’ Union of Macedonia and Thrace Daily Newspapers), Slovakia (Slovak Syndicate of Journalists) and Lithuania (Lithuanian Journalists’ Union) took part in a project led by the IFJ/EFJ in partnership with Article 19 and Media Diversity Institute to combat discrimination in the media and launched national campaigns.

Building upon the existing work and initiatives, the IFJ/EFJ recently joined forces with the Council of Europe (CoE) in a Europewide project - Media against Racism in Sport (MARS) [2]- aiming to tackle racism in sport by improving ethical standards in journalism. The MARS project is a EU/CoE joint programme focusing (not exclusively) on sport, because it is considered as an important area for building social cohesion. This is also a timely project in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics to raise public awareness of discrimination issues in sport. A series of activities, including work exchange programmes for media professionals, and national and European conferences, will be launched across Europe. These activities focus on three main areas in the media, including media training and literacy, ethics and editorial management, and media cross-production. The project targets all media players, including media managers, editors, publishers, journalists, media trainers and educators, as well as journalism students.

The MARS project not only builds upon standards set by various CoE bodies on media pluralism, expression of diversity and non-discrimination; it also recognises the existing work carried out by the IFJ/EFJ and its affiliates in this area and the important role played by journalists.

What can journalists do to improve ethical standards? How can trade unions use the collective bargaining process to create greater equality of opportunity in newsrooms? How do we encourage more employment of people from different backgrounds in journalism? These are the questions that are most likely to help us find the answer to forming an inclusive, diverse and accountable media in Europe.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) is the world’s largest group of journalists representing over 600.000 journalists. Its regional group in Europe, the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) represents over 260.000 journalists in all EU member states.

[1] For example, the BBC introduced editorial guidelines on the use of discriminatory language. The UK Press Complaint Commission Code contains provisions on discrimination

[2] The project is funded by the European Commission, DG Justice, Citizenship and Fundamental Rights.


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