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An American, Swedish and New Danish Perspective on the Ethnic Minority Discourse in Danish Media

A discussion of how Danes with ethnic minority backgrounds are depicted in the media today, and ways to raise awareness concerning the media's responsibility

There is a “battle of words” going on between ethnic minority youth and the Danish media. When Danish journalists show ignorance regarding the way in which their own discourse affects the public perception of these youths, progressive organizations raise their voices. How do their initiatives influence the way that Danish media speaks about, and with, this minority group? From an American, Swedish and New Danish perspective, we explore the pitfalls and possible changes within Danish media discourse.


In the 1990s, a rigid dichotomy emerged in Denmark consisting of “us” – the Danes – and “them” – non-Western ethnic minorities – as culturally incompatible groups. Even though the role of media cannot be entirely separately from the ongoing political discourse, the Danish media’s selective focus on Muslim minorities has catalyzed the view that these groups stand in direct opposition to ethnic Danes. More recently, there is some recognition of the media's role in promoting cultural diversity, and reducing racism and prejudice in Denmark. Nevertheless, Tøger Seidenfaden, editor-in-chief of Politiken, says, “I have to strike a balance between what I think is right and what is possible to do.” In light of these constraints, how can the media present a more balanced image of ethnic minorities, and incorporate their perspectives into general news coverage?

Media’s Impact

The Association of Responsible Press is one actor working to raise awareness among journalists, as well as youth in Denmark. The group has implemented programs in schools, arranged meetings between important media figures and ethnic minority youth, initiated dialogue between managers of media outlets, and held debates in journalistic forums.

So, is the media discourse changing? Recently, there has been some positive coverage of ethnic minority girls who are excelling in their studies. On the other hand, “why shouldn’t I do well?” says Gizem, a 19 year-old newly graduated student with a minority background. Such a statement suggests that this “positive” media coverage might be perceived as irrelevent, or even patronizing. Rosalina Dias, Vice President of Association Responsible Press, believes there have been some improvements in recent years. Yet, from a long-term perspective, the conflict between ethnic minorities and media has only escalated further.

“If you are looking for the stereotype you will find the stereotype,” states Dias. To this could be added: you will perhaps even create stereotypes. In other words, the negative portrayal of minorities in the media will not only influence the observer’s opinion, but also the subject’s self-perception “You defend and intensify the part of your identity that is attacked – in this case the minority or religious identity,” says Haifaa Awad, Vice President of Danish Arab Youth association. It is difficult to isolate the direct effect caused by the media, but any negative discourse definitely adds to the frustration that excluded youth already experience. For instance, ethnic minorities are mainly represented in stories about integration, crime and religious issues. “We’re only professionals in being ethnic minorities” says medical student Haifaa Awad, who expressed her frustration in always being asked about headscarves, rather than dietary or medical questions.

Ali Sufi, Vice President of the New Danish Ethnic Youth Council, claims that there is a “battle of words” taking place. This recently-established group attempts to forge a stable relationship with media and promote its agenda of inclusion and recognition, as opposed to integration, of New Danes. “New Dane” is a term that arose a decade ago as an alternative term to describe ethnic minorities. Since many of the youths that the council deals with do not identify with this given label, it prefers “Now Danes,” a more neutral term inclusive of all Danes. Sufi says, ”we try to tell the youth that they can be who they want and still be Danish.”

Media’s Responsibility?

Many journalists are aware of the prevalent negative discourse and stereotyping, so why is there no change? “Social responsibility is not something you can take for granted,” Tøger Seidenfaden says. Part of the answer lies in the nature of journalism, where the criteria for what constitutes news compels journalists to act as a mirror depicting what goes on in society; yet at the same time, emphasize conflict and sensationalism. Furthermore, it seems easier to use the established network of sources rather than to reach out to ethnic minorities, some of whom have shown resistance towards journalists. Finally, the diversity of Danish society is not reflected in the homogeneous Danish journalist workforce. This explains why “we talk about them, but not with them” says Rosalina Dias.

In Sweden, poor media representation of ethnic minorities exists as well; however, the Swedish impose ethical guidelines, whereby journalists are expected to mention ethnic origin or religious views only when such information contributes to understanding a certain context. Some might say that this amounts to a censoring of reality; others that it is a question of ethical standpoint.”This codex for ethical journalism is a rule that has gone out of use,” says Tøger Seidenfaden of Danish media. Religion, culture or ethnicity are not seen as the sole grounds for problems like segregation or criminality in Swedish politics and media; instead, such difficulties are explained by socioeconomic factors. In Sweden, integration is the main issue, whereas in Denmark Tøger Seidenfaden sees a fusion of three agendas: integration, international terrorism and the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, which has shaped the discourse of the Muslim as “the other.” However, just in the last six months the Swedish media has begun to resemble Danish media, following an election in which a nationalistic party won seats in the Swedish parliament and in the aftermath of an attempted terrorist attack in Stockholm.

Minority Press as a Solution?

Could alternative media channels represent a solution? Tøger Seidenfaden and Rosalina Dias argue that Denmark is too small for an ethnic minority press. Rosalina Dias suggests that groups should not exclude themselves from mainstream media, but rather work together to participate in a single media for a "sense of belonging to the same society." In contrast, Ali Sufi believes that simply because "a lot of people are nervous about anything that is exclusively ethnic minority," society should not discount the minority press as a means for furnishing the positive self-representation that is currently lacking in Danish media. In the United States, such a minority press thrives, providing an outlet for varied perspectives and a voice to minorities that were previously excluded from the mainstream.

Beyond ‘Us’ and ‘Them’

Tøger Seidenfaden claims, “the main part of the story is a political problem.” However, we still think that media has a responsibility to fairly represent minorities. We see great value in incorporating different perspectives into the Danish press, as Denmark moves toward an increasingly multicultural society. With minority populations increasing, it is necessary to rethink the concept of Danishness. Says Haifaa Awad, ”I find it provoking that the media says I can’t be an Arab and a Dane at the same time.”

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HIA Program:

Denmark Denmark 2010


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