Icelandic media asked to adopt a diversity policy

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Calls for Media Policy On Cultural Diversity

Diversity policies have been in place in Europe since the 60s. Isn’t it time the Icelandic media follows suit?

Words by Zoë Robert

Photos by Hvalreki

The representation and participation of immigrants in the media was
a recurring theme at the Integration and Immigrants’ Participation,
held last month in Reykjavík. The issue has received renewed attention
in recent months in relation to coverage of a number of criminal cases
in Iceland in which it was emphasised that the crimes were committed by
foreign nationals or those of foreign origin, something which
spokespersons for immigrant groups have condemned. They argue that it is
unnecessary, reflects prejudice and reinforces stereotypes.


Ólafs, one of the organisers of the conference, is writing her PhD
dissertation on media representations of immigrants in Icelandic
newspapers. According to Helga Ólafs, the absence of a media policy in
Iceland on cultural diversity is a contributing factor.

policies have been in place in Europe since the 1960s. The fundamental
principle of the Nordic public service system is to embrace the entire
population, but in order to fulfil that principle, the Icelandic
national television needs a policy regarding cultural diversity,” she

“In the Nordic countries policies have been set forward
due to pressure but the fact is that there is almost no pressure in our
society and the discussion limited, according to my research, to mostly
revolving around whether to mention nationality in crime news.”

Ólafs says that Morgunblaðið adopted a set of guidelines (the only
paper to officially do so) in 2002 following an incident when
nationality was mentioned despite it being irrelevant to the story.


Helga Ólafs and other speakers at the event say that discussion about
immigrants lacks diversity and is often linked to crime. In fact, there
has been a 43 percent decrease in articles on immigrants from 2007–2010,
according to a content analysis of the Icelandic mass media by Media

Furthermore, they argue that immigrants overall have very
little presence in the media. “What is a bit troubling is that there
are so few immigrants in the media. They are really seldom interviewed
and there are very few articles written by immigrants,” Helga Ólafs
says. “Additionally there are no immigrants working in the [Icelandic
language] media apart from one on [television station] ÍNN.”

explains that the decline in coverage can be partly attributed to
newspapers shrinking and immigrants returning to their country of origin
following the economic crash.

Nonetheless, Helga Ólafs says
hiring people with immigrant backgrounds in the media would be one step
towards the media better reflecting multicultural society. “It would be
very positive to have an immigrant on the screen and also for Icelanders
to get used to listening to foreigners speaking Icelandic with an
accent,” Helga Ólafs says.

“[But] we must keep in mind that
diversity is not only being able to count the number of ethnically
different faces on screen. The important question is how they are
portrayed, how they are part of the story.”


Ólafs points out that the language is a barrier particularly when it
comes to television not just in immigrants being hired to work in the
media but also when it comes to the media interviewing them.

Ólafsdóttir, an MA student in Anthropology at the University of
Iceland, who has also conducted research on the topic, agrees with Helga

“Immigrants are hardly ever spoken to as just normal
members of the public and one of the reasons for this is the Icelandic
language,” she says.

“There is a strict language policy at the
national television station, which is actually quite limiting for
Icelandic journalists too because they get lots of criticism if they
don’t use the language correctly or even if they interview people who
lack some knowledge of Icelandic or use it in an ‘improper way,’ so many
are scared of interviewing immigrants, I think, because of their accent
or because the person might not be understood so they will get lots of
emails asking ‘why did you interview this person?’”


Ólafsdóttir adds that when immigrants are spoken to it’s usually in
relation to problems and in cases where they are spoken to because of
special knowledge or interest, they are still asked where they are from
despite it being obvious that they live in Iceland. “It always has to be
emphasised, ‘you’re a foreigner,’” she explains.

Helga Ólafs says that the representation of foreigners needs to be
broadened. “Minorities are all too often treated as issues, not as
people,” she says.


Editor Ólafur Stephensen, who acted as discussant in one of the
sessions on media, agrees that there is a lot of work to be done.

many ways we have reflected the fact that Iceland is becoming a
multicultural society, but we’ve been pretty much focused on the
negatives and on the problems of integration and changes in society,” he

“We need to shift our focus away from portraying people
who are born elsewhere and who have moved here as a departure from the
norm to portraying them as normal people living here. That is probably
one of our important tasks ahead—to reflect how people of foreign origin
are living here in Icelandic society. We want to do better because we
want to reflect all groups of society.”

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