Dutch journalism and its biggest newsroom has a white fragility problem

The NOS, the largest news organization of the Netherlands became news itself this week when internal documents and screenshots about its diversity policy were leaked. It showed that the newsroom actively encourages its employees to profile gender and ethnicity in news reports. Furthermore, there is a monthly ‘Divibokaal’, a ‘Diversity Cup’ for the most ‘diverse’ production made and a ‘Divi Base’, a database which registers potential interviewees by gender and ethnicity, allowing editors to apply certain selection criteria when looking for rebuttal.

Diversity in the media is being discussed already for decades, without substantial improvement. And it’s not only a Dutch problem. A conclusion at the News Impact Summit of 2019, organized by the European Journalism Centre was that:

It’s time to accept newsroom diversity efforts have failed. Despite decades of making a case for more inclusion and representation in journalism, despite numerous dedicated studies and initiatives, most newsrooms are still not an accurate mirror of the society they seek to capture and inform.”

The problem is whiteness
What the article with the lessons learned from the News Impact Summit doesn’t point out is the fact that it’s a systemic problem of whiteness where all newsrooms in the Western world deal with. And white fragility keeps journalists from acknowledging that. Once you read more about whiteness, you get to understand the set of characteristics and experiences that comes with being a member of the white race. One of them is not being able to discuss topics about racial inequalities and justice, where diversity and inclusion policies in the workforce are part of.
Professor of Black Studies Dr Kehinde Andrews, who I quoted before in this article, calls it ‘whiteness as a psychosis’. An important side note is that whiteness is not just for white people. There are plenty of black people, Asian people who also purport the psychosis of whiteness. But acknowledging that in our Western societies the white race rules is necessary to understand how to change the structure for the long term.

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The solution is to become uncomfortable
Everyone who has knowledge of diversity and inclusion policy knows that selecting people on their ethnicity and a reward for most divers production can temporarily be a tool or an incentive to drive inclusive reporting and make staff aware of the problem. But it should never ever become policy. When it does, it means diversity in the long term will remain an exception instead of becoming the norm. When methods like this are applied, the next step usually is forgotten: to look in the mirror and see what you yourself as a white western journalist need to change for long term success. That’s where whiteness comes in.
Dutch journalist and chief editor of media platform and magazine Oneworld Seada Nourhussen describes it like this:

“Diversity is not a colouring exercise. You have to adjust your working environment and way of doing it. Be prepared to become uncomfortable and listen to different perspectives.”

White fragility responses
What’s disturbing about the NOS case in The Netherlands isn’t so much the fact that the database and the ‘Divi Cup’ exist, the real problem is the responses of the people working at the NOS and the Dutch journalists who whitesplain the topic.

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Twitter profile

Chief editor Marcel Gelauff’s first response was that as long as you use it for the right reasons, there is no problem in having a diversity database and award. He explains the intention behind the internal policy, saying:

“As a public news organization, we try to make news for everyone in every possible way. This means that you want to create subjects in which all groups can identify, in terms of gender, geographical distribution, origin, etc.”

He adds that the idea for the award came from ‘a few colleagues’ and that it’s not ‘editorial policy’. With this explanation, he avoids his responsibility. For Gelauff the reason why you do something is most important: “At the end of the day you have to arrive at a method to report about society in general”.

The approach of Gelauff is: we have a problem, we need a quick, clear solution and then it’s fixed and we don’t have to think about it anymore. But inclusion doesn’t work like that. The chief editor ignores the root of the problem. All journalists individually should have a diverse network where they can tap into for their work. Some of the NOS journalists are doing already a great job. Unfortunately, they don’t see their individual responsibility in the organization. Like tech reporter Joost Schellevis, who tweeted:

‘I’m just an individual NOS journalist and I’m not about (diversity) policy. But in recent years I have made an effort to get more female and otherwise diverse speakers in my (TV) stories, and I fully support that.’

It’s great that Joost is aware of this. But calling himself ‘only an individual journalist’ is part of the problem. White/ western journalists aren’t used to look at themselves as a group. And therefore don’t see the responsibility to change the Eurocentric/western perspective on the news, because they simply don’t see that it’s there. I wrote in a Dutch article two weeks ago that it’s like the movie the Truman Show: if you are not aware that you live in a world constructed in a certain way, you will never get out.

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Other Dutch (white) journalists who don’t work for the NOS but have tweeted about the topic, mainly whitesplain the whole issue, saying things like:

“About divi-gate: that cup is insulting to everyone. Just a bad idea. And yet I know few organizations that are so serious about looking at themselves in the mirror as the NOS. Against all that gloating here on twitter: look at your own company and do it better.” (Africa, Middle-East and Turkey correspondent, documentary maker and author Bram Vermeulen)

“Nice! Finally #fuss again on Twitter. Crying shame about a topic that’s not worth the trouble. I had missed it so much! #divibocal” (Journalist and former war correspondent Jan Eikelboom)

Both tweets represent the main opinions of white journalists on Twitter about this issue: we’re not allowed to criticise the NOS because a lot is going well in the organization and diversity isn’t that important to fuss about like this. This is white fragility in full effect: discomfort and defensiveness when confronted by information or events about racial issues.

Inclusive leadership is needed
So, what is the solution to all of this? If it was easy, it wouldn’t still be a problem after so many years. Accepting the fact that creating an inclusive newsroom is a daily hardworking job which can’t be solved by databases or awards, is the first important realization. There is no easy solution. Secondly, newsroom leaders should be changemakers here, applying inclusive leadership is key for the long term. Meaning: all the things Gelauff doesn’t do in this specific case. Inclusive leadership at its core means to look inward, look at yourself instead of pointing out to things outside of yourself or to other people.

Unfortunately, his latest response isn’t very hopeful. Gelauff decided to skip the award because as he’s quoted: “I see that there are people who find this painful.” It’s probably the worst reason you can give. Pointing at others again. The response should be: “Apparently I’m missing something here, I will do my research and educate myself more on this topic and see where we should change our policy.”

Gelauff can start today and blog about his self-reflection, to become an example for all the other (probably white, male) newsroom leaders in Western societies like The Netherlands. Looking forward to reading that.