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Language Matters: Representation of Gypsies and Travellers in British media

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By Mihaela Cojocaru, Communications and Fundraising Administrative Assistant at Minority Rights Group

The media environment in the UK remains challenging when it comes to the representation of ethnic minorities. Gypsies and Travellers are some of many minority communities that have been active members of society in the UK for centuries, yet media stories about them are persistently discriminatory and misrepresented. 

As someone who has studied linguistics and worked in migration journalism, I was happy to participate in the research process behind Media that Moves, a recently published report by Leeds Gypsy and Traveller Exchange, London Gypsies and Travellers, and the Public Interest Research Centre. The report aims at getting a fuller picture of the media environment about Gypsies and Travellers in the UK, which is generally harmful, discriminatory and racist. 

There is sadly a huge market for stories of camps and crime featuring Gypsies and Travellers as the ‘other’, whose traditional nomadic lifestyle makes them often an object of both fascination and hate. The more sensational, novel-like and further from reality the story is, the better. The findings show that big news outlets publish a story about Gypsies and Travellers every 3 days; tabloids are particularly enthusiastic about racist representations. Yet there are hardly any opinion pieces by Gypsy or Traveller contributors. 

There are a number of factors that contribute to the steady cycle of misrepresentation – the hierarchy of power in the newsroom, the precarious situation of journalists, funding streams, local and national British politics, the wary relationship between advocates of Gypsies and Travellers and the media all play a part. 

Under these constraints, change is difficult but not impossible. 

Alongside the above, it is important to highlight a fundamental element which is not scrutinised enough – language. Offering style guides as part of good practices and emphasising the need to capitalise the ‘G’ and ‘T’ in Gypsies and Travellers is an excellent start. However, language is so much more than that; it is the basis of communication, spoken or written. 

Language is so inherently human, we tend to lack critical oversight over its use, even though we each have our own subconscious knowledge and understanding on how to use it. For example, we know to speak formally when we go to the bank; we know how to verbalise our likes and dislikes; we may know what to say to make someone smile; and we often know what to say to hurt someone. We filter and readjust our speech all the time, yet we rarely ponder about why and how we do it. 

There are two major elements which determine language use – the audience and the setting. Every media house has a target audience, depending on the nature of its aims. The setting influences the message behind the story and is based on the identity of the media outlet including its political inclination, guidelines of production and stance on minorities. Each story cleared for production is written with the audience and setting in mind – ‘Who will read this?’, ‘Who do we want to read this?’, ‘What do we want our content to convey?’, ‘What kind of language can the readers expect to read?’. 

For example, certain editors know that using verbs like ‘descended’ in combination with a numeral as determiner to modify the proper nouns Gypsies and Travellers – ‘Thousands of Travellers have descended’ – in a headline will grab the reader’s attention. The wording frames the story in a negative light from the beginning. The body of the article then adopts a similar linguistic pattern which dehumanises, degrades and misconstrues the context and the people within it. The entire model fits into a cycle of narratives that feed often false and harmful stereotypes. 

At the same time, interpreting the meaning of the message behind a narrative will depend on each individual reader and their own system of understanding society. Some will consume the racism; others will question it. Media houses can only work with the common features embedded in norms, cultural practices and representations susceptible to certain readers. And exactly because the audience is diverse, change is possible.

How though? Here are three ways to approach language use: 

  • Employ the correct terminology. Most misinformation and disinformation make recourse to manipulation of terminology. For examples, Gypsies and Travellers are protected minorities, recognised as ethnic groups, and should be referred to as such. If you are unsure what is the correct terminology, consulting Gypsy and Traveller organizations, advocates and community members, relevant official and legal documents, international protection mechanisms, and other civil society organizations is a good start. 
  • Carefully select words in any sentence. Take into account how words correlate with each other and consider the roles of the individuals involved in an action or event expressed through these word combinations. Refrain from the consistent use of subjective connotations such as vilification or victimisation. For example, avoid making Gypsies and Travellers exclusive agents of destruction and crime.
  • Refrain from making everything about race and ethnicity. Like everyone, Gypsies and Travellers should not have to fit neatly in any box. Instead, their multiple social identities should be recognised and respected. Whether a story is about an entrepreneur or a crime, do you really need to splash ’Gypsy’ in the headline? More often than not, the answer is no, so consider focusing on the achievement or the misconduct. Not all the information is relevant in every context. 

Educating the population through ethically produced stories about the culture of Gypsies and Travellers will humanise these communities. However, it is also important to reflect on the benefits of disassociating, where contextually relevant, the ethnicity from the social identities of Gypsies and Travellers, because it will normalise their existence within the society. Doing so can sometimes mitigate any potential outcry from those who will perceive the change in representation as biased or as an aggressive way to impose acceptance. 

Gypsies and Travellers should not be made to fit the norm. Instead, the norm should be gradually reformed into inclusive diversity. 

 

Photo: Leeds GATE colleague and a GATE member reading forms together in the member’s home on a site in Leeds, West Yorkshire. Credit: Leah Cole / Leeds GATE

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