Gypsies, Travellers and the Media: A Good Practice Guide

Publication type: Guide

Author: Friends, Families and Travellers

Themes: Discrimination

From as far back in history as you care to go, the settled public have often viewed Gypsies and Travellers as outsiders, as a community living on the margins of society. Gypsies and Travellers have often been misunderstood and feared and their portrayal in the media has changed very little over the centuries. This is a stark reflection of the deep-rooted stereotypes and prejudices this community has had to bear. Unlike other minority groups who have found a voice and successfully challenged discrimination, there are two fundamental qualities, inherent in the culture, that sets the Traveller communities apart and make their task all the more difficult. These are:

  1. That Gypsies and Travellers have very different roots from settled people; and
  2. That Gypsy and Traveller history is an oral archive.

Although Gypsies and Travellers are often considered to have very strong ties to the land, the communities generally stake no claim to any one road, hill or valley. Gypsy and Traveller history is immensely rich, but the only books you will find telling of it will be filled with the words of other people. These qualities are part of what make the Gypsy and Traveller communities so exceptional, but they also play a central role in their misrepresentation. Consequently, the depiction of Gypsies and Travellers in the media is, more often than not, one-sided and ill informed.

In 1998, in an attempt to address the situation, the Commission for Racial Equality (now EHRC) produced a leaflet entitled “Travellers, Gypsies and the Media – A good practice guide from the Commission for Racial Equality”. The leaflet begins thus:

“Coverage of race and ethnic issues across the media has significantly improved over the past 20 years. There has been a wider and more constructive exploration of many questions and a reduction in the use of language that is offensive to members of different ethnic groups. However, many problems remain. These recommendation are designed to help in dealing with one of them: the way parts of the media report on Travellers and/or Gypsies”.

“Poor quality reporting, which exploits or panders to stereotypes, can cause much hurt to those about whom the stories are written. By repeating false and negative stereotypes the media can encourage bad practice on the part of those with whom Travellers and Gypsies deal and can validate the expression of language and attitudes which in any other circumstances would be seen as totally unacceptable.”

The leaflet goes on to outline some very basic and fundamental journalistic principles, which often have not been applied in the reporting of issues concerning the Gypsy and Traveller communities. These are to:

  • Steer clear of exploiting prejudice;
  • Check the facts;
  • Don’t let your news addenda only be driven by the way others are handling the issue;
  • Look behind the story line;
  • Listen to the people you are writing about; and
  • Avoid labelling people if it is not relevant.

Although the CRE guidelines were greatly needed and welcomed, they are only guidelines and no journalist is required to abide by them, nor is there any penalty for breaching them. Indeed, there is very little redress against bad journalism and very few successful complaints. Unlike most other institutions, the media is self-governing. There is no independent body to which the media is accountable. Uniquely, this is essential if the media is to remain unfettered by political parties and popular opinion. This means, however, that it remains relatively unaccountable for its less laudable actions.

Read the Gypsies, Travellers and the Media Guide.

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