When I was in the second year of my bachelor’s degree at McGill University in Montreal, I remember blogging about how unjustifiable the European, at the time French, debate surrounding headscarfs was.
Almost ten years later, the topic has come up again, but this time in the canton of Zurich in Switzerland. The incident was made public last week, when a public school made it known that they wanted to forbid teachers from wearing headscarfs at work. The school has one Muslim teacher, who wears a headscarf.
The initial news article brought on a flurry of comments on the Tages-Anzeiger’s website with a great many people trying to defend the school’s decision. Others, many from other minority groups, but not all exclusively Muslim, stated their disapproval with the school’s decision. In terms of the legality surrounding the issue, a professor for workers’ rights at the University in St. Gallen, one of the countries most respected higher education institutions, said that the school does not have much of a legal leg to stand on, as the argument for religious neutrality at the school would mean all religious paraphernalia would need to be banned.
While I find this trend as troubling as the anti-minaret initiative that passed the people’s referendum in November 2009, and is currently being examined by the European Human Rights Tribunal in Strasbourg, I find the existence of this debate and the media’s lack of competency even more alarming.
What I mean by lack of media competency can best be illustrated in an examination of the first article on the Tages-Anzeiger online:
The first issue does not even require an understanding of language – it’s the picture. The article is about a headscarf ban in one Swiss school. The picture shows a female teacher in Iraq with a British soldier in the room. This image is inappropriate, as it has nothing to do with the debated issue. Furthermore, it suggests, through the presence of a white soldier holding a weapon, that there is a potential for danger.
Let’s move on. It is not just the picture that makes this article worrying. The choice of diction also conveys the wrong idea. The headline reads: “Muslime rüsten gegen Kopftuchverbot”. The problem is with the choice of “rüsten gegen” which can mean both “to arm against” or “to prepare for”. The ambiguity of the headline will lead many to believe that the Muslim population in Switzerland is preparing for violence because of the proposed infringement on their civil rights. If one reads to the end of the article, which, if we are honest, many don not, we are told that the Central Islamic Council of Switzerland (IZRS) is planning on building up a fund to cover the legal costs involved in fighting discrimination.
Last week I watched the film Page One a documentary filmed over a year at the New York Times. Having watched that documentary a few things become clear. First, the newspaper publishing industry is at a turning point. This was also what Peter Hogenkamp (@phogenkamp) told the audience at at his Zurich Creative Mornings talk on the challenges of technology at the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) last autumn. The second thing that stands out in the documentary is that quality reporting is not a given for all newspapers. And finally the third thing is that quality news is not free, nor should it be. News is knowledge and knowledge is power. Power is never free.
As the Tages-Anzeiger is one of the Swiss newspapers that carries a thin copy of the New York Times once a week, it was troubling to see such reckless and sensationalist reporting. The article may have been short and factual and a great deal of it did address the actual issue in a neutral way, but in the age of mass everything, the images and headlines for the news must be chosen with more scrutiny than ever before, so that they convey a fair information. And a message to new consumers — read past the headlines.