Poynter Podcasts: Diversity in Denmark and the Cartoon Controversy

Listen to Danish journalists talk about the effects of the cartoon controversy on the way they do their work.

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To listen to a podcast from early February 2006, when Poynter faculty members held a roundtable on the cartoon controversy, click here.

It has been six months since the now-famous Muhammad cartoons were published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten.

With three Danish journalists  visiting Poynter this week, Roy Peter Clark moderated a discussion aimed at better understanding the controversy — from a Danish perspective. The journalists — Jens Otto Kjaer Hansen and Peter From Jacobsen from the Center for Journalistik og Efteruddannelse (Center for Professional Development in Journalism) and Lone Vandborg, from Copenhagen’s Aller Press – said the shocking reaction from around the world has prompted Danish journalists to rethink their approach to the religious and cultural diversity within their own society. Danish journalists, they said, now must decide how to cover that diversity as responsibly as possible.

 – Produced by Meg Martin and Larry Larsen

A transcript of the podcast, lightly edited:

Roy Peter Clark, Poynter vice president & senior scholar: I’m Roy Peter Clark, the senior scholar at The Poynter Institute. And this podcast is taking advantage of the presence at The Poynter Institute of three journalists from Denmark. There’s Peter Jacobsen and Jens Hansen and Lone Vandborg. Peter, would you introduce yourself again, please?

Peter From Jacobsen, program director, Center for Journalistik og Efteruddannelse (CFJE: Center for Professional Development in Journalism): Yes, hello, I’m Peter, and I work as a consultant and teacher and [work on] analysis [of] journalism for the Center for Journalism and Further Education in Denmark.

Lone Vandborg, copy editor, Aller Press: Hi, I’m Lone, and I’m working for a Danish TV magazine called Aller Press there, and sometimes as a TV commentator for Eurosport.

Jens Otto Kjaer Hansen, director, CFJE: Yes, and I’m Jens Hansen, and I’m the director of the Center Peter mentioned.

Roy Peter Clark: Okay, very good. Thank you. We’ve been thinking and debating, in the United States, all of the issues surrounding the publication, originally in Denmark, [of] a series of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. The publication of those, and subsequent events, have led to various kinds of protests around the world — some peaceful, some very, very violent. And we’re trying to help journalists figure out how to cover it, how to think about it.

Here in the United States, one of the big questions was, “Did we have a responsibility to republish the cartoons, the images, so that we could all engage in a better conversation about the relationship between, let’s say, freedom of expression and the desire not to unnecessarily offend the sensibilities of a religious or an ethnic group?”

The debate in the United States has been very, very intense. So I think the three of you can help shed some light on it. So could you first help us understand how the conversation and the reaction among Danish journalists has been in the months since the cartoons were published?

Peter Jacobsen: I could say a little bit about it. In September last year, I took part in the newsroom trainers conference here at Poynter, and there was a very interesting discussion about diversity. I was part of the Danish group, and I think there was not so much awareness [within] the [Danish] group that [diversity] was very important for us. But, I think, now that we have had this case in Denmark, there is a lot more awareness now, and everybody can see that this is very important for us also. We are, in fact, a multicultural society as well as you are here in the United States.

Lone Vandborg: Where I work, actually we’ve been debating it a lot as well, not that any of the publications [that we publish] would be any that would carry it or think about carrying it, because [they're] more in the entertainment [side]. So we didn’t have to have that discussion, but of course [we talked about] freedom of speech (Can you say whatever you want to say?) and that whole religious debate.

And to sum up a lot of things, I think it took us all by surprise, that it could turn into the thing that it did turn into. Probably all because our inheritance over the last couple of years, or the last couple of decades, has been that religion is — for general Danes, Christian Danes, you wouldn’t be that offended,  that if something happened, you’d just say, “Ah well.” And for [such] strong feelings [to have come out of this], of course, has made us go, “Wow.” That was a surprise, and then [there was] that whole debate about — “Should you do it?” “Is it relevant to do it?” “Did it help anything?” “Should we show it now, just to be like, ‘Well we can’t be controlled by the Middle East’s rage’?” “Or should we show them again?” “Or should we take it to heart, and say this is like so overstepping the line?” — that whole debate.

And I have to say, when you speak to people, it’s like — I wouldn’t even say 50/50 — some of the issues will go like 80/20, and other issues the other way around. And I don’t think we’ve come to any sort of conclusion, because one day there will be some new information and you’ll feel this way, and another day there will be new information and you’ll feel another way. And so I think it’s a learning process for us, and like Peter said, it’s really been a realization for us that there are really other issues and feelings to be noted.

Roy Peter Clark: I want to come back to that, but, Jens, I want to get you involved right away and just ask you what your take on this is, in terms of what’s your experience of journalists and their reaction to this.

Jens Hansen: Well, I was just sarting to add a remark to your opening remarks, about your debate in the States. I would say that I do understand the debate, because [there was a report] in Denmark, published a few days ago, that showed that this cartoon has been published in about 104-plus media and more than 40 countries. Which means that, in fact, a lot of media in a lot of countries have taken the same fundamental decision about the relevance of discussing the freedom of speech in light of this action, and I can see that it underlies the very difficult question whether this … is true, whether it is a relevant test for it.

So I do have a [feel for the] debate. But to get back to the question, I think the most important thing in Denmark is that we’ve suddenly found out that this really is an issue. I mean, it could happen, because we have a very open tradition in Denmark [about] what we can publish, what we can put [up for] debate. Presumably, [it's] more [liberal] than in the States, a … secular society. And there’s always also a kind of mental difference, that we can take hard debates without taking it to heart. And sometimes we refer to something in a sense of humor which could be misunderstood.

But this is not a question of being [humorists]. We have a kind of national tradition, and I think many Danes have been quite astonished that [there's been such a fuss about the cartoons]. So I think that it’s important when you talk about understanding how it could happen. I mean, it was no big deal in Denmark, and things worse, or just as worse, you could say from that perspective, have been tried before. But for the first time, we had a reaction of this size. And then you can decide whether it was right or not, but certainly, no one had expected that.

Roy Peter Clark: Having visited Denmark and worked closely with many Danish journalists, I’m going to give you a couple of my quick impressions of the Danes. The Danes seem to be very casual about everything until you talk about sexuality, and then Danes start laughing all the time. There’s much more openness about sexuality and certain forms of expression in Denmark than the United States, where I think the reactions are sort of more puritanical. And the other thing, the wonderful institution that you have among soccer fans also interested me. Not the hooligans, but they’re called the roligans, which is a play on words, which means sort of like the fun-loving followers, and it characterizes Danish culture as even in intensely emotional situations as European soccer can be, the Danes are sort of considered laid-back and fun-loving and relaxed.

Jens Hansen: For example, there’s a lot of very funny — and sometimes quite harsh — cartoons about our queen. And everybody laughs, and probably the queen too, and her family. That’s the way that we are used to talk[ing] and discuss[ing things]. And again, that doesn’t necessarily make it wise to do what happened. But it’s necessary in trying to understand it — it’s a part of this tradition [of] very open-minded debate.

Roy Peter Clark: Let me ask you about diversity — ethnic diversity and cultural diversity as you’ve described it. In my earlier conversations with Danish journalists, when we’ve been talking about, in general, things like ethics or newspaper writing, there was a tremendous interest and a tremendous connection. But I have to say that there were occasions — I’m talking, now, about maybe a decade ago — when I would try to bring up issues such as racial and cultural diversity and the need to represent certain parts of the community that may feel excluded, where the reaction was curiosity, but a sense that this is an American problem, because of our history of slavery and because of our immigrant tradition. But now it seems as if what you’re saying is that the reaction might be different, as a result of this experience. Peter?

Peter Jacobsen: If we look at this Danish tradition of thinking “Don’t take it so seriously,” well, we now can see that there are some people [who] take some things very seriously… That could be a wake-up call for us that we are different, and we are thinking differently, and I think that could be a totally new situation for Danish journalists, because if we begin to react on that as journalists, we have to think a lot more about what are people really thinking about what we are publishing. That’s a very interesting thing to have more of in journalists’ minds also in Denmark.

Roy Peter Clark: Lone, if I were watching your television program, for example…

Lone Vandborg: Then you’d be watching tennis.

Roy Peter Clark: Okay, if I were watching television news programming in Denmark, or if I were reading the newspapers, would I be able to see the diversity — the cultural, or ethnic or religious diversity that does exist in the country — represented in the news? If I were a young — I’m not sure what the terms are — but if I were a young Muslim who had immigrated to the country, would I be able to read the newspaper and see myself and my values represented in some way?

Peter Jacobsen: I think you will. I think there’ll be a lot of ways to look at all those different people living in different ways, and we have a growing journalism awareness of these differences. But we also have, I think, at least in Denmark, a growing discussion of how to cover these things better. How to be better, to understand how these people live, and how to do journalism with it.

Lone Vandborg: I would also hope that a young Muslim looking at the news would want to look at the news, just in general, and not to just be [thinking], “Oh, I can identify myself with that,” because, I think, although that’s a good thing in the debate that we’re getting in Denmark now — which is a debate that we need, on all sorts of levels. But it’s also, you know, do you cater? And I’m not saying this [is that sort of situation], but people say, “Oh, we need to see religious symbols because we are Muslim, Jewish, very Christian or whatever.” Or do you say, “Well, we do the newspaper and we do it just based on news, and this should apply to everybody in the society”?

And that is the debate, also, that’s going on now: Should we do more? Should we do less? Should we let it influence the way we make news? Should we continue on the path that we’re on [now, in which] not very often do we have religious things going on in [the] news unless it’s actually related to that? So when you say “Would I, as a young Muslim, be related, in my community and my religion?” — probably not that much [in] religion, but hopefully at least in society and in local society.

Roy Peter Clark: I remember — I live in a racially diverse community, about five miles south of here, The Poynter Institute, and I used to work with the high school newspaper. And the students there, because Florida is a beach area, would very often show photographs of attractive students, sometimes modeling bathing suits. And I remember one young African-American woman coming up to me and [she] said to me, “You know, if you looked at this newspaper, you’d never think that there was an attractive African-American girl at Lakewood High School.” Because all of the images and the models were white. And the editors were white, and it didn’t occur to them; it wasn’t within their realm of vision. So that’s sometimes how we’ve had to experience that in the United States. Jens, you were going to say something.

Jens Hansen: Yeah. A former U.S. ambassador in Denmark said, when he left after many years, that Denmark is not a nation, it is a tribe. And I think he pointed out an important [thing] there, that being a small … community for the whole country … you know, there’s a lot of things that bind us together in a special way.

We’re in a learning process to meet and to understand and to be together with other cultures. And it [still is] a learning process, which I think is going to be speeded up, in fact, by this incident. But I think that you must admit that in Denmark, when you see minorities in the media, it’s often in their role as minorities. You know, the Muslim girl [who] became a pilot, or whatever it is — that kind of story. So we haven’t matured to a situation where people are just shown as people, and they happen to be from a religion or something.

But to tell you an example that put this a bit in perspective for me was last week. Last Friday, we went to the yearly ball at my daughter’s high school. And there they have a very traditional Danish dance. And there were a number of Muslim girls with their scarves participating in this very old Danish culture. And when I looked at this, I felt kind of journalistic, [and I thought,] that’s the day-to-day integration. They’re just there, with their point of view, with their reach, and with their scarves. And [there was] no objection and nobody noticed; no story in that.

So it is, of course, the ability to integrate other cultures, working on the day-to-day level. But we certainly haven’t had the same opportunity to get experience in that as the United States or other cultures. I have a daughter living in London, and that’s quite another picture, she said. It was an interesting experience to just find herself in a melting pot of people from all countries. She has never seen that in Denmark before, because we are more of a tribe. We’re in a movement toward a more multicultural society.

Roy Peter Clark: For our listeners, a couple of quick questions: What’s the population of Denmark?

Jens Hansen: Five million, plus.

Lone Vandborg: Plus. 5.1 or something.

Roy Peter Clark: How many Danish speakers are there in the world? Is that knowable?

Lone Vandborg: Maybe 5.5?

Jens Hansen: A maximum of 5.5.

Lone Vandborg: I don’t think, maybe, [that] you can learn it anywhere else than in Denmark.

Roy Peter Clark: People who go to school in the United States think of Denmark in terms of the Vikings… Do you identify with the Viking culture still? Or is that a stereotype? Do you still sort of go out into the world and find things and bring them back?

Peter Jacobsen, Jens Hansen, Lone Vandborg (collectively): No. Not, really.

Lone Vandborg: I don’t identify with the Viking culture.

Peter Jacobsen: You know, most of the really harsh Vikings really were Norwegian.

Roy Peter Clark: Aaah, okay. They were hooligans and not roligans, right?… I wanted to ask you about the coverage of this event internationally, and what you’ve seen that you thought somehow was responsible — and whether you’ve seen any examples of coverage which you’ve found to be sort of irresponsible,  just way off the mark, and mischaracterizations of what you know about the country, the culture or the event?

Lone Vandborg: What you said about that stereotype — we’re so guilty of that at home in Denmark, as well, because well, just to go quickly back, when you see … young Muslims, they will be talking about Muslim issues, and not about the soccer match, the football match. And then they had the “60 Minutes” — It was “60 Minutes,” wasn’t it? — that they showed on Danish television that they made about Denmark, and I remember sitting at home going like, “God, they’re so stereotyping us, with all these blond people!” And I know that was what they wanted to do, but, you know, then you kind of get a taste of your own medicine, sometimes. And you’re like, “Aah,” and then you take a layer off that and you’re like, “Well, maybe that is the way, first of all, we are, and then that is the way the rest of the world might see us,” and that was very interesting. But [my] first gut reaction was, “God, I can’t believe they did that. That’s such a stereotype.” And that is how we hit a lot of other people with our stereotypes, and how we do that. So I think it is very good that we have this whole debate now.

Roy Peter Clark: I’ve always laughed when Danish people talk to me about the Swedes, in terms of the differences within the sort of ethnic diversity/cultural diversity within Scandinavia, which, from a distance, to people sometimes [in] the United States, looks like one big thing. Until you go there, and you realize how much diversity there is, even within Scandinavian culture. Did you see any other journalism that interested you on the coverage of this around the world that you think hit the mark or missed the mark?

Jens Hansen: There’s been some that missed the mark, I think, especially in foreign culture, foreign countries. I’m not speaking specifically now about all the Islamic countries, but countries to whom there really is a cultural diversity [when compared] to Denmark. And I think Denmark has been shown in a not-very-fair manner here. But, I mean, it’s part of the cost, you would say.

I think, looking at the Western media, what we have seen from Denmark has been, well, [at the] least, biased and stereotyping that we, [too,] usually always [are] guilty of. And, I mean, the “60 Minutes” is a good example we also saw, because there was close coverage of that production in Denmark: how their journalists entered Denmark and in a very short period of time, with various demands of what you wanted to hear, [built] up a story from this angle. It’s a criticism toward not just this current, but the way that we are working with journalists, too.

Roy Peter Clark: Getting back to my characterization of the news, when you talk to almost anybody who doesn’t like the press for one reason or another, especially when it’s practiced on them, the complaint is almost always the same: “They didn’t represent me in the way that I see myself, or the way that I feel that I am.” And it’s interesting that it should be [the case] for journalists who have that experience, as well.

Jens Hansen: Yeah, if I may add a remark. We are having a debate in Denmark [about] how much responsibility has the journalist to really describe the context that the issue is described within. And, I mean, most of the crises… between sources and journalists [are] when the expectations [as] to the actual context differs a lot. I mean, there’s a reasonable debate about professional values there, and at least some journalists in Denmark say that there’s a greater need, today, of journalists being responsible for being very fair about the context. They’re trying to describe something in the context that the sources know this is in. So it’s not only a question of seeing it from, for example, the source’s side, but also the context… So being responsible to the context is a very — to my opinion — a very [important] issue involved in journalism.

Roy Peter Clark: Thank you very much. This has been a podcast on all of the issues of journalism related to the publication of controversial cartoons in Denmark, and our guests have been Danish journalists Peter Jacobsen, Jens Hansen and Lone Vandborg. Thank you very, very much, and we look forward to learning more from you in the future.

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