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NUJ encourages accurate reporting of Zwarte Piet

4 December 2019

Tony Sheldon, NUJ Netherlands branch chair

In the NUJ, we have a long tradition of fighting racism, promoting equality, and striving to avoid bias in our reporting.

Our ethics code of conduct states we should not produce material, "likely to lead to hatred or discrimination" on the grounds of, among other things, "a person’s race, colour or creed".

It is worth reminding ourselves of these principles when faced with the tricky professional task of reporting, fairly, on the annual Dutch and Belgian festivities based around Sinterklaas. These are problematic for many as they include Sint’s helper, "Zwarte Piet" who is often portrayed by men and women in "black face". While many still view this as an innocent part of popular folklore, in both countries it is being increasingly recognised as a racist caricature of black people.

With this in mind the NUJ's national executive council meeting in November backed a motion supporting journalists working in Europe in their efforts to encourage accurate reporting of Zwarte Piet. This was needed because some media reports appear to give the traditionalists the benefit of the doubt, while unfairly labelling those opposing Zwarte Piet as extremists.

This year, passing through the crowds in Utrecht gathered to welcome the arrival of Sinterklaas, it was clear to see Dutch society is moving on. Unlike when I took my daughters, twenty years ago, there was today scarcely a child or adult in "black face" to be seen.

We, in the media, are privileged to report this positive, if slow, shift in public attitudes. But it is a challenge too, with feelings running high.

Many people still view Piet in "black face" as part of their culture, tradition, their happy childhood memories. People argue that they have no intention of being racist. And the approving reporting of their views provides ammunition to those who do not want to allow any discussion about racist aspects of the celebration.

A Dutch columnist and black writer wrote recently how shocked he had been watching a youth television programme about Sinterklaas and the Zwarte Piet debate with his young daughter. A reporter asked a black child if they had enjoyed the party. The child, of course, said yes. It seemed to suggest it was all a fuss kicked up by the adults.

As journalists, we should report the facts accurately, respecting fair views honestly held, and reasonably put, while not encouraging discrimination on the grounds of race or colour.

The Netherlands and Belgium, like many western European countries, are slowly changing and we, NUJ journalists, should adhere to our code of conduct when reporting that change.

With Sinterklaas celebrated on Thursday and Friday this week, Netherlands-based NUJ member Marvin Hokstam, together with NUJ Black members' council representative Martin Todd, and backed by union branches in the Netherlands and Brussels are urging all journalists to adhere to NUJ reporting guidelines on race and to support journalists who come under attack for doing so. Marvin comments in the upcoming issue of the union's magazine:

"This is about journalists being aware that the way they approach a subject is how it is perceived by their communities. The fact that there is still debate about this in 2019 is concerning, especially when journalists and newspapers appear to take sides in favour of those supporting black Piet.
"Journalists, talk show hosts, radio and TV presenters are allowing their audiences to believe that minorities do not have the right to criticise Dutch traditions, no matter how offensive they consider them. The news media should never serve this purpose."

A motion was passed by the NUJ’s National Executive Council which was fully supported by the union’s Black Members’ Council. The motion stated:

 “The NEC notes that the festival of Sinterklaas will be celebrated in the Netherlands and Belgium. The NEC notes that the character of Zwarte Piet, who accompanies Sinterklaas, is predominantly portrayed by someone in ‘black face’, and this continues to be enjoyed by many who consider it to be an innocent tradition. Each year there is increased debate and controversy around Zwarte Piet, requiring journalists to cover the topic and arguments. The NEC reminds all those covering Zwarte Piet of the NUJ Race Reporting Guidelines which state that journalists, “should not originate material which encourages discrimination on the grounds of race or colour”. The NEC supports journalists in Continental Europe in their efforts to encourage non-discriminatory reporting of Zwarte Piet and those trying to raise a discussion about his role in the Netherlands and Belgium in the 21st Century.”

Marc Wadsworth, BMC chair, said: “This sends out a strong signal that our union underscores the viewpoint that racism is not a debating point with two sides to an argument. And that it has no place in journalism. Not even unconsciously. It's not a breach of impartiality to call it out.”

NUJ ethics code of conduct

A journalist:

  1. At all times upholds and defends the principle of media freedom, the right of freedom of expression and the right of the public to be informed.

  2. Strives to ensure that information disseminated is honestly conveyed, accurate and fair.

  3. Does her/his utmost to correct harmful inaccuracies.

  4. Differentiates between fact and opinion.

  5. Obtains material by honest, straightforward and open means, with the exception of investigations that are both overwhelmingly in the public interest and which involve evidence that cannot be obtained by straightforward means.

  6. Does nothing to intrude into anybody’s private life, grief or distress unless justified by overriding consideration of the public interest.

  7. Protects the identity of sources who supply information in confidence and material gathered in the course of her/his work.

  8. Resists threats or any other inducements to influence, distort or suppress information and takes no unfair personal advantage of information gained in the course of her/his duties before the information is public knowledge.

  9. Produces no material likely to lead to hatred or discrimination on the grounds of a person’s age, gender, race, colour, creed, legal status, disability, marital status, or sexual orientation.

  10. Does not by way of statement, voice or appearance endorse by advertisement any commercial product or service save for the promotion of her/his own work or of the medium by which she/he is employed.

  11. A journalist shall normally seek the consent of an appropriate adult when interviewing or photographing a child for a story about her/his welfare.

  12. Avoids plagiarism.

NUJ's race reporting guidelines

The NUJ believes that:

  • Racist attitudes and the growth of far-right parties pose a threat to democracy, the rights of trade union organisations, a free media and racial equality.
  • Its members have a responsibility to stop racism being expressed in the media.
  • That media freedom must be underpinned by ethical reporting.
  • Publications and media organisations should not originate material which encourages discrimination on the grounds of race or colour, as expressed in the NUJ's rule book and code of conduct
  • Members should have the right to withhold their labour on grounds of conscience where employers are providing a platform for racist propaganda.
  • Editors must ensure that coverage of stories relating to race are placed in a balanced social and ethical context.

General guidelines:

  • Only include a person's race if relevant. Check that you have it right. Would you mention race if the person was white?
  • Avoid words that, although common in the past, are now considered offensive, e.g. half-caste and coloured. Ask people how they define themselves. Check if a person identifies as mixed-race or Black. Black may also cover people of Africa, Asian, Middle Eastern, Pacific, Caribbean and Aboriginal origin.
  • Do not assume a cultural background from a person's name – check with them or their community.
  • Strive for diversity and balance in reporting, especially on social issues. Investigate the treatment of and cover the experiences of Black people, Travellers and Gypsies.
  • Remember that Black communities are culturally diverse. Get a full and correct view from representative organisations.
  • Exercise care, balance and proportionality when covering race relations issues.
  • Do not allow letters or online comments to be published or allow phone-ins to continue that contain racist hate speech.
  • Adhere to the NUJ's code of conduct at all times. The union can help with ethical issues via the NUJ ethics council, ethics helpline and email support.

Reporting racist organisations:

  • You do not have to report on racist organisations.
  • As with any interviewees, check the claims made by representatives of such organisations and seek opposing comments.
  • Seek to broadcast or publish information exposing the myths of racist organisations. If a racist party has been elected to local government or the European Parliament, rules around party election broadcasts do not necessarily mean you have to cover them. See the Ofcom regulations (points 11 and 13) for more detail.
  • If you feel uncomfortable about covering racist parties, get advice from your union. Make sure you research the background of racist organisations and their members. For example, see Searchlight, UAF, reporting the far right and Hope not Hate.

Guidelines on Gypsies and Travellers:

  • Do not sensationalise stories involving Gypsies and Travellers, particularly around their relations with settled communities and over issues around housing and education.
  • Only use the words Gypsy or Traveller if relevant to a story and accurate.
  • Gypsy and Traveller communities are culturally diverse. Ensure your terminology is accurate. Check with a person how they want to be defined. If this is not possible consult community leaders or organisations.
  • Seek the views of the Gypsies and Travellers themselves, as well as those of others, consulting their representative organisations where possible.

Guidelines on reporting immigration and asylum:

  • Use the term "immigrant" with caution, it is still wrongly used to describe people born in Britain. Asylum seeker, refugee or EU migrant worker? Get the terminology right. Asylum seeker is a person who has left their home country as a political refugee and is seeking asylum in another country. A refugee is someone who was an asylum seeker but who has now been granted refugee status.An EU migrant worker is someone who has moved to the UK to work. Their stay in the UK may be temporary or longer term.
  • When quoting politicians or public figures, verify if their statements on immigration are factual. Ask experts who can help set the context and ensure you check details with a reputable source. Many allegations are made about asylum seekers, ensure you substantiate them, if they are unable to be verified, make this clear.
  • Don't use terms such as "bogus", "illegal" or "failed" asylum seeker. If necessary, use "refused" asylum seeker instead. A fairer term to use for someone who has outstayed their visa is "undocumented" or "irregular".
  • Don't use emotive, value-laden language, such as "floods" of immigrants. Stick to fact.

NUJ ethical support

For advice and support, NUJ members can call the NUJ ethics hotline on 0845 450 0864 or email:

Tags: , race reporting, racism, ethics, ethics council, code of conduct, netherlands, belgium, brussels, black members, netherlands branch, brussels branch, national executive council