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Prof. M.J. Broersma: ‘Reporting on the Milly Boele case illustrates transitional phase in Dutch journalism’

30 March 2010

The reporting on the murder of 12-year-old Milly Boele is part of a trend – the Dutch media is publishing confidential information more and more often. According to University of Groningen professor of Journalism Marcel Broersma, the media is in a transitional phase. ‘The crucial question is whether this is still journalism.’

‘Sander V. drank beer on Milly’s grave’ were the headlines in de Telegraaf, the morning after the Dordrecht girl’s neighbour had admitted to being 12-year-old Milly Boele’s murderer. That same day, the editors of the provocative Dutch blog Geenstijl.nl published the first and last names of the offender as well as numerous photos of the man on its website without making him unrecognizable with a black bar. ‘The pressure of modern technology has resulted in the media being less reticent about publishing confidential information’, states professor of Journalism Marcel Broersma of the University of Groningen. ‘Anyone who knows their way around a computer could work out who Milly Boele’s neighbour was, and that he worked for the police. Some editorial boards consider that carte blanche to publish such information.’

Guidelines, but no law

This trend is here to stay, thinks Broersma. ‘Journalistic and ethical considerations are behind most media not using the full names of suspects. Although that is part of the journalism code, there’s nothing about it in the law.’ According to the professor, this means it is impossible to forbid the media to publish certain information. ‘All you can do is lodge an objection afterwards if you think your privacy has been invaded. That can be very bitter at times, but is the price we pay for freedom of expression.’

Digital pillory

Although a headline like that in de Telegraaf may be factually correct, Broersma wonders whether it serves any journalistic or social interests. ‘You see some media asking themselves that question less and less frequently. Geenstijl.nl is an important proponent of this development. The editorial board ignores journalistic guidelines and does whatever it fancies. Geenstijl.nl is in this case perhaps more like a digital pillory than a journalistic medium.’ Some TV programmes are going along with this development. Broersma: ‘SBS and RTL even scheduled extra news broadcasts on Milly, something that only used to happen when a president was shot. Although I’m not denying the dreadfulness of the case, the amount of air time being spent on it is rather absurd.’

Transitional phase

According to Broersma, the media is in a transitional phase. He discerns two camps in medialand. On the one had are media like NRC, De Volkskrant and the NOS who want to chart and highlight social developments. On the other hand are media like De Telegraaf, Geenstijl and SBS, who put the interests of their target group first. Broersma: ‘The crucial question is whether this is still journalism.’ The dividing line between the two camps will become even sharper in the future, he expects. ‘You could call it a process of re-ideologizing. Each of the camps makes its own decisions about the direction it wants to take. They do that so they can be clearly differentiated from each other, and to remain credible in the eyes of their own target groups.’

Personal responsibility

Responsibility for breach of privacy by the media is not something that can only be charged to editorial boards, thinks Broersma. In his opinion, many Dutch citizens are handing a significant part of their privacy away themselves. ‘No-one yet lines up his photo albums along the side of the road, but on their Hyves page or their weblog they publish all kinds of confidential information. You can’t then be surprised if it suddenly pops up somewhere else.’ Broersma thinks that people have to learn how better to protect their privacy. ‘And that starts with education. Schools should pay more attention to online privacy. This is an important aspect for the government to pay attention to.’

Curriculum vitae

Prof. M.J. (Marcel) Broersma is professor of Journalistic Culture and Media at the University of Groningen. He studied history and journalism at the same university and was awarded a PhD for a historiography of the Leeuwarder Courant. He also worked for some time as a journalist for that paper. Broersma’s research covers the forms and styles of reporting, the relationship between press and politics, and regional journalism. He is a member of the Netherlands Press Council, editor of the Tijdschrift voor Mediageschiedenis [Media History Journal], and a reviewer for the Leeuwarder Courant.

Note for the press

More information: Marcel Broersma

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.10 p.m.
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