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Germany’s journalists — smoothing over political discourse?


Germany’s journalists — smoothing over political discourse?

Picture of Eric Karstens
Eric Karstens — Funding Consultant
August 09, 2018

Re-defining the migration debate in Germany

Mobility and migration are key policy issues of the European Union and, accordingly, of the news media. To better understand the dynamics behind migration reporting, we conducted a survey of journalists in nine European media landscapes in autumn 2017. The survey was part of a larger research project called REMINDER.

In this post, we put the spotlight on Germany and discuss some of our findings.

Germany - journalism’s land of bliss?

In many respects, Germany remains journalism’s land of bliss. A strong and well-funded public broadcasting system supplements a diverse landscape of privately owned quality media, as well as tabloids.

Just like everywhere else, most print outlets have had to compensate for substantial revenue loss and keep struggling to move their business online. However, the healthy size of the market and the deeply ingrained media habits have helped mitigate the sector’s recent changes.

Journalists generally feel secure in their jobs and describe their working environments as pleasant, friendly, and collegial. With this goes a sense of responsibility and moderation, as our survey confirmed.

A mix of a detective, a writer, and a politician

One journalist told us that their job was “a mix of being a detective, a writer, and a politician, as one also comments and offers an opinion.” The sentence encapsulates the profession’s self-perception as driven by idealistic motives whilst staatstragend — underpinning the state.

Even as everybody agreed that there was hardly any external influence on their editorial decision-making, trust in government sources was high, compared with most other countries. Suspicions of partisanship and activism, on the other hand, tend to raise red flags with German journalists.

Implicit agreements

The REMINDER project, and thus our survey, looks primarily into the topic of migration. In line with Germany’s even-tempered approach to journalism, our respondents almost reflexively referred to the term Person mit Migrationshintergrund — a person with a migration background.

That is everyone who was not born as a German citizen or has at least one parent born outside German citizenship. This, in fact, includes almost a quarter of the country’s population and even draws in people who are arguably not migrants in the first place.

If you look at German media and, indeed, Germans at large, that convention of speech is not just lip service: The term is used by implicit agreement, traditionally to avoid the word Ausländer — foreigner –, which had become tainted with pejorative connotations.

The label Person mit Migrationshintergrund, in contrast, was intended to signal inclusiveness and equality. Indeed, it worked quite well for a long time, helping establish contemporary Germany as a modern, tolerant, and welcoming nation.

2015 refugee crisis — questioning the terminology

The domestic political climate after the 2015 refugee crisis has revealed the cracks in this linguistic veneer. Somehow, Germany seemed to lack the appropriate language to cope with the new situation.

This was the case even though journalists exhibited a high level of awareness for language and hidden bias in this area. One, speaking for many, said: “We try to be precise, but it’s a bit of work in progress — we are discussing the terminology, and not everybody defines each term the same way. In journalism we tend to simplify.”

Another journalist summarised the underlying issue:

“Terminology is getting mixed up a lot between refugees, migrants and asylum seekers. I think the term ‘migrant’ stands for somebody who immigrated, not refugees, but also cannot be used for somebody who has been living in Germany for 40 years.”

Counteracting the politicised moral panic

The broadly representative sample of journalists we interviewed was well aware that the German migration debate had escalated into a highly politicised moral panic. They tried to counteract:

“There are always different reasons for immigration, and I make sure that I explain the context at least once in my report and not only use a term,” one of them said. Another added:

“I think one needs to find the right balance. There are some soft guidelines or agreements. For example, in a crime case we only mention the nationality or ethnic group if it really plays a role for this case. And it is very important to use correct terms which have no negative connotation.”

This very approach, however, has attracted criticism and opposition. The majority of Germans do not share the sentiment of a radical faction that chants the historically laden word Lügenpresse — lying press — to voice their contempt for the media of record.

Yet many feel uneasy with what they perceive as a collective effort at whitewashing the real situation and, perhaps, occasionally downplaying relevant information out of political correctness.

As a result, responsible-minded media may risk increasing the demand for newly-vicious tabloids, populism, and conspiracy theories promoted by the political fringes.

Where does this leave us?

This dilemma is not easy to solve. Across our entire sample of nine countries, the research suggests that there typically is no linear relationship between the actual number and nature of migrants in a country and what aspect of migration preoccupies the media.

Rather, it appears to be the political and social environment that interacts in myriad ways with how journalists cover and frame migration, sometimes despite — and even contrary to — their best intentions.

Perhaps provocatively, the latest paper of the REMINDER research project puts it this way:

“Like antibodies in an immune system, journalists can function in unanticipated ways, do not always target genuine problems, and sometimes target benign or even necessary elements in the system as problems.”

At the European Journalism Centre, we try and tackle those issues on a regular basis: We bring journalists from different countries together, sometimes for joint reporting projects, sometimes to exchange experiences and learn from each other. Thus, we help put national stereotypes and framing habits into perspective.

Another approach is a project such as REMINDER, which might serve to increase journalists’ critical awareness of their own role as amplifiers, arbiters, or antagonists of national debates.

Related series of blog posts

Since media debates around freedom of movement, a fundamental principle of the EU, may be critical factors in shaping public attitudes to the entire EU project, a series of blog posts related to this media practice research will follow in the next months. They will provide more detailed insights on the media practices in the reporting of migration in Hungary and the UK.

If you want to read all three REMINDER reports on media practices, you can read them here.

This article is a result of a research on media practices, made in collaboration with Rob McNeil, Peter Bajomi-Lazar and Barbara Kuznik.

Further readings

  • Behind the scenes of migration media reporting
  • REMINDER research project
  • Media practices related to migration and intra-EU mobility in the EU-15 Member States
  • Media practices related to migration and intra-EU mobility in the EU-10 Member States
  • Comparative report on cross-country media practices, migration, and mobility


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