- What Role Does the Media Play in Driving Xenophobia?
Germany: Two Faces of Refugee Reporting
The media’s coverage of the 2015 European refugee crisis stood in stark contrast to its xenophobic stereotyping of the early 1990s. Back then, following German reunification, the country saw heightened nationalism, a rise in the number of refugees, a series of racist riots and murders, and constitutional reforms that severely restricted political freedoms. Newspapers published articles about the criminality of foreigners, often using derogatory terms. Until the number of asylum-seekers sharply declined during the mid-1990s and the topic of refugees largely vanished, a media-constructed anti-migrant discourse penetrated society.
The issue came back into focus in 2013 when refugees began to protest their living conditions. By 2015, the arrival of about 1 million asylum-seekers started to affect everything from personal lives to global politics. Initially, journalists seemed to proceed with care, cognizant of the mistakes of the 1990s. A study by the Hamburg Media School counted 19,000 articles on refugees that year—4,000 more than in the previous six years combined. Four out of five articles took a positive view of refugees, which, the report suggests, helped to reduce negative perceptions in the public overall. Major media outlets, such as Hamburger Abendblatt, had reporters dedicated exclusively to migration issues, allowing for in-depth reporting and research.
In tandem with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s assertion, “We will manage,” the major conservative tabloid, Bild, started a campaign, called “Refugees Welcome,” to provide information to potential volunteers. Indeed, an online survey my colleague Serhat Karakayali and I conducted found that media reports were a particularly important factor in the burgeoning volunteer movement for refugees in 2015.
But by September, the coverage took a substantial turn. The frequency of the term “border control” in publications surpassed that of “welcome culture.” Media researcher Friederike Herrmann argues that the media began creating the impression that the refugee issue was overwhelming the state, thereby inciting fear. This shift came in unison with the EU’s closure of its southern borders, anti-refugee protests, and calls by mainstream politicians to restrict the number of asylum-seekers allowed to enter Germany.
In the wake of sexual assaults by migrants during the 2015 New Year’s Eve celebrations in Cologne, the media was widely criticized for reacting too slowly and not being explicit about the perpetrators’ identity for fear of being deemed “anti-refugee.” Reputable news sources, both liberal and conservative, published numerous reports about migrant crimes, often accompanied by sexual stereotypes. Images of white women’s bodies defiled by black hands were widely condemned on social media.
Journalists internalized the notion that their reporting about the refugee crisis had been too positive. In 2016, racist tropes about criminal foreigners, “asylum abuse,” and refugees as a resource burden found their way back into major media outlets. Meanwhile, the government’s introduction of stricter integration laws and racial profiling by the police in Cologne on New Year’s Eve 2016 received little criticism. [End Page 3]
German coverage of refugees seems to take cues from government policy. In early 2015, the media had an edifying influence on the public’s perception of refugees. Its record has since been grim. Germany’s upcoming election will be a test: Will the media have a beneficial impact on the refugee debate again, or will it instead echo the populist politics spreading worldwide?
J. Olaf Kleist
Fairness > Objectivity
Striving for objectivity is the last thing a journalist should do. Fairness is a far better ideal. I’ve spent over a decade writing and reporting in countries like South Sudan, Afghanistan, Palestine, and Honduras, where conflicts never occur between equals. To speak truths about who causes carnage or corruption isn’t advocacy; it’s a moral imperative, and honest editors and reporters should welcome it. We should explain where human rights violations happen and who is at fault.
Xenophobia is coursing through the veins of today’s world. The demonization of refugees has become a regular feature of the Murdoch empire and The Daily Mail, causing public...