How German reporting on refugees shaped public debate and the course of politics
Julia Rittershausen, Nosapo Research and Writing Volunteer
© 2019 Nosapo, inc.
The war in Syria broke out in 2011. To date, this violent conflict caused approximately 5,669,630 Syrians1 to flee their home country and seek refuge in nations around the globe. The static rise in the number of those fleeing the war in Syria was accompanied by a concomitant increase in the number of refugees that would come to Germany. In late August 2015, Angela Merkel made a now infamous statement, “Wir schaffen das,”2 meaning “We can do it,” referring to the challenge of integrating the hundreds of thousands of refugees the country was expecting to take in that year. Merkel would repeat this phrase often, triggering vivid discussions and polarizing the German public. While this polarization was evident to residents, public newspaper reports painted a different picture of Germany.
The image I had was that of a Willkommenskultur, a ‘welcoming culture,’ a catchphrase begun in 2009/2010 by a German administration that, in the wake of the European financial crisis, wanted to offer more incentives for qualified foreign employees to pick up work in Germany. However, in the 2015 debate surrounding the refugee issue, Willkommenskultur gained a whole different meaning. Now it was the most popular slogan among those who made a concerted effort to facilitate an easier arrival and integration process for asylum seekers.
During a visit to my hometown of Freiburg in the summer of 2015, I was able to confirm this image. Sitting in the back of a taxi on my way home from the airport, I spied a myriad of “Refugees Welcome” signs erected across town. This didn’t surprise me. After all, the majority of Freiburg’s residents are known to be rather supportive of Germany’s Green Party and very liberal. Apparently, efforts to welcome incoming asylum seekers had already begun in Freiburg in January 2015 and a number of initiatives had already been put in place that would facilitate an easier arrival for the thousands of refugees that the city expected to be housing soon.
In 2016, however, when I returned again, the situation was much different. I was able to make a large discrepancy between what I had previously read in the news and the national climate that I witnessed now. Public opposition to a refugee-friendly government policy had grown significantly. This was puzzling to me. And my assumption that the push back stemmed from a very small minority living in East Germany—where the far-right has, for decades, enjoyed more traction than in other parts of Germany—would prove to be incorrect as soon as my flight landed.
Once again, I took a cab from the airport to Freiburg. While I sat in the back seat, the driver asked me about life in America and then quickly switched to the topic of the refugee situation. He went on, and on, about the way that refugees, according to him, disrupted the social order and life in Freiburg. I listened carefully, trying to stay objective. My inner journalist was curious to hear a perspective on the crisis much different from my own. I listened to his countless complaints about the government’s refugee policy, but in the end, I dismissed them as one angry person’s opinion.
This would not be the last time I would be an immediate witness to such open animosity towards asylum seekers in Freiburg. Days later, while waiting in line at a local grocery store, I observed two young adults from a nearby refugee hostel trying to pay the cashier. They made clear gestures indicating for the cashier to take the right amount of money from their open palms displaying the coins which they were unsure the worth of. The cashier acted as if she could not understand the gestures and demanded they tell her in German what they want. I was sad that the once so-friendly climate in my hometown had changed.
I knew many people who still helped in refugee shelters, supporting the idea of a Willkommenskultur, but there was now a palpable tension between supporters and critics of the government’s welcoming refugee policy. Many who supported a Willkommenskultur considered any vocalized concern about this policy to be synonymous with xenophobia. The right to debate the ideal government policy seemed to be lost.
During the weeks I spent at home, I realized the number of opponents to the German government’s refugee policy was much larger than I suspected. The picture painted by mainstream newspapers did not match the reality of many Germans. And in fact, a 2014 survey revealed that 40 percent of Germans3 believe the nation’s news media is biased and manipulated by the political elite. Had the ‘Willkommenskultur’ narrative that ran through German news like a golden thread been obscuring a far more complex reality with divergent views of Merkel’s roadmap for the future?
A mismatch of media coverage and the reality in Germany may have also contributed to the sudden rise of a right-wing populist party by the name of the Alternative for Germany (or AfD). In 2014, the AfD gained seats in three federal state legislatures in eastern Germany (Thüringen, Sachsen, Brandenburg).4 The party went on to win seats in two state parliaments in northern Germany (Hamburg and Bremen) in 20155 and secured 12.6 percent of the votes in the 20166 national election as well as seats in several state parliaments all over Germany (Berlin, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Sachsen-Anhalt, Rheinland-Pfalz, Baden-Württemberg). Today, the AfD appears to be a political force to be reckoned with. The question is: why is this party so successful in a country that has for decades worked hard to rid itself of its anti-semitic and xenophobic past?
A Yougov survey from 20137 revealed that many residents gave the AfD party their vote to protest things that could not be openly discussed in Germany, effectively limiting their freedom of speech. Aside from advocating for a strict position on immigration, the AfD is also known for their anti-establishment position. Viewing the mainstream media as part of the establishment, AfD supporters have repeatedly attacked German mainstream media outlets, calling them Lügenpresse (fake news).
In 2016, the German media scholar, Michael Haller, conducted a study8 to investigate two questions: How did the mainstream newspapers, in their role as informative “gatekeepers,” reduce complex events that stand in relation to the refugee issue? And, did the media leave out events, perspectives, and positions that may have been important to those involved or affected? These are key questions to answer given the normative role that mainstream media is expected to fulfill in a representative democracy such as Germany. As Haller points out, the role of the media is to provide access to various points of view as they pertain to political debates that affect individuals at a national, federal, and/or local level and to report in an unbiased, fair, and balanced fashion.
In order to detect a potential bias, Haller focused on three major German newspapers that together cover a relatively broad political spectrum and readership across the country: the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), the Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ), and the Welt. Haller reviewed articles that appeared in the months between February 2015 and March 2016 to understand their potential influence on the public debate surrounding the issue of migration in Germany.
The findings are alarming. There is definite bias when it comes to the actors given coverage by German mainstream newspapers in the public debate. The political elite were mentioned in 62.5 percent of all analyzed articles while others were barely mentioned at all. For example, the administrative offices at both the national and federal level that were directly involved in handling the refugees’ paperwork and finding appropriate housing did not make the cut very often: they appeared in 2.3 percent of the articles. Haller comments that reading these newspapers alone may make one think that local agencies facilitating the refugees’ arrivals were not facing many problems at all.
Similar findings emerged with respect to social service providers and hospitals: they were only included as relevant actors in 1.4 percent of the articles analyzed. What is more, individuals such as asylum seekers or those living in close proximity to a refugee hostel would only be central to 9 percent of the articles. The focus was primarily on the national political elite and its immediate surroundings, reinforcing the idea that the national debate on the refugee situation was carried out between a limited number of actors, many of whom had no significant role to play in the implementation phase of the national policy adopted in Berlin.
Reading German mainstream newspapers in 2016, one may have gotten the impression that objections by local and regional actors to the government’s refugee policy were fairly rare. However, as Haller’s study suggests, these opinions were likely not sought after as often as those of leading figures in Berlin. In a democratic state, the news media are expected to present, not guide, the dialog on issues of importance by delivering information on most, if not all, pertinent positions. The idea is that this will equip the voters with unbiased and comprehensive information, which will in turn pave the way for an informed decision making process on the side of the electorate. The important role that the media plays in politics cannot be overstated. Haller’s findings suggest, however, that German mainstream newspapers have been delivering a rather isolated perspective on the refugee situation; focusing on the people making executive decisions at the national level and neglecting to follow up on the implementation and impact of these decisions on the ground. In the case of refugee policy, there are numerous actors who appear to have been systematically excluded from the public debate: asylum seekers, local agencies, churches, hospitals, residents, NGOs.
When a sizable amount of people is under the impression that their point of view is not properly represented in both politics and the media, it may lend to significant support of right-wing populist movements that promote anti-immigrant sentiments and further encourage violent behavior and violent protests. A study conducted by the Pew Research Center in 20179 shows that the voters of populist parties in Germany, France, Sweden, and Denmark tend to have far less trust in mainstream media outlets than voters of other parties. In all of these four countries, far-right parties have proved to be fairly successful in national elections over the past few years. Protest and anti-establishment votes that go to right-wing populist parties may thus be a strong signal that larger parts of the population feel excluded from a public debate. The same goes for asylum seekers who, as Haller’s study suggests, are not given the voice in the national debate that their current situation warrants.
With each visit back to Germany, the nagging feeling I had about Germany’s mainstream newspapers potentially not reporting on the entirety of events and opinions connected to the so-called refugee crisis, grew stronger. And the findings of Haller’s study suggest that there is more than a grain of truth to this sneaking suspicion. Results from surveys that focused on Germans’ impression of the country’s news media10 indicate that the myriad of viewpoints both praising and criticizing Merkel’s roadmap for the future are far more numerous than those depicted in the media. Haller’s study lends significant support to the notion shared by many German voters that German mainstream newspapers place a disproportionate focus on politicians and their points of view vis-à-vis the opinions of those that are directly affected by the government’s policy decisions. In the case of the refugee situation, this may have fostered the impression that mainstream newspapers are working in tandem with the political elite to create the narrative of Germany as a ‘welcoming culture.’
A considerable number of German voters has in recent years felt ignored by major parties as well as the media and responded by casting their vote for a right-wing populist party, the AfD. A tractable omission of critical viewpoints in news reports may have indirectly helped this party gain more support, not only within traditional strongholds of rightist groups, but also at a national level. Similar trends are being witnessed in Germany’s neighboring states — such as Denmark, France, and the Netherlands —as well as the US. A Pew study from 201711 found that neither national nor local news agencies enjoy great levels of trust among American voters, with a majority of voters asserting a clear bias in national and local news reporting. The Welt, FAZ, and SZ have already responded to Haller’s findings. It remains to be seen whether these and other German mainstream newspapers will draw the proper consequences and use the results of this study as an incentive to strengthen their reputation among the mass public by working on delivering a more well-rounded picture of reality. This will, without a doubt, also help the media in meeting its democratic responsibility by acting as the facilitator, rather than the steerer, of national dialog and inspire constructive public debate on relevant issues. The result may be a political climate that actively engages actors from all levels and welcomes continuous improvement of government policy.
2Citation of the speech on the first occasion she used this phrase. Sommerpressekonferenz von Bundeskanzlerin Merkel. (2015, August 31). Retrieved from https://www.bundesregierung.de/breg-de/aktuelles/pressekonferenzen/sommerpressekonferenz-von-bundeskanzlerin-merkel-848300.
3Fast jeder Zweite misstraut den Medien. (2014, December 22). Zeit Online. Retrieved from https://www.zeit.de/politik/deutschland/2014-12/umfrage-medien-russland-putin-kriegsgefahr.
4Decker, F. (2018, July 16). Kurz und bündig: Die AfD. Parteien in Deutschland. Retrieved from https://www.bpb.de/politik/grundfragen/parteien-in-deutschland/211108/afd.
5 Der rasante Aufstieg der AfD bei deutschen Wahlen. (2016, September 19). Welt. Retrieved from https://www.welt.de/politik/article158239691/Der-rasante-Aufstieg-der-AfD-bei-deutschen-Wahlen.html.
6 Themenseite: AfD. (n.d.). Retrieved December 22, 2018, from https://de.statista.com/themen/3260/afd/.
7 Caspari, L. (2013, April 17). Viele AfD-Anhänger wählten früher Linke und FDP. Zeit Online. Retrieved from https://www.zeit.de/politik/deutschland/2013-04/afd-eurokritiker-waehler-partei-umfrage-yougov.
8Haller, M. (2017, July 21). Die "Flüchtlingskrise" in den Medien. Tagesaktueller Journalismus zwischen Meinung und Information. Retrieved from https://www.otto-brenner-stiftung.de/wissenschaftsportal/informationsseiten-zu-studien/studien-2017/die-fluechtlingskrise-in-den-medien/.
9 Mitchell, A., Matsa, K. E., Shearer, E., Simmons, K., Silver, L., Johnson, C., Walker, M. &Taylor, K. (2018, May 14). In Western Europe, public attitudes toward news media more divided by populist views than left-right ideology. Retrieved from http://www.journalism.org/2018/05/14/in-western-europe-public-attitudes-toward-news-media-more-divided-by-populist-views-than-left-right-ideology/.
10 Fast jeder Zweite misstraut den Medien. (2014, December 22). Zeit Online. Retrieved from https://www.zeit.de/politik/deutschland/2014-12/umfrage-medien-russland-putin-kriegsgefahr.
11Views of media bias. (2017, May 9). Retrieved from http://www.journalism.org/2017/05/10/americans-attitudes-about-the-news-media-deeply-divided-along-partisan-lines/pj_2017-05-10_media-attitudes_a-07/.