Absolutism, the Media, and the German Migration Debate (March)

In March 2019, the Rights Writers explore the role the media has played in covering their issues and what effects it has had — positive and negative.

Denial: UN High Commissioner Says No ‘Real’ Migrant Crisis in Europe,” the Breitbart headline proclaims. The Financial Times writes, in contrast, of a “war of words,” the Guardian of a “migration row [that] risks aiding authoritarians.” Coverage of migration to Germany and the political rhetoric at work surrounding it has varied widely among both domestic and foreign outlets, often closely tracking publications’ political leanings. The process of admitting migrants is dense and depressing, heavy with paperwork which scrutinizes asylum-seekers’ lives to determine whether they truly face security risks in their homelands. Research indicates, perhaps unsurprisingly due to competition and profit motives, that journalists have tended to publish superficial reporting rather than fully contextualize these procedures, but in doing so, they risk allowing extremist politicians to dictate the narrative around migration and mislead both Germany and the world.

A report published in late 2015 by the Ethical Journalism Network (EJN), a registered UK charity which produces ethics resources for reporters and publications examining trends in media ethics, elegantly summarizes several potential pitfalls in documenting European migration. Foremost is a question of language: according to the EJN, referring to the mass entry of foreigners into Europe as a “migrant crisis,” rather than a “refugee crisis,” is dangerously inaccurate. The EJN report warns that the public perceives the term “migrant” as tinged with economic motivations, in contrast to the word “refugee,” which evokes those “fleeing war or persecution (EJN 16).” Because, as the report states, humanitarian agencies agree that most foreigners who enter Germany fall under the latter classification, to misrepresent refugees – even unintentionally – as opportunistic is to stoke the same xenophobia which has too recently given rise to exponentially multiplying attacks on German migrants, placing refugees’ human right to physical security at risk even in their new home.

protest on front steps

Yet in refining the terminology they deploy to discuss migration, journalists also risk implying that the true economic migrants entering the German system are somehow unworthy, undeserving of Western life. They must balance, too, defending from nationalist assault the demonstrable benefits immigrants (whether economic migrants or refugees) provide for Germany’s aging population with offering legitimate criticism of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s migration policy. Most analysts now agree that Merkel’s 2015 “open door” policy, which stated that Germany would place no caps on the migrants it accepted and resulted in over one million people migrating to Germany in 2015 alone, has posed many logistical challenges despite its positive intentions.

All this is to say that delivering the comprehensive, unbiased journalism the West has traditionally expected of its “fourth estate” about this crisis is astonishingly difficult. It is nonetheless apparent that far-right coverage like Breitbart’s “Migrant Crisis Live Wire,” an aggregate of the inflammatory stories (German headlines include “Syrian Migrant Lured Children from Playground” and “Sex Offenders Took Part in Flagship Integration Project”) the notoriously partisan site ran about migration across Europe from 2015 to 2016, has damaged attempts at and sensible policy crafting. Centrist efforts to combat movements like the Alternative for Germany party (AfD), whose leaders have claimed that Germany no longer needs to bear national shame for the Holocaust, and PEGIDA, whose acronym translates to “Patriot Europeans Against the Islamization of the West,” necessarily weaken when the nationalist right co-opts press outlets to push its dog-whistle-laden narrative of events.

In their attempt to combat such xenophobic coverage, however, left-leaning press outlets have themselves invited allegations of bias. Provoking particular controversy were a series of sexual assaults which occurred in Cologne on December 31st, 2015 and continued into the New Year. Though the attacks were eventually revealed to have been committed largely by migrants of North African descent, much of the German news media, as reporter Matthew Karnitschnig writes for Politico’s European offshoot, was initially resistant to promoting these allegations or covering the story at all. On the same day that the Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ), a deeply reliable outlet whose politics mirror The Nation, published an editorial conjecturing that the attackers were homegrown extremists, the Cologne police confirmed their migrant identity. The international conservative press responded with predictable self-congratulation: Alex Jones’ far-right InfoWars website published a “report” on what it termed “media covering up” the true culprits of the rapes, with outlets including Breitbart and the UK’s Daily Mail following suit. This incident legitimized the far right’s ability to claim that mainstream German newspapers misrepresent the truth to citizens out of favor towards Islam or foreigners, a narrative which will have disastrous consequences if left unchecked.  


Though the pace of the German migrant influx has slowed since its apex in 2015, Germany’s and the world’s needs for responsible reporting on the crisis are still powerful as ever. Highly partisan outlets like SZ and Breitbart have often failed to offer comprehensive coverage, but center-right publications like Die Welt and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung often provide a fuller spectrum of opinions (recent pieces on Die Welt address both politicians’ calls for “preventative detention” of asylum seekers and heightened hate crime statistics).  They still fail, however, to consistently live up to the Ethical Journalism Network’s recommendations to connect with and tell the stories of individual migrants, to demand access to policy specifics, and to name hate speech for what it is. If German journalists fail to step up and answer the moral imperative – to become government watchdogs, to offer stories on the real issues regardless of how many clicks they produce – that xenophobic violence poses to them, they will be complicit in the loss of innocent lives.

Margot Armbruster is a first-year from Wisconsin prospectively studying Political Science or Global Cultural Studies. She’s excited to be writing this semester on rhetoric in the conversation about migration to Germany, focusing on the real consequences that language has in migrants’ lives. In addition to this Kenan Institute Program, Margot is involved on campus in the Classics Collegium, Something Borrowed Something Blue, American Grand Strategy, and the Duke International Relations Association.

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