GERMANY - Panel explores migration, media, and misperception

How does the media influence our sense of identity? How does it shape our perception of those different from us? How does it reinforce "otherness"? These questions animated a recent panel discussion on German media’s depiction of international migration in that society.


Titled "Exclusion in Germany: Is Media Honoring its Responsibility?", the event was held on 7 December 2014 at the Baha'i National Centre outside Frankfurt to mark UN Human Rights Day. It was organized by the Baha'i community in partnership with the Foundation for the International Weeks against Racism, a German NGO. The audience included members of European Parliament, religious representatives, and members of the public.


Canan Topcu, a Turkish-born journalist and member of the Neue deutsche Medienmacher (New German Media Makers), moderated the panel discussion, which comprised: Ms. Ursula Russmann, editor at Frankfurter Rundschau, a daily newspaper; Dr. Markus End, a social scientist and Board Member of the Association of Antiziganism Research; and Ms. Mahyar Nicobin, a representative of the Baha'i community.


Panelists discussed challenges faced by journalists in trying to write about the complex topic of migration. In addition to the normal pressures of time constraints and limitations on story length, journalists face demands by news organizations for sensationalized stories and the reduction of complex themes into simplistic narratives.


Discussing his recently published study on the portrayal of the Roma in German media, Dr. End explained that "certain words in the media are code words for groups of people".


"For example," he said, "the German word 'Armutszuwanderung' (signifying 'poverty migration') has become synonymous with immigrants from southeastern Europe, in particular, the Roma."


He also explained that language and images in the media consolidate stereotypes and prejudices in society, accentuating the "othering" that comes to characterize popular attitudes towards some ethnic minorities.


Regarding images used for stories, panelists discussed how journalists often draw from stock photographs in databases provided by news organizations. The photos available often lack context, reinforce stereotypes, and objectify populations.


Of the more than 230 million international migrants documented by the UN in 2013, 1.2 million entered Germany, making it second only to the United States.


Ms. Saba Detweiler, one of the organizers of the event, explained that, as in many other countries, Germany has witnessed the issues of migration and integration move to the forefront of public consciousness.


Describing the motivation behind the event, she explained that the issue is close to the hearts of the Baha'is, who are working with increasing numbers of like-minded groups to overcome the corrosive effects of prejudice and to foster harmony among the diverse elements of society.


"This event was one contribution of many that thoughtful groups and individuals are carrying out throughout Germany," she said, "and we hope there will be many others to come."