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It’s not enough to be “colorblind”: The German media needs to examine its own blindspots

By Tabea Grzeszyk

Contributing an article to the online dossier “In conflict: the media and the AfD,” published by the German journalism union dju at ver.di, I was recently looking at the implications of reporting on right-wing populist parties such as the German “Alternative für Deutschland” (AfD). However, covering populism is only part of a far bigger challenge: We must take an uncomfortable step and confront ourselves with the prejudices and blind spots we have as journalists.

Do you remember the term “doner kebab murders”? First used on August 31, 2005 in the German local newspaper Nürnberger Nachrichten, the term was quickly adopted by a whole range of German-language media – online and offline, from the Bild newspaper to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. It was not until November 4, 2011, when the right-wing terrorists Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt were found shot dead in a burning motor home in Eisenach, Germany, that the expression met with public criticism. Documents seized and a video confession by the so-called “National Socialist Underground” (NSU) made it suddenly and unmistakably clear that the murders were not “organized crime” within a “migrant milieu”. No, a neo-Nazi terror group had murdered nine entrepreneurs and later a policewoman out of racist hatred.

For almost a decade, German security authorities had been investigating unilaterally in the wrong direction – and the media also played a decisive role in disseminating and establishing an interpretation that imagined actual victims as potential perpetrators. When “Döner-Morde” was named “Unwort des Jahres 2011” (“non-word of the year”), the jury justified its choice as follows: “The factually inappropriate, folkloristic-stereotypical labelling of a series of right-wing terrorist murders excludes entire population groups and discriminates against the victims themselves to the highest degree by reducing them to a snack court because of their origin. How is it possible that apparently no one in German editorial offices had noticed this before the terror cell was discovered in autumn 2011?

Today, (as the AfD comfortably occupies the position of the largest opposition party in Germany), the question of how to report responsibly on the AfD is being raised with renewed urgency. Then as now, journalists are called upon not to simply reproduce stereotypical prejudices and racist thought patterns. Because then, as now, journalists can significantly contribute to and amplify the right’s attempts to spread prejudices and discriminatory rhetoric. When demonstrators call out racist slogans, they are not “concerned citizens”. When a nationalist party denies basic civil rights for Muslim women on the basis of their religious affiliation, this is not an “Islam-critical attitude”.

It does not take a reinvention of journalism to adequately report on the AfD. But a systematic effort is needed to overcome “structural mechanisms and deficits in the field of journalism that contributed to the shortcomings in reporting that emerged”. This was the conclusion reached by a study on the reporting of the NSU murders by the Otto Sprenger Foundation as early as 2015. Among other things, the authors referred to “structural deficits of journalism”, which favored the misguided reporting seen nationwide: “These include in particular a lack of resources for independent research, a continuing distance to migrant life, insufficient representation of migrant perspectives in reporting as well as ‘swarm behavior’, which – as can be seen from the term ‘doner kebab murders’, which was often adopted as a bold formulation – can contribute to the reinforcement of discriminatory reporting”.

If today the vocabulary of the AfD is partly reproduced word-for-word by reporters and racist positions are taken up and widely discussed by moderators, it becomes painfully clear who is missing in German editorial offices: journalists who could immediately recognize racist, sexist, Islamophobic or other incitements directed against minorities and name them accordingly clearly,. namely,journalists with a history of immigration, Journalists of Color, journalists from non-academic families, journalists who do not belong to the German majority society because of their gender, religion, sexual orientation, disability, age, etc. For it is precisely these journalists who are the first to be threatened by the continuous provocations of the AfD – personally, directly and systematically.

I would therefore like to address the decision-makers in German editorial offices with four suggestions on how you can arm your newsrooms against the adoption of derogatory stereotypes and learn from the media failure of NSU reporting. The proposals are derived from the book Unbias the News: Why journalism needs diversity, which my organization Hostwriter recently published in cooperation with CORRECTIV.

Book anti-racism training for your editorial staff!

“Critical Whiteness”, a discussion of stereotypical thought patterns and basic knowledge in postcolonial theory are not esoteric subjects for do-gooders. As long as your editorial staff is dominated by German-born middle class academics, important perspectives are missing and you run the risk of overlooking or misjudging some of the rhetorical or active violence of the AfD.

Make the newsroom as diverse as German society!

In Germany, one in four has a recent history of immigration and about half of the population is female. The better your editorial staff reflects this real diversity of German society, the more relevant you can report and – also with regard to the AfD – ask the questions and set the topics that actually affect most people in Germany.

Cooperate with other editorial offices!

The AfD is not an isolated party, its rise takes place in the context of right-wing populist networks that cross the German border. If you want to report well-founded on the AfD, check facts and verify allegations, you can hardly avoid cross-border research. Network with German and local journalists abroad who work on right-wing populist parties. Allow your employees to take part in further training in “cross-border journalism” and continuously expand this journalistic method in cooperation with partner editorial offices.

Protect your journalists!

In precarious times like these, journalistic research is often carried out by freelance journalists. Those who report on right-wing populist parties such as the AfD are particularly exposed to physical attacks as well as slander or smear campaigns in social media. Be prepared for the fact that your employees can become a target for right-wing populists! Develop a contingency plan together on how to protect your employees online and offline. This support must be guaranteed around the clock, because a shitstorm knows no office hours.

Tabea Grzeszyk works as a freelance journalist mainly for Deutschlandfunk Kultur. She is co-founder and managing director of Hostwriter.org, a journalistic network that helps colleagues from 150 countries to work together across national borders.