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Written by Tabea Grzeszyk
Lessons learned from Germany’s biggest media failure in recent history: Journalistic objectivity is a myth. If journalists want to report equitable and fair, we need to take an uncomfortable step and confront ourselves with our unconscious bias – the prejudices and blind spots we have as reporters.
Have you ever heard of the “doner murders”?
It’s been 10 years since the German far-right terrorist cell “National Socialist Underground” (NSU) was uncovered. Not because German authorities or investigative reporters had tracked down the terrorists. On the contrary: German media had collectively failed the victims, ignoring racist motives behind the homocide series that took place between 2000 to 2006.
The term “doner murders” was first used by a local newspaper before it became quickly adopted by a wide range of media – online and offline, from the “Bild” tabloid to legacy newspapers such as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
It took until November 4, 2011 until the expression met with criticism and caused a public outcry – the day far-right terrorists Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt were found shot dead in a burning motor home in Eisenach, Germany.
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. The NSU case is one of the biggest German media failure of recent history.
When “Doner-Morde” was named “Unword of the Year 2011,” the jury commented its choice as follows:
How is it possible that not a single German newsroom had the actual story? How could German journalists collectively overlook that the murders were motivated by racism? How could the series be dubbed “the Doner murder series” and peppered with speculations around organized crime committed by migrants, portraying actual victims as potential perpetrators?
Today, ten years after the NSU terrorist cell was uncovered, journalists are still called upon to not simply reproduce stereotypical prejudices and racist thought patterns. Because now, as then, journalists can significantly contribute to and amplify attempts by far-right movements to spread prejudices and discriminatory rhetoric.
It does not take a reinvention of journalism to adequately report on far-right movements. 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 Brenner Foundation as early as 2015. Among other things, the authors referred to “structural deficits of journalism”, which favored the misguided reporting seen nationwide:
Whenever the vocabulary of far-right movements is reproduced word-for-word by reporters today, or racist positions are taken up and widely discussed, it becomes painfully clear who is missing in most newsrooms: Journalists who could immediately recognize racist, sexist, Islamophobic or other incitements directed against minorities and clearly name them accordingly.
For it is precisely these journalists who are the first to be threatened by the continuous provocations of ultra-right movements – personally, directly and systematically.
The NSU murder series made it clear that newsrooms can get the news wrong if they aren’t as diverse as the society they serve.
However, little has changed since the NSU was uncovered – the largest migrant communities in Germany still have no representation among editors-in-chief at leading news outlets. — and a systemic lack of diversity in newsrooms isn’t a German phenomenon alone: newsrooms in the United States remain more white and male than other work places, and Indian media is an upper-caste fortress.
It’s time to change this! Diversity is not a moral question, it’s a question of quality. Here’s four suggestions how newsroom can learn the lessons from Germany’s NSU media failure:
“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 native, middle class academics, important perspectives are missing and you run the risk of overlooking or misjudging some of the rhetorical or active violence of right-wing poppulists.
In Germany, one in four has a recent history of immigration and about half of the population is female. The better your editorial staff represents the actual diversity of your society, the more relevant you can report, ask adequate questions and set the topics that affect most people in your country.
Far-right movements are not isolated, their rise takes place in the context of extremist networks that cross borders. Network with other journalists abroad who have investigated local far-right movements. Provide further training in “cross-border journalism” for your staff and continuously expand this journalistic method in cooperation with partner newsrooms.
In precarious times like these, journalistic research is often carried out by freelance journalists. Those who report on far-right movements are particularly exposed to physical attacks as well as slander or smear campaigns in social media. Be prepared for the fact that your reporters can become a target for far-right populists! Develop a contingency plan together on how to protect your co-workers online and offline. This support must be guaranteed around the clock, because a shitstorm knows no office hours.