Murder tests how far German media have come in reporting refugee crime

The media were lambasted for failing to cite refugees' connections to mass sexual assaults around Cologne last New Year's Eve. Now they are treading carefully as they cover a young woman's murder, allegedly by an Afghan refugee.

Vincent Kessler/Reuters
A woman passes by flowers and messages attached on a tree last week near the site where a 19-year-old female student died on Oct. 15, in Freiburg, Germany.

As the one-year anniversary of the mass sexual assault by migrants on New Year’s Eve in Cologne nears – a low point for journalists who only haltingly covered the event – German media have been faced with another test.

Last week, Germans learned that the lead suspect in the October rape and murder of a 19-year-old medical student in Freiburg, in southwestern Germany, arrived in 2015 as an unaccompanied Afghan refugee. The case has thrust Germany into yet another public debate about whether highlighting crimes by migrants and refugees stokes fears – and whether not doing so amounts to self-censorship.

But analysts point to a “learning moment,” too. The lead broadcaster chose not to cover the murder amid a rain of accusations of liberal bias, but it accompanied that decision with a public explanation of its reasoning.

That alone is a small move, but points to a more fundamental need for transparency on the part of the established media, amid a pandemic of “fake news,” of accusations of a “lying press,” and fears that consumers of news are stuck in echo chambers.

Leonard Novy, an analyst at the Institute for Media and Communications Policy in Cologne, says all “practices of representative democracy” are being challenged – from mainstream politics to the mainstream media – in ways “we are only just beginning to fathom.”

When it comes to the media, professional journalists have lost their “exclusive position as the transmitters of information and social self-understanding,” he says. “At the same time and precisely because we live in an age of communicative abundance, independent, professional journalism is more important than ever. But it also has to adapt to these circumstances, by explaining what it does, providing transparency on editorial decisions, engaging with its audiences, and developing ways to make [its] mistakes transparent.”

Balancing the facts

Mr. Novy hails broadcaster ARD – whose national program Tagesschau is a longstanding, respected nightly news show – for explaining their choice not to feature the murder in their bulletin.

The show faced a firestorm this month after police announced the identity of the chief suspect. The editor of the program defended the choice in a blog, saying ARD didn’t believe the murder of the girl, who had been riding her bike home from a Saturday night party in October, rose to what they considered "nationally and internationally relevant."

Media analysts defended the move, including prominent commentator Stefan Niggemeier, who dismissed those, like German magazine Stern, which lambasted Tagesschau. Stern called the event “one of the most important news items of the day” but Mr. Niggemeier took them to task for not explaining why.

“[Stern] does not write whether every arrest in each of the hundreds of murder cases is one of the most important news items of the day and therefore belongs to the 8 o'clock Tagesschau,” he wrote in a recent opinion piece for the German media commentary website Übermedien. “This accusation is absurd. The Tagesschau stays silent about almost all murders.”

Stephan Russ-Mohl, the director of the European Journalism Observatory in Switzerland, says transparency could restore a loss of faith in the media. “Media journalism has kind of disappeared in the official mainstream media, while it’s spreading and increasing in the online world," he says. "What’s missing is very clear information about what journalists can do and what they can’t do.”

He says this is crucial information in such a charged era. “The main task for journalists remains to report what is happening, neither to hide away important things nor to blow up other things," he says. "And to keep the balance here is the real challenge.”

Philosophical fixes...

This case comes as German Chancellor Angela Merkel herself has been attempting a balancing act – maintaining that her “open” policies toward refugees in need still stand, while hinting at a tougher line on integration at home. At her conservative party conference last week she called for a ban on full-face veils for women in Germany wherever legally possible.

Roland Tichy, who runs a conservative online publication and monthly, says neither the government nor the liberal media is getting the balance right. He says that while more publications, including his, covered the news of the Freiburg perpetrator, he says that too many didn’t want to “point out that this was a refugee, because it will make people anxious and angry,” he says. “This is not journalism.”

He and many others say the media must tackle head-on the issues people care most about. While federal statistics show migrants playing a minimum role in crime, many Germans want the media to more deeply probe whether the country is as safe a year after the peak of the refugee crisis.

Media analysts say many journalists have been trying to learn from Cologne, where a full picture of what happened that night has still not emerged. The media broadly have recognized their failures to second-guess police or hesitate from questioning whether the night’s tragedy had anything to do with the arrival of migrants.

In July, Germany was rattled by four violent attacks within one week, three of which were committed by recently arrived refugees. While the far-right blamed Ms. Merkel's policies, most media outlets tried to look at each case individually. Merkel called for the same restraint after the Freiburg murder.

...and practical ones

These are more abstract appeals, but concrete changes in media practices could help to restore trust in the meantime. Lutz Frühbrodt, a journalism professor at Würzburg-Schweinfurt University, says he disagrees with the German press code that forbids journalists from reporting the national origin of perpetrators, because it leaves media consumers to play a guessing game.

“It rather prompts the suspicion that by not mentioning the national or ethnic origin, a certain partisan policy is being pursued," he says.

Novy says that there is no culture of “public editors” – editors tasked with criticizing their own outlets on behalf of the public – in Germany. That alone won’t solve legitimacy issues, he says, but “it can promote an understanding of how independent journalism that adheres to professional norms works, and thus contribute to trust [and] brand loyalty.”

The pressures are greater than ever, argues Mr. Russ-Mohl, especially amid "fake news." "The best fake news sites are those which are mixing fake news with real news," he says. "That makes it very difficult to decide instantly whether something is wrong or whether it is right."

He says the challenge spans well beyond Germany, and he calls for journalists, media consumers, and tech companies to come together to safeguard the press. No less than "democracies, our public debate, and our civil societies" are at stake, he says.

• Sara Miller Llana reported from Paris.

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