In what way did digital media report on the countless events from the spring of 2015 to the spring to 2016? How did the three leading papers comment on the most important theme of the year? How can their commentary be analysed? And the local and regional press? How did they deal with the theme of “Willkomsenskultur” (the perceived need for welcoming refugees)?
These are a few of the questions asked in an ambitious study by the Otto Brenner Stiftung, the academic Bureau of the German metalworkers’ trade union. To find answers to these and other questions, the Foundation studied about 35.000 articles and subjected them to an array of analytical questions. The findings, to be officially presented on Monday, can be found in an impressive report (PDF).
According to an article in Zeit Online, the report can be summarised by saying that Germany has suffered a media power-outage, which negatively impacted society. Not only did the ‘mainstream media’ rally behind Angela Merkel’s refugee-policy, it accepted solutions by the political elite without criticism. The media even employed a “euphemistic-persuasive form of speech” with the intent of spreading the idea of ‘Willkomenskultur’. Those who did not toe the line taken by the government, were deemed suspect of xenophobia in the eyes of a lot of journalists.
“Critics, the study implies, had to be taught to be better people, using arguments like: Germany needs hundredthousends of young refugees, for their labour and to counter the aging of the population. In this way ‘the Willkommenskultur was transformed into a kind of magic word’, with which ‘the voluntary services of citizens, as a kind of good Samaritans, could be forced by making it some kind of moral duty.“
One of the conclusions reached is that for the three most important national papers (Süddeutsche Zeitung, Der Spiegel, Frankfurter Algemeine) are focussed, not on the news as such, but on the political elite. According to the study, this is nothing new, and is a well-known phenomenon called ‘indexing’ in American research.
Almost 20% of the articles on the refugee crisis are commentaries – an unusually high percentage, which betrays the striking preference for opinions of the newspaper editors. Furthermore, the report states that the most important criterion for journalistic quality, reporting in a neutral way, in almost half of all cases is not maintained:
“All three newspaper editors comment on the mega theme ‘refugees/asylumseeker’ very intensively. The analysis of these opinion based articles (Lead articles, editorials, etc.) confirm the findings we referred to earlier: seven out of ten relevant actors are part of the political elite. In the context of the ‘indexing’-thesis, the target audience for these commentaries is not the readers, but politicians. The arguments mostly deal with political proposals that have a practical nature. Until the end of the autumn of 2015 there is hardly a commentary published about the worries, fears and the resistance of a growing part of the population. And if they are published, they take on a condescending or (towards the Eastern German regions) despising tone. Hardly a single commentary in the so-called critical period (August and September) tried to differentiate between right-wing radicals and politically insecure, worried citizens that felt neglected. The published commentaries didn’t aim to discuss different points of view, but to emphasise the convictions of the writers, in particularly those of the policymakers.“
What is also remarkable, is what the report calls the absence of interest in citizens.
“Even in January 2016, with regard to the New Year’s Eve drama, there is no appreciation for those that take care, or should take care, of those involved: representatives of church organisations, or experts of social instutions. Instead, and all the more frequently, representatives of the political elite enter the media-fray. It is surprising that in the autumn and winter of 2015/16 in the Süddeutschen Zeitung and the Frankfurter Algemeine Zeitung the presence of the political elite (Federal Government, Ministers, Members of Parliament, leading members of political parties) didn’t decrease, but rose to around 80%. Here, on a structural level, was shown the paradox that the more the crisis raged in the streets of Germany’s cities and municipalities, the more intense the media interacted with the political levels furthest removed from them.“
It would seem that the term ‘Lügenpresse’, the lying media, might have more than a kernel of truth in it. It is not so much ‘fake news’, as it is deliberate non-news.