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Refugees in the media discourse
Petra Hemmelmann, Susanne Wegner
In a media analysis, the media
coverage on the refugee crisis in
Germany was examined and 5 con-
secutive waves of reporting were
For over 18 months, the topic of
“refugees” has captured the attention
of Germany. People fleeing to Europe
is not a new phenomenon, though.
Since 1990, ever more people have
tried to make it into the EU, which they
consider economically strong and safe,
but the summer of 2015 witnessed a
dramatic increase in the number of
refugees. e reasons included the civil
war in Syria, the rise of the so-called
Islamic State, a lack of prospects after
years of violence in countries such
as Iraq and Afghanistan – but also
trackers who were becoming more
professional and a chain reaction. In
2015, a total of around 890,000 people
sought asylum in Germany; in 2016 the
number was 280,000 (BMI, 2017). is
was an immense challenge – both for
society in general and for the media in
In a representative survey in December
2015, 41 % of respondents criticised
media coverage of refugees as one-
sided. Only 25 % believed that an
accurate picture of the migrants and
their qualifications was shown (Köcher,
2015a, and vom Orde in this issue).
e refugee crisis split public opinion
in Germany and eroded trust in the
classic media, but how did it come to
that? What happened in German me-
dia discourse? Together with students,
the authors watched the coverage,
discussed it, and used key patterns to
categorise it into 5 waves.
From January to April 2015, rather sober
reports of refugees and tragedies on the
Mediterranean Sea dominated media
coverage. is corresponded to the
state of previous communication sci-
ence research.1 Media scientist Matthias
iele (2005) found that when portray-
ing flight, asylum and immigration, the
primary contexts are crisis, conflict,
catastrophes, and crime. is pattern
could also be seen at the start of 2015.
e sporadic media portrayal in the
first quarter concentrated on anony-
mous masses of people – especially in
overcrowded boats or at the fences of
refugee centres. e tone was mostly
negative: Refugees were collectively
portrayed as victims of wars, crises, or
tracking gangs. Often there was also
a debate about “economic refugees”
who wanted the advantages of the
German welfare state. Individual fates
were rarely shown, and when they
were, then usually the focus was on
their suering.
In April, media attention increased
sharply when almost 1,000 refugees
died in one night in the Mediterranean
Sea o the coast of Lampedusa/Italy.
Harsh criticism was expressed against
the EU refugee policies, but coverage
mostly remained within the stereo-
types described. Attempts to give dif-
ferent narrative perspectives were rare
at this time. e public TV programme
Zapp (2015) summarised the problems:
e media used images of “the others”
without criticism and always asked the
same questions about their tales of
woe. What was lacking were positive
examples that did not show those ar-
riving as victims or freeloaders.
e more asylum-seekers came to Ger-
many, the more portrayals of refugees
were aired. However, the stories contin-
ued to concentrate on their suering
or their attempts not to get tripped up
while navigating German bureaucracy.
Volunteers who assisted refugees were
also portrayed more often.
Although it was clear that there would
be a much larger number of refugees
coming than in the previous year,
routine coverage was not particularly
intensified. Even news about emergen-
cies at sea rarely held the headlines
longer than one day, and the state
of emergency seemed to have been
accepted as normal. ere was hardly
any contemplation in the classic media
about how much migration the coun-
try could handle or how to deal with
the new arrivals. In the internet com-
ments, these kinds of critical questions
were already being asked. In contrast,
the leading media concentrated on the
lack of empathy on the part of German
Chancellor Angela Merkel when, in
mid-July, she told a crying refugee girl
on a talk show that she would probably
be deported.2
Heribert Seifert with the Neue Zürcher
Zeitung found that German media re-
ported “with a noticeable bias on the
topic” (Seifert, 2015a): e coverage
focussed on empathy with migrants.
The portrayals were always of the
same protagonists, the same phrases.
In particular, leading print media and
public broadcasters were homogenous
in this regard. Topics such as conflicts
about establishing homes for asylum-
seekers or criminal acts committed by
asylum-seekers were only covered by
local media.
In July 2015, the Greek debt crisis was
still the feature story, but that changed
in mid-August. e German Minister
of the Interior spoke for the first time
of the record number of refugees that
were expected in 2015: 800,000. A few
days later, the German Federal Oce
for Migration and Refugees suspended
the Dublin procedure for Syrians. In
Heidenau in Saxony/East Germany,
there were xenophobic riots. First,
concern about right-wing agitation
dominated the media. On 31 August,
Chancellor Merkel made what has likely
become her most famous statement:
“We can do it.” (“Wir schaen das.”)
At this point, images of the dead started
to be shown. ere were heated dis-
cussions about whether and how they
should be shown. First it was a lorry
used by trackers that was discovered
in Austria: Inside, 71 refugees had suf-
focated to death (Meedia, 2015). But
the media uproar happened especially
after the image of Aylan was shown,
the 3-year-old Syrian boy who drowned
and was washed ashore on the Turkish
coast. e photograph became
an iconographic representation
and, starting on 3 September
2015, it triggered a wave of me-
dia empathy (Filipović, 2015).
On 4 September, Merkel said
“yes” to the entry of refugees
from Hungary. Germany and
Austria opened their borders.
All channels and title pages were
then dominated by images of
overflowing train stations. What
could be seen were exhausted
and relieved refugees with signs
with phrases like, “We love Germany”
and “ank you, Angela Merkel,” but
also Germans who were standing to
form a corridor and applauding those
arriving. At the latest at this point, chil-
dren became the symbol of the refugee
crisis even though the majority of those
arriving were young men (Schönauer,
2015). e “welcoming culture” was
celebrated in the media.
An increasing number of journalists
travelled to the Austrian-Hungarian
border to report on the refugees’
sometimes horrendous experiences.
Some went “undercover” in German
refugee homes to reveal abuses (e.g.
Jaberina, 2015). Even then, many re-
flected critically on how the role of a
helper could be reconciled with that of
a journalist.3 Rumours of “bad refugees”
who supposedly robbed supermarkets
and raped women were contradicted
with fact checks. Publishers such as
DuMont and Springer provided mate-
rials for asylum-seekers in Arabic, the
Hamburger Abendblatt hired refugees
as “refugee reporters”. Even the tabloid
newspaper Bild changed its approach:
Previously it had contributed to stirring
up resentment against foreigners, but
at this point it presented a new cam-
paign to support refugees (Niggemeier,
2015; Bild, 2015).
During this period, the media entered
into a “competition to see who could
show the most empathy and welcom-
ing culture without giving a thought to
the weariness this could create in the
reader” (Seifert, 2015b). Many journal-
ists became “lawyers of the refugees”
out of a sense of empathy and commit-
ment. e perspectives of the refugees
and their helpers were often shown
exactly as they told it while opposing
voices were ignored or accused of being
right-wing. ose who asked critical
questions or pointed out risks were
side-lined. e concerns and fears of
many Germans were given almost no
space in the media discourse. Journal-
ist Michael Hanfeld (2015) from the
newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine
Zeitung criticised a “welcoming jour-
nalism”, and the portal Meedia com-
mented: “In print media and TV, the
idea is conveyed that the country is a
kind of amusement park with unlim-
ited capacity and willingness to receive
refugees” (Winterbauer, 2015).
At the end of September 2015, the
pendulum reversed course. e focus
was then on riots and fires in refugee
homes as well as the political clash on
the topic of refugees. e media outdid
each other with speculation about how
many people were coming and how long
the wave of help could hold up against
the “onslaught”. At the beginning of
October, Germany’s highest-circulation
daily paper Bild assumed there would
be an additional 1.5 million immigrants
coming that year (Solms-Laubach,
2015). In an interview, the paper asked
Chancellor Merkel: “Is it right to
morally judge the Germans who
are worried or afraid in light of
the hundreds of thousands of
refugees that are entering the
country?” (Diekmann, Ronzhei-
mer & Kausch, 2015).
These observations were not
limited to tabloid media. e
change of course could also be
seen e.g. in the liberal weekly
newspaper Die Zeit. Although
at the beginning of August its
title page read “Welcome!”
with a picture of a refugee family, on
17September the headline was “Merkel
and the refugees. Does she know what
she’s doing?” (Niggemeier, 2016b). On
4 October, the programme Bericht aus
Berlin (Report from Berlin) on the public
channel ARD showed a photomontage
of Chancellor Merkel in a chador (Ill.1).
e presenter asked: “What is happen-
ing with our values? Yes, how do we
govern when refugees have problems
with gender equality, with women’s
rights, with freedom of the press and
of opinions?” (Álvarez, 2015).
Characteristic for this wave was that
critique, concerns, and fears, which up
to that point had been found almost
exclusively in alternative media, could
now also be heard in classic media. Now
citizens were asked more frequently
about their impressions. e key topics
were the overwhelmed towns and the
discussion about a limit on the number
of refugees. Maximilian Popp from the
news magazine Spiegel observed what
he considered to be a radical change in
narratives: f rom the welcoming culture
to the dangers of massive immigration
(Röben, 2016). For some, however,
this inclusion of critical voices came
too late: In a representative survey in
October 2015, 47 % of respondents
criticised media coverage of refugees
as one-sided (Köcher, 2015b; 2015a).
But for the first time, the media pri-
oritised another story higher than the
refugee topic. e terrorist attacks
in Paris on 13 November 2015 briefly
became the top news story. In this
context, however, refugee policies were
still discussed. Despite many warnings,
there was soon public speculation as to
whether the terrorists were refugees or
pretended to be refugees. is shift to
the negative side of the topic reached
its climax with the coverage of the New
Year’s Eve events in Cologne/Germany.
At first, the police report stated that
there was a peaceful atmosphere. What
actually happened – numerous sexual
assaults against women by men of
North African and Arabic descent –
was making the rounds through social
networks together with the accusation
that the events were being purposely
concealed. Only on the 4th and 5th of
January 2016 did the incidents make it
into the national media. Initial caution
was followed by a revitalisation of old
ways of thinking and often there was
a generalising link made to the topic of
refugees. e narrative of the “Arabic
man” and his uncontrolled sexuality as
a threat for the German woman and
Western freedom was widespread (e.g.
Ulrich, 2016). Communication scientist
Kai Hafez (2016) determined: “e brief
empathy for refugees that dominated
the media in the summer fell back on
the traditional discourse focussing on
the problems of crime, diculties with
integration and unbridgeable cultural
At the beginning of 2016 various ap-
proaches could be observed. Editors
published explanations for why they
reported in which ways, described
how individual cases fit into the larger
picture, and interviewed new pro-
tagonists such as integrated migrants
about the current refugee debate. At
the same time, in the first week of the
year, violence and rule violations by
asylum-seekers were the focus of the
media’s attention and not violence
committed against them. is was true
even though at the beginning of the
year almost no day passed without an
attack on a refugee home in Germany
(Monitor, 2016). Media coverage from
the border areas also changed. At the
end of February, the reception centre
in Idomeni on the Greek-Macedonian
border gained attention due to the
catastrophic conditions there. At first
the coverage seemed to repeat that
of the previous year – on the one
hand images of desperate children at
border fences and on the other hand
the familiar, stereotypical portrayals
of masses of people. What was new
was that the masses were more often
shown as being aggressive.
e riots in Idomeni, which lasted until
May, were a reaction to the closure of
the “Balkan route”. On 20 March 2016,
the refugee agreement between the
EU and Turkey also came into eect.
As a result, far fewer refugees came
to Germany. In the following months,
one could hardly speak of “waves”
anymore because the frequency of
coverage sank drastically. e Institut
für Empirische Medienforschung in
Cologne (IFEM, Institute for Empirical
Media Research) found: From August
2015 until May 2016, refugees were
the most important topic in the main
news programmes on television. Only
once during this period was the topic
superseded: in November 2015 by the
terrorist attacks in Paris. Starting in
June 2016, the relevance significantly
decreased, however – the European
football championships, “Brexit”, the
US elections, terrorist attacks (Nice,
Berlin, Ansbach), and the Syrian War
were of greater interest until the end
of the year (IFEM, 2015; 2016).
e primary topics in July 2016 were
the killing spree in Munich, the knife
attack in Würzburg, and the bomb-
ing in Ansbach. In these contexts, the
focus was repeatedly on the group of
refugees. In fact, 2 of the perpetra-
tors were refugees and another was
of Iranian descent. Some headlines
went beyond these individual cases,
however, and portrayed refugees in
general as a dangerous group.4 e
topic of refugees once again become
the main focus of the media for a brief
time in September 2016. Many media
professionals looked back at the events
of the year before – and were certainly
also self-critical.5 at, at least, gives
hope for more nuanced coverage in
the future.
German coverage of refugees in 2015
and 2016 evinced serious deficits. Prob-
lems included a lack of dierentiation,
a lack of objectivity and too much of
a herd mentality. Media professionals
should learn from these mistakes be-
cause the topic of refugees will continue
to be with us for a long time. Specifically,
that means using more context and
background, c ritically questioning how
topics are set and designed, perceiving
and portraying various perspectives
and opinions, and continually breathing
life into ethical standards.
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1 Until 2015/2016, there was very little in this area on
flight and migration. e few studies available showed
that topics shape the media in waves, and a link
between coverage and increasing xenophobia could
be found because media coverage is very si mplified,
relies on drama, and discusses especially negative
aspect s (cf. Jäg er, 200 0; Butterwe gge et al., 200 6).
2 Programme on the German federal government’s
dialogue “Gut leben in Deutschland” (“Living Well
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5 Cf. among others Giovanni di Lorenzo (Meedia, 2016)
and Susanne Glass (Bouhs, 2016).
Petra Hemmel-
mann, Dr. phil., is
the Editor for the
Department of
Development and
at the Catholic
University of Eich-
(KU), Germany, and at the journal for
media ethics Communicatio Socialis.
Susanne Weg-
ner, Dipl-Online-
Journalist (FH),
is a Research As-
sociate in the de-
gree programme
Journalism at the
Catholic Univer-
sity of Eichstätt-
Ingolstadt (KU), Germany.
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Full-text available
The authors address the role played by digital media in developing an ideological and iden-titarian discourse characterized by fear and moral panic about Others across Europe. In "Online social media and the construction of sexual moral panic around migrants in Eu-rope", they begin with analysing the securitization devices introduced in many countries of the EU and their work along specific gendered, sexual, and racialised lines. The article examines the role of digital media in amplifying the "sexual moral panic" about migration. Taking Italy and Germany as case studies-sites, we argue that digital media have strongly contributed to the dissemination and escalation of fears of invasion and of dangerous sex-ualities framed by constructions of race and gender. Their contribution unveils the ways in which colonialist and racist legacies that are historically sedimented in both Italy and Germany get reorganised "online" (i.e. through social media). These, in turn, produce a very specific post-colonial dimension reinforcing widespread hatred of the Other and new processes of racialisation, which include, among others, gender stereotyping.
Full-text available
Medya, bireyleri etkileme ve kitleler üzerinde algı oluşturma konusunda günümüzün en büyük güçleri arasındadır. Bu yönüyle önemli konularda ulusal ve uluslararası alanda herhangi bir konu ile ilgili kamuoyu oluşturma, toplumları haberdar etme ve o konuya tüm dünyanın dikkatini çekme gücüne sahiptir. Son yıllarda Suriye’de yaşanan iç savaş da medyanın ana gündem maddeleri arasında yer almış ve gerek ulusal gerekse uluslararası basında bu savaş ve savaştan kaçıp diğer ülkelere sığınan mülteciler ile ilgili pek çok haber yapılmıştır. Medyanın bireylerin algısı üzerindeki etkisi düşünüldüğünde özellikle mülteciler ile ilgili yapılan haberlerin toplum ve bu mülteciler arasındaki ilişki üzerinde etkili olacağı düşünülmektedir. Bu durumdan hareketle hazırlanan çalışmanın amacı yazılı, görsel ve işitsel medyada yer alan Suriyeli sığınmacılar ile ilgili haberlerin öğretmen adaylarının Suriyeli sığınmacılara ilişkin algılarına etkisini belirlemektir. Çalışma nitel araştırma desenlerinden “durum çalışması” ile yürütülmüştür. Araştırmanın çalışma grubunu 2015-2016 akademik yılında Adıyaman Üniversitesi Eğitim Fakültesi Sosyal Bilgiler Öğretmenliği programının 1, 2 ve 3. sınıflarında öğrenimlerine devam etmekte olan 60 öğretmen adayı oluşturmaktadır. Veri toplama aracı olarak standartlaştırılmış açık uçlu görüşme formu kullanılmıştır. Görüşme formunda taranan literatür doğrultusunda güncel ve doğru verilere ulaştırabileceği düşünülen, cevaplayıcıları yönlendirmeyecek nitelikte 6 yapılandırılmış, 5 yapılandırılmamış açık uçlu olmak üzere toplam 11 soru yer almaktadır. Araştırma kapsamında toplanan veriler içerik analizi ile analiz edilmiştir. Elde edilen bulgular göre, çalışmaya katılan öğretmen adaylarının tamamının düzenli aralıklarla haber programlarını takip ettikleri, medyada Suriyeli mülteciler ile ilgili yer alan haber içeriklerinin daha çok olumsuz olduğu yönünde görüş bildirdikleri sonucuna ulaşılmıştır. Ayrıca öğretmen adaylarının Suriyelilere ilişkin algılarının genel olarak bu haber içeriklerinden olumsuz etkilendiği de tespit edilmiştir. Bunun yanı sıra öğretmen adaylarının Suriyelilere ilişkin algıları ile haber içerikleri (olumlu, olumsuz ve tarafsız) arasında paralellik olduğu belirlenmiştir. Son olarak öğretmen adaylarının medyada yer alan Suriyeliler ile ilgili haberler doğrultusunda Suriyeli sığınmacıları “çaresiz, yardıma muhtaç ve kimsesiz” gibi tasvir ettikleri sonucuna ulaşılmıştır. Anahtar Kelimeler: Medya, sığınmacı, ,öğretmen adayı, algı
Bild on 11 October Available at: http
  • Frau Würden Sie Flüchtlinge Bei Sich Aufnehmen
  • Merkel
Würden Sie Flüchtlinge bei sich aufnehmen, Frau Merkel? Bild on 11 October. Available at: http://www.bild. de/politik/inland/fluechtlingskrise/wie-schaffen-wirdas-bloss-frau-merkel-42975340.bild.html [15.02.2017]
Lügenpresse, Germanwings, Aylan – Ein medienethischer Jahresrückblick 2015 Available at: http://www.netzwerk-medienethik. de
  • Alexander Filipović
Filipović, Alexander (2015). Lügenpresse, Germanwings, Aylan – Ein medienethischer Jahresrückblick 2015. Available at: http://www.netzwerk-medienethik. de/2015/12/22/luegenpresse-germanwings-aylan-einmedienethischer-jahresrueckblick-2015 [15.02.2017]
Compassion Fatigue der Medien? Global Media Journal Available at: https://
  • Kai Hafez
Hafez, Kai (2016). Compassion Fatigue der Medien? Global Media Journal, 6(1). Available at: https:// dbt_derivate_00035505/GMJ11_Hafez.pdf [15.02.2017]
Willkommens-Journalismus bis zum Abwinken. on 6 November Available at
  • Michael Hanfeld
Hanfeld, Michael (2015). Willkommens-Journalismus bis zum Abwinken. on 6 November. Available at: [15.02.2017]
InfoMonitor. Jahr 2016 Available at
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