On the third floor of a grand office building in central Berlin, Thomas Fuhrmann’s television news team discussed the fallout of an unusual case of arson in a refugee asylum home.
Most fires in German refugee centers are attributed to right-wing extremists or their followers. But in this case, disgruntled refugees in the western city of Düsseldorf had burned the building themselves, to protest poor living conditions.
As the chief editor of ZDF Morgenmagazin, Germany’s leading TV morning news and entertainment program, Fuhrmann initiated a discussion about the team’s earlier decision not to feature the arson case on the show. Some staff members pointed to spectacular television footage, while others dismissed the incident as unimportant. After all, nobody had been hurt.
Weighing the arguments, Fuhrmann was aware that decisions on stories like this one had a significant impact on the perception of his program. Ignoring them was bound to draw criticism, just as including them would.
Media accountability has become a frequent topic at editorial meetings around Germany. Trust in the country’s media declined following the 2015 influx of refugees, according to an October poll that same year.
Skeptics and opponents of refugee resettlement accused journalists of concealing information and publishing false or skewed reports. Fuhrmann’s team was among those heavily criticized.
“The accusation is that we are biased, we are one-sided, we are mainstream and that we don’t report what is happening,” he said.
Charges of media bias reached a peak after New Year’s Eve revelers gathered before the iconic cathedral of Cologne to usher in 2016. That night, jubilation turned to chaos when migrants of predominantly North African descent robbed or sexually assaulted hundreds of women. The local police, however, reported a quiet night in their initial news release.
What followed seemed to be a widespread failure of German journalists to report the event accurately, completely and in a timely fashion. For several days that weekend, ZDF’s primary evening news program failed to even mention the events.
When the police finally released the ethnicity of the attackers, many Germans, already skeptical of the media, became convinced that newsrooms had intentionally concealed the information.
“That was a turning point for the trust in our work,” Fuhrmann said.
Deborah Cole, an American journalist with the Berlin bureau of Agence France-Presse, an international wire service, said she believes the events in Cologne led Germans to reevaluate their trust in the media. At the time, popular support for German chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-border policies had already waned. “Many in Germany believe that that night in Cologne the dream suffered a huge setback,” Cole said.
In the months that followed, right-wing populists exploited the Cologne attacks at the polls. A party known as the Alternative für Deutschland, or AfD, won double-digit results in a series of 2016 state elections.
Media skepticism is a recurring theme at AfD gatherings, and party leaders like Ronald Gläser are adamant that news organizations deliberately concealed the actual events in Cologne from the public. “The media tried for two or three days to sweep it under the rug,” he said.
Gläser, a journalist who writes for Junge Freiheit, a far-right publication, professes thinly-veiled racist views. He claims, for example, that, “as a result of their cultural heritage, [North Africans] are not as successful and capable as us white, Central Europeans.” In an interview, he said he wanted to prevent Germany from becoming as ethnically diverse as France, which is why he’s vehemently opposed to opening borders to refugees.
In casual conversation, people who share Gläser’s views are often labeled as neo-Nazis. Naziism is, however, particularly stigmatized in Germany. Professionals who deal with right-wing extremism prefer to use more precise terminology. “We only refer to individuals as neo-Nazis if they directly affiliate themselves with the National Socialism of Germany’s Third Reich,” said Jonas Frykman, a spokesman for the anti-extremist group Aktionsbündnis Brandenburg.
As a rule, established German media organizations tend to be careful with the label “neo-Nazi.” Their critics, however, freely use vocabulary associated with Germany’s past to decry what they consider media bias, for example, by wielding the term “Lügenpresse,” German for “lying press.”
“Every journalist always has the problem that he approaches issues with a certain bias,” Gläser said. “Everyone makes mistakes sometimes, but our assumption is, of course, that our colleagues in the Lügenpresse consistently and knowingly report falsehoods.”
The term “Lügenpresse” first became popular during World War I as a way to denounce news stories presenting the enemy point of view. During the Third Reich, propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels brandished it against newspapers he accused of defaming the National Socialist movement.
As contemporary media skepticism has moved from the fringes into the political mainstream, the concept has entered the modern vernacular, said Cristina Gonzalez, an American journalist who studied the phenomenon in Germany as a research fellow for the Robert Bosch Foundation.
Gonzalez said propaganda and manipulation during the Nazi regime, followed by Allied control of the media after World War II, contributed to Germany’s modern attitude toward the media. She believes many Germans are sensitive about close relationships between the media and the state. And while the public television system in the country was rebuilt after 1945 to ensure separation between broadcasters and the government, recent issues have exposed the networks to renewed skepticism, she said.
Additionally, studies have shown both German and American journalists generally lean liberal. It’s a tendency that plays out in story selection and interview questions more than anything else, Gonzalez said. “In my opinion, this concept of one-sided coverage is somewhat accurate in the U.S. and in Germany.”
Back at ZDF, Fuhrmann disagreed. He cited a 12-part series on the integration of refugees in the small town of Templin as an example of what he considers his program’s multidimensional coverage of the issue. When 12 refugees were offered internships in Templin, but nine dropped out after one day, the ZDF team reported the information, despite the recognition that it might perpetuate negative assumptions about the work ethic of refugees.
Looking back, Fuhrmann said the arson case, too, should have aired on the program.
“We have to show what is happening and if something is not working,” he said.
Ian Strahn is a senior at the University of Montana studying political science, German and international development studies. He took part in the 2016 Missoula to Berlin journalism program and is currently the international outreach coordinator for UM’s Global Leadership Initiative.