Journalism: Scratching the Surface

In the past two years, instead of providing background information, German media have decreased their coverage on Islam and Islamic issues, as a survey analysis by German media content analyst Media Tenor shows.

In the past two years, instead of providing background information, German media have decreased their coverage on Islam and Islamic issues, as a survey analysis by German media content analyst Medien Tenor shows.

TV stations on both sides of the Atlantic could not get enough of broadcasting the sequences that showed the horrific images of the collapsing World Trade Center towers. Those with a pronounced perverse inclination simply did without text in the night after the terror attack, putting on background music while the audience, in never-ending repetition, was shown how the airplanes crashed into the two skyscrapers. And it wasn’t just the educated media consumer who wondered about the news value of such coverage. Many ended up voting with their feet: Circulation figures and ratings dropped, while people went into book shops, in order to find more information on organized worldwide terror and the causes for violent religious fanaticism.

In hindsight, it is always easy to blame politicians for not taking real or presumed warnings serious enough. But one thing is certain: Editors on both sides of the Atlantic did not pay any attention to the dangers of international terrorism before to the attacks, thereby making it difficult for politicians, who actually did warn of the threat, to get on screen. But while ABC, CBS, NBC, NEWSWEEK and TIME stayed tuned to the topic in the following months, their German colleagues decided, surprisingly quickly, to take terrorism off the agenda again.

Inaccurate portrayal of Muslims

It is even more irritating, though, to consider the lack of interest that German editorial departments have for Muslim communities in general and their faith in particular. In the first eight months of this year, less than 50 reports were done on this topic by the political and business desks of 24 leading national media that Media Tenor analyzes on a continuous basis. On average, this means two stories per media outlet in 240 days on a religious community, which is part of the day-to-day reality both in Germany and, of course, even more so in foreign countries. But the analysis not only reflects the drop in coverage since the year of the terror attacks, but also its increasingly negative bias. In such a situation it may seem curious that many of the same editors who have been portraying Islam in a predominantly negative tone will indulge in hand-wringing after incidents of harassment, or worse, attacks against Muslims in Germany and Europe.

Journalists continue to scratch the surface: Topical focus is misleading

But it is not the agenda cutting alone that exacerbates the lack of understanding for these religious communities. A look at the type of topics that journalists chose when they cover Muslims or the Muslim faith shows how crassly they misunderstand the subject matter. Focusing on topics such as public appearance and politically motivated criminality will not help anybody to better understand a long and complicated tradition. Journalists continue to scratch the surface, instead of getting to the heart of the matter and facing its real challenges.

Their readers and viewers, however, have to face it day by day, for example when they meet the parents of their children’s classmates on school sponsored ‘parents evenings,’ or when walking to the corner bakery and passing people that differ significantly by their appearance. While focusing on terrorism since September 11, to the detriment of reporting on the history and diversity of Islam, may serve all sorts of purposes, it does not promote understanding. And yet, such understanding is more urgently needed than before. After all, in a democracy it is the citizens’ job to decide how they deal with diversity and divergent traditions – not that of the national media’s editors, who are likely to live and work far away from the social and cultural tensions that affect many citizens.

Basis of the survey analysis
Media in Germany: die Welt, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Frankfurter Rundschau, Bild; TV NEWS: ARD Tagesschau and Tagesthemen, ZDF Heute and Heute Journal, RTL Aktuell, Sat 1 News, Pro Sieben News, Stern, Focus, Spiegel, Zeit, Rheinischer Merkur
Duration of survey analysis: 04/01/2002 – 08/15/2003
Analysis: 424.502 reports (out of which 3,304 focus on international terrorism in 14 German opinio-leading media; 63,549 reports in five US media (out of which 646 reports focus on international terrorism).

Source: MEDIEN TENOR Forschungsbericht Nr. 136, September 2003

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