More Than One Reality: German Newspapers Report Very Differently on German Refugee Policy

Translated by Translators for Justice

By Valeska Cordier

Newspapers present the discussion on German refugees in a variety of differing ways. A number of topics and arguments are presented differently and the words of public figures in one media source are almost completely ignored in another.

In months past, the media has reported quite a lot on the rising number of refugees in Europe. In part, the reporting has been about the catastrophic conditions of the refugees’ initial accommodation and unsatisfactory legislation on asylum. The fact that the law on immigration and residency in Germany is about much more than granting immigrants asylum often fades into the background in these reports. In 2012, more than 85,000 refugees living in Germany did not receive asylum and who, for differing reasons, could not be deported. This was due to refugees being were able to stay in Germany legally with a Duldung permit. A Duldung [toleration] is a permit which grants no legal residency status to the individual. However, his or her deportation is suspended.

Generally speaking, most people in Germany have little to no direct contact with the immigrant population. And they definitely don’t have much contact with refugees or asylum seekers. For this reason, the German media should be looked at more carefully, especially since the media has such a strong impact on the public discussions concerning the issues surrounding migration. To give an example of how the media impacts society, a study was conducted in which many reports were examined from three of the largest German daily newspapers. The reports covered the resolution on residence rights passed at the 2006 Conference of the Ministers of the Interior (IMK). The resolution was meant to bring change to the unsatisfactory immigration law. In 2006, roughly 200,000 immigrants were living in Germany with a Duldung permit. Many of them had been living in Germany for more than five years while a third of them had been here for over ten.

The Duldung permits given were only valid for a specific timeframe of between three to six months. After the permit’s expiration, the permit could be renewed as long as the reason for suspending the deportation was still valid. The maximum amount of time that one could legally reside in Germany with a Duldung permit was 18 months. Once this time had elapsed, according to the law’s theory, the individual would have to be given a legal residence permit. In many cases, however, it was not possible to issue an immigrant a residence permit since either his or her identity could not be confirmed or his or her information was unverifiable.

With Duldung permits being continuously and repeatedly renewed based on this legislation, many refugees were able to live in a so-called waiting period without having any real incentive to build a new life for themselves in Germany or successfully integrate. Over a long period of time, many immigrants became subject to heavy psychological stress due to their status as a Duldung permit holder, since it restricted and constrained their lives in many ways.

Therefore, this problem was meant to be resolved during the 2006 Conference of the Ministers of the Interior (IMK). The goal was to give Duldung permit holders, who had been staying in Germany for many years, the right to a better and more secure residence permit. Once the law came into force, anyone who had been living in Germany, for either more than six years with under-age children, or at least eight years without children, would receive the right to permanent residency. However, he or she would have to prove permanent employment within two years’ time.

For the refugees with Duldung permits, the IMK resolution meant a great deal. As the new law began to be put into force and adapted to, the media covered the story very closely. The way in which the story was covered and conveyed, however, depended greatly on the media’s political ideology and their editorial focus.

Over a time span of 14 months, I analyzed the reports from the following German newspapers: tageszeitung (taz), the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) and the Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ). These newspapers are leaders in the German media and report form their own normative and textual viewpoint. Between January 2006 and February 2007, I analyzed a total of 402 articles which dealt with topics such as the right of abode, deportation and Duldung permits. Of these 402 articles, 275 of them, underwent a quantitative analysis relating to a number of different factors. These factors included their central themes, the public figures cited, and the differing arguments presented. Another sample of 127 articles dealt with refugees and their individual stories. These articles underwent a qualitative content analysis.

When initially comparing the newspapers, it was clear that there were differences in the way in which attention was given to the topics at hand. Between January 2006 and February 2007, in comparison to the FAZ and SZ, the taz, for example, reported twice as much on the debate leading up to the resolution on residence rights. In the case of all three newspapers, however, the closer the IMK conference came to ending in November 2006, the more detailed and diverse the reporting became.

Even more differences were discovered between the newspapers when analyzing the articles dealing with central themes. Although the debate on the IMK resolution dominated all of their media coverage, it was done so in a variety of ways (See graphic – German only). It is surprising to see how the critique of the resolution and its implementation makes up about a quarter of total coverage in all three newspapers. If we look at the selection of topics reported on beyond February 2007, it becomes clear that the taz reported on the varying topics in a more balanced way. The SZ and FAZ, however, focused more on the critical subtopics during the middle of January 2006 and February 2007. Critiques hardly made their way onto the agenda at all at the highpoint of the resolution’s debate and its implementation. In comparison to the other two newspapers, when looking at the articles dealing with refugees and their individual stories, the taz clearly reported twice as much on such stores and did so in much greater detail.

When analyzing the words of prominent public figures, many different political and administrative figures were quoted as they represented important political parties and social groups. In reference to the debate on the resolution, along with the participating IMK’s ministers of the interior, various local authorities and conservative CDU/CSU politicians dominated the media discourse. The FAZ clearly focused on governing politicians and influential government officials. Critique from the church was featured particularly strongly in this newspaper, which reflects the newspaper’s conservative standpoint. The SZ and taz often quoted the politicians representing non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who worked with refugees and Duldung permit holders. Such public figures were almost completely ignored in the FAZ. In contrast, the SZ and the taz quoted a greater number of individuals and thus were more balanced in their reporting than the FAZ was.

The public figures quoted presented varying arguments to justify their views. These arguments, however, also impacted the overall standpoint of the reporting. Politicians from the conservative CDU/CSU party and the FDP party, along with government officials, for example, often presented their arguments in a pragmatic manner by mentioning laws that were already in force, giving calculations on costs and stating how the social benefits being proposed would be used. Since these were the kinds of figures being quoted the most in the FAZ, the newspaper’s reporting was strongly influenced by their arguments. In contrast, the NGOs dealing with refugees, the churches and opposing political parties, such as the SPD and the Green Party, all used arguments that referred to the social needs of specific groups. Their arguments also made a case for the better treatment of refugees. In contrast, the arguments coming from Duldung permit holders and civil society representatives dealt more with morality and universal human rights. With these civil society representatives being quoted more often in the SZ and taz, these two newspapers were more balanced in their reporting as they published more arguments and, thus, more perspectives.

The reports covering the IMK-resolution show how stories can be presented differently depending on their media source. In today’s society, direct discussion and communication is simply not enough to gain a comprehensive understanding of one’s environment. We have become dependent on mass media. When it comes to topics that society only has access to through the media, however, it is important for us to be aware of the opposing perspectives on such problems.

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