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Journalists lament uptick in hatred and violence directed at media

Attacks on representatives of the media appear to be "en vogue." Not a surprising discovery in the age of hate speech and "lying press" allegations. Conflict researchers have investigated the phenomenon.

Symbolbild Lügenpresse (picture-alliance/dpa/David Ebener)

This banner reads: "Lying press - shut it!"

The Deniz Yücel case currently illustrates how dangerous simply pursuing one's profession can be for journalists. The correspondent for the German "Die Welt" newspaper is in pretrial detention. If and when he will be released is completely uncertain. In addition, there are the many reporters, photographers, cameramen and -women who even lose their lives. The record of journalists killed in the line of duty, submitted on an annual basis by the journalists' organization "Reporters Without Borders," is horrifying.

Viewed against this backdrop, the study on "Hate experienced by those working in the Media" (HArM), published in Berlin on Wednesday (1 March), almost appears to be missing the mark, especially since this investigation conducted by the Bielefeld-based Institute for Interdisciplinary Conflict and Violence Research (IKG) focuses on the situation in Germany, which is rather safe by international standards. Still, the study's findings are helpful when it comes to dealing with the highly topical phenomenon of hate speech and the often-heard "lying press" allegation.

Every fifth respondent was physically attacked

What this means in practice is revealed by people like Frank Jansen. Since German unification, he has been reporting on right-wing extremism on behalf of the "Tagesspiegel" newspaper published in Berlin. He has been threatened and attacked several times. "I could only narrowly escape several physical attacks by neo-Nazis," Jansen told DW, who also received threats when he covered demonstrations of the xenophobic "Pegida" movement in the east German town of Dresden.

Dresden - Pegida-Anhänger versammeln sich zum Jahrestag (picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler)

"Pegida" supporters in Dresden: this can be a dangerous place for journalists doing field work

According to IKG head Andreas Zick, every fifth respondent (21 percent) had similar experiences. Two-thirds of those interviewed state that there was an increase in verbal attacks in 2016. According to the institute, the study is not a representative one from a scientific point of view, but it is nonetheless viewed as significant: 783 journalists - all anonymous - participated. However, only half of them (51 percent) answered all the questions.

"Publishing becomes a test of courage"

Despite those limitations, researchers see their presumption confirmed that the press is working amid a societal environment that increasingly loses its inhibitions. The 28-page study is entitled "Publishing becomes a test of courage" - one participant's succinct summary of the current state of affairs. Many journalists, the study suggests, now even refuse to accept field work for fear of physical attacks.

For Jansen, this is out of the question, although he would have good reasons. Via email, he was straightforwardly threatened with murder by a Berlin-based right-wing extremist. Investigations by the public prosecutor led no nothing. In addition, insults on the internet have almost become a daily routine: "A right-wing extremist who disliked my coverage of the NSU trial called me a 'filthy propaganda pig'." For a number of years, attacks by those who hate Islam have been on the rise as well. 

Journalist Frank Jansen (picture-alliance/dpa)

Frank Jansen works for the "Tagesspiegel" newspaper

"Anxiety and powerlessness"

Researchers could not establish a nexus between attacks on journalists and their respective age, sex or alleged country of origin. In other words, journalists with a migration background are not affected more by hate speech than others. "I find it difficult to simply shake off unfounded and hateful attacks" - that about sums up respondents' replies to the question about consequences from their experiences. Physical attacks result in "a state of anxiety and powerlessness," as one journalist put it.

But how can this perceived trend of brutalization be stopped or even reversed? Some respondents wished for more empathy from colleagues, with about two-thirds stating that the topic was discussed openly. Some, however, requested more staff, "in order to be able to conduct better research." A realistic assessment of the current media landscape suggests that this request will probably remain unheard: for years, newsrooms have been experiencing a trend of ever-increasing workloads.

Dresden - Pegida-Anhänger versammeln sich zum Jahrestag (picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler)

A "Pegida" supporter wearing a "Lying press" sweater

Social media work as catalysts

Being quick is more important than being thorough - an axiom that is more valid than ever in the current age of real-time journalism. A turnaround is not in sight - on the contrary. Increased use of social media results in an additional boost of this development. The hate speech phenomenon thus becomes an inevitable corollary: it takes only seconds to punch a hateful comment into a smartphone or desktop computer and hit send.

Due to bad experiences, some newsrooms have started to eschew user commentary sections. This approach, however, does not solve the problem; it merely eclipses it. Frank Jansen, for one, will not accept any compromise. Despite the threats, he has been exposed to for decades he will soldier on with his work. For him, a pseudonym is out of the question. "If I were hiding behind a fancy name, the right-wing extremists would already succeed in depriving the 'Tagesspiegel' of a few inches of press freedom," says Jansen.

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