Less than two weeks into a new year that opened with shocking assaults in Cologne, members of the press and academics met to discuss how the media is embedded in events that are radically changing the country.
Just a day after the suicide bombing in Istanbul that killed German tourists, security measures appeared to be higher than usual around Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, which was surrounded by around 20 police cars and security officers. Many embassies are located around that Berlin landmark, as well as the "Akademie der Künste" (Academy of the Arts), where the CIVIS Media Conference was held on Wednesday (13.01.2016).
Creating networks and monitoring the media on issues including migration, integration and cultural diversity in Europe, the media foundation CIVIS has existed for nearly 30 years. This year's conference titled "Das neue WIR. Deutschland verändert sich" (The new US. Germany is changing), was the organization's eighth event of its kind.
'Before' and 'after' Cologne
Although the conference and its topics were planned long before the Cologne assaults, recent events were clearly on every speaker's mind.
"There is a 'before' and an 'after' Cologne," declared Sonia Seymour Mikich, editor-in-chief of the German public broadcaster WDR. As politicians scramble to rescue their image, the political divide already affecting the country last year is deepening.
"The political discussion after Cologne offers a foretaste of what to expect during the upcoming election campaigns," remarked DW's director general Peter Limbourg in his opening speech. "Every piece of bad news can worsen political tensions," he said, adding that as events have demonstrated, the world is watching closely.
On one hand, the world was amazed at how Germans enthusiastically volunteered to help when an estimated 1.1 million refugees arrived in the country throughout 2015.
On the other, growing anti-foreigner sentiment has become clear through the rise of PEGIDA, a self-proclaimed "anti-Islamization" protest movement, and of Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, Alternative for Germany), a party that campaigns on an anti-immigrant platform.
The incidents on New Year's Eve - including organized sexual harassment and theft perpetrated on women in Cologne's city center by alleged young men of northern African origin - are widely viewed as a tipping point in the debate. "Is the new 'us' already about to fail?" asked Wolfgang Kaschuba, director of the Institute for Integration and Migration Research at Berlin's Humboldt University. Like politicians, researchers and journalists face difficult questions.
Conference topics included various aspects of the growing political divide, such as striking a balance between security and freedom. The speakers agreed that the New Year's events provided an opportunity to discuss the media's involvement in the whole issue more frankly.
Kashuba believes that imagery used to define Germans has been creating a divide between "us" and "them" for over 200 years. He regretted seeing his thesis validated with the latest controversial cover of the news magazine "Focus." Reinforcing sexist and racist stereotypes, it depicted black handprints on a woman's white, unclothed body. Germany needs to renew the imagery with which it defines foreigners, the researcher said.
A difficult balance
Finding the right balance in reporting on refugees and integration is a major challenge for the press. Following New Year's Eve in Cologne, the media was accused of being part of a "cartel of silence," recalled Sonia Seymour Mikich.
Andreas Zick, a social psychologist at the University of Bielefeld, pointed to a recent survey by the German public broadcasting network ARD according to which a staggering 20 percent of the population sympathizes with ideas propogated by right-wing populists and PEGIDA supporters, who maintain that the media is lieing to the population. The catchword here is "Lügenpresse" (liar press), a term once used by the Nazis.
Reporters trying to report on PEGIDA increasingly find themselves under attack. "Journalists are now part of the conflict," says Zick. The wide attention on the Cologne assaults has obscured the fact that 2015 saw 887 attacks on refugee centers, including 79 cases of arson.
When trying to depict a fair image of Germany, the country's values need to be clearly defined - not an easy task in a pluralistic society. Adressing the issue, Andreas Zick suggested that the definition should be expanded to "European values, not German values."
German social scientist Naika Foroutan of the Humboldt University's Institute for Integration and Migration pointed out that with its enlightened definition of core values, Germany's constitution offers a reliable foundation for developing consensus on divisive issues. On topics like religious freedom, politicians should not be driven by emotions, she said. Instead, to offer a concept for the society's future, "We need to bring the population back to the constitution."
Introspection is not the answer
Finally, as Germany continues to redefine itself and its "us," conference attendees agreed that the media should continue to monitor the processes that led to the arrival of refugees in the first place.
Reporters may feel that everything on the issue of refugees crossing over to Europe has already been said - yet this coverage remains more necessary than ever, said Peter Limbourg: "German media should avoid navel-gazing by exclusively reporting on German problems. To keep the entire picture in mind, we need to report on all developments, good and bad."