A charity has confirmed that reports of a death outside a Berlin refugee center were greatly exaggerated. Germany's press herd has had to admit to having been duped all over again.
On Thursday, news broke that a "slightly drunk" charity worker had invented the widely reported death of a Syrian man outside Berlin's LaGeSo refugee center. The now-dismissed Moabit hilft worker announced the undeath in a Facebook posting that mimicked an online chat between colleagues. Report after report has described people waiting outside LaGeSo in subfreezing temperatures to make their case to stay in Germany inside, and so media had more or less been waiting for the first death to happen. Shared more than 4,000 times, the post alerted the media, and the subsequent stories alerted the police, who searched Germany's capital for the body of a 24-year-old man who had not died at all.
When the topic of coverage is people whose physical features are racialized as non-German nowadays, the national press finds itself regularly demonized from all sides. Reporters are either jumping the gun on news or waiting too long to get it out, and then underreporting or overreporting whatever the news is (or isn't). It's really no surprise then that a Facebook post shared several thousand times proved too juicy for a beleaguered national press to pass up on. DW, too, posted the story and then sent a reporter to the scene to verify it.
"If, for example, you look at the news agency reports, you determine that the announcement came from an aid worker for the organization Moabit hilft - that was made plain and clear - and it concluded that relevant police authorities could not confirm the event," said Frank Überall, the chairman of the German Federation of Journalists. "Now one can argue splendidly over whether Moabit hilft is a source to be taken seriously. At the very least, the journalists who wrote about it had the impression from their previous experience that it was a serious organization. I find that the uncertainties over the state of knowledge were fairly laid out in the journalistic coverage - with the exceptions of isolated tabloid exaggerations."
'Agitated digital impatience'
In January - generally days after the events - German media cautiously reported a string of sexual assaults and muggings outside of Cologne's central station on New Year's Eve. By most accounts, the reports came far too late; by any measure, they were incomplete anyway. The number of assailants varied wildly from the get-go, with some outlets reporting that up to 1,500 men of foreign extraction or appearance had assaulted dozens of women in the hours following midnight. That first number was too high by a thousand - or more - and the second has grown now to 945 complaints to police regarding the events of that night, more than 500 of them for sexual assaults. The media that so cautiously awaited the facts was now just making up numbers: Outlets often contradicted themselves from story to story. And the panic has worked, with more Germans taking up arms to protect themselves and the question of what to do with foreigners convicted of crimes reaching the federal cabinet (with expelling them being the likely answer).
Many outlets have since apparently decided that it's better to jump the gun if the topic can somehow be keyworded "refugee," "Arab," "Islam" or "Cologne." German media seized on Russian television's misquoting of an "imam" from a fringe mosque, who had purportedly said the women deserved what they got in the early hours of January.
The preacher, Sami Abou-Yusuf, told the German newspaper Die Welt in an interview that his mosque has no official imam and that what he had meant to say in his own paternalistic way was that the men who committed the assaults were at fault, but that women also dress too skimpily - a narrow distinction and hollow anyway: Many have pointed out that in the dead-of-winter predawn the victims were all bundled up.
There are, of course, media outlets that report the facts as they verify them, rather than merely pass along the gossip, run up the numbers and chase the keywords. And careful readers who want contextual coverage would do well to seek them out and reward them rather than simply refresh their browsers for the latest headlines.
"Media users have to have media competence to know which sources they can believe," said Überall, of the German Federation of Journalists. "They have to know what it means when a news magazine only reports in the conjunctive mood, namely: Caution - this article is not yet verified; there's a source quoted, but it's not yet clear if these are the facts." As for the press: "Of course, the agitated digital impatience of the public is a problem for serious media makers. … We must skillfully conduct substantiated research, veraciously report and align professionally. That is something that one only finds in professional media."
In this time of too much news and too little real information on a topic too hot not to touch, reporters and their readers alike would do well to ensure that all the facts have been gathered before a story is presented as news.