A Kosovo migrant reportedly went on an ax rampage in Düsseldorf, following an unrelated killing spree by a young German. When it comes to media coverage, violent criminals were not created equal, experts told DW.
Germany was still reeling from the Düsseldorf attack, which saw an assailant injure nine people with an ax, when the 19-year-old Marcel H. confessed to killing a nine-year-old boy and a 22-year-old man on Friday. While both gruesome attacks sent out shockwaves across the country, the one in Düsseldorf was allegedly committed by a mentally ill man from Kosovo and is likely to fuel anti-immigrant sentiment in Germany.
A suspect's background plays a role when it comes to the way they are portrayed in public, says Tahir Della from the Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland. The organization represents the interests of black people in Germany and deals, among other things, with issues of racism in German media.
The media narrative "starts changing with the fact that the person's ethnicity or appearance are reported even when it's not at all relevant," Della told DW.
"For example, this happens if somebody robs a bank and takes some hostages, and the media reports the perpetrators were black or migrants, even though it has nothing to do with the incident. This is unnecessary stigmatization of a whole group of people, linking them with crime," he said.
"When this group is identified, we can quite clearly see that the way of reporting changes, that crimes by these groups are treated differently than the crimes committed by Germans - they are described differently, for example."
'That is not how people work'
According to the German press code, reporters should only publish information about ethnic background if it is related to the story and helps the reader understand it. One of these cases would be when the suspect is motivated by Islamic terrorism and his origin is linked with his history of radicalization.
In practice, many reporters argue that nationality is just another piece of information that deserves to be mentioned. They are also pressured by the opponents of immigration, who accuse them of censorship for withholding details on suspects' backgrounds. These accusations were especially loud after the mass molestation and rape of women in Cologne.
Still, it would be a grave mistake for reporters to give in to the pressure from the populists, says managing director of journalist association Neue Deutsche Medienmacher, Konstantina Vassiliou-Enz.
Taking the recent rape case involving Iraqis in Austria as an example, Vassiliou-Enz warns that journalists report on extraordinary events, not the way things normally are.
"Many people say: I know it doesn't apply to all [migrants] and I can make that distinction. However, that is not how people actually work and it's not how reporting works. If we give the ethnic background even if it's not relevant for the story, we put a stamp saying 'Iraqis did this,'" she told DW.
"Sticking with this example, not many German people know any Iraqis, and reporting in this way reinforces the impression that Iraqis are criminals, that non-German people are more prone to crime than Germans, because it keeps popping up. If we read a report about a crime done by Germans, the report doesn't say that they were German."
If it were a foreigner…
While the four-day long manhunt to capture Marcel H. drew large media attention, it would doubtless resonate much deeper if it were an immigrant that had killed a German child, a German man, and allegedly bragging about killing a German woman online.
"If the attacker was an asylum seeker, the story would be the same but the reaction would be different," Vassiliou-Enz says.
"There would be this big outcry about 'them' killing and abusing our women and children. Therein lies the danger," she added. "The majority of people killing women and children are German, but they don't draw attention and are not being labeled, and it leaves a link in our brain saying that asylum seekers attack women and children."
Migrants commit less crimes
Tahir Della also says that reporters need to distance themselves from those who make generalizations about groups of people.
"These stereotypes, racist clichés and prejudice are already present in the society, and when the media communicate them, they find fertile ground, and I believe that media should take responsibility to not give them a boost," he told DW. "For example, here in Berlin people keep saying that mostly African men commit drug-related crimes and, while a part of that might be true, the constant repetition paints a picture of a specific group of people which then suffers under this general prejudice. Black men are often searched by the police in these areas, even without any suspicion of crime," he says.
When it comes to accusations of censorship, Della says that the media should not let themselves be intimated by the anti-immigrant crowd.
"The crime rate among people with migrant background is not higher than among white Germans, just the opposite, and this picture needs to be strengthened," he told DW.
"It is, of course, irrelevant if it's a person from Kosovo who robs a bank, or somebody who was born in Frankfurt."