In Kiel, a "group" of migrants harass several young women. Such a story couldn't be ignored after New Year's Eve in Cologne. But was it really true? With hindsight to help, here's a less agitated rundown of events.
February 26 was a Friday and, even as such, an unusually hectic news day. Gianni Infantino was voted FIFA's new president in Zurich, not to mention meaningful developments in the migrant crisis, the Syrian war, as well as electioneering ahead of three key state votes here in Germany this month. Still, that afternoon, news agencies DPA and AFP filed short stories seeming worthy of top spot - regardless of FIFA.
"Large group of foreigners hassles three youngsters in Kiel," read the 3:59 p.m. headline from Agence France-Presse (AFP), referring to the large Sophienhof shopping center in the northern German city.
Germany's Deutsche Presse-Agentur answered key follow-up questions an hour later: the "foreigners" were men from Afghanistan; the "youngsters" were three girls aged 15, 16 and 17. DPA also noted the presence of a larger group in its headline, tentatively talking of "two dozen men." Were it not for the New Year's events in Cologne, this might have been treated as one of the day's numerous police press releases. But now what?
Hands off? Or publish fast despite open questions?
Deutsche Welle's German news department decided to publish a preliminary report on the case at 6:40 p.m., with an English language article following within 20 minutes. Around the same time, public broadcaster ZDF ran a short item on "heute," its evening news show. However, flagship news show "Tagesschau" on ARD, another state channel, decided not to touch the story during its 8:15 p.m. slot that night.
Ultimately, all of these reports were sourced from a single Kiel police press release (from 12:41 p.m. that Friday, and pertaining to the Thursday evening). This police document said that "two Afghan males aged 19 and 26" were detained for questioning, before going on to say the following:
"A few minutes later, another group of some 20 to 30 people with a migrant background gathered around the two men; they harassed, observed and pursued the three young, female victims."
The release noted that no physical attacks had taken place, but spoke of the group taking photos and filming.
Three days later, the police's press department changed its tune somewhat: "Concrete statements on how many people actively participated in the harassment can only be made after witness questioning and analysis of video surveillance footage."
So then, perhaps it wasn't a larger group, after all? And what about those photos on the suspects' mobile phones?
"We cannot currently say whether pictures or videos of the victims can be found on [the phones]," the press department continued.
Post-mortem with interior affairs committee
Deputy state police director Joachim Gutt surely could have envisioned a more pleasant way of spending this Wednesday than heading to the Schleswig-Holstein state parliament to explain how the confusion arose to home affairs MPs.
According to the police deputy's account, one thing's clear: it's not possible to speak of a larger group of men at the present moment. Police officers' initial appraisal of a group of some 20 men apparently from the southern hemisphere had deemed them to be "curious" onlookers "who posed no danger." However, the prime suspects did hail from this group, he said, adding that police were still seeking a key witness: namely, the man who first alerted the shopping center's security guards on that curious afternoon.
A trusted source
"We are definitely not back-pedaling," police spokesman Matthias Arends told DW, saying that it was standard practice to report on such investigations progressively as they develop.
However, the national chair of the DJV (German Federation of Journalists) trade union, Frank Überall, doesn't quite agree on this: "In the case of the police, we're talking about a trusted source. And as a journalist, I must be able to expect this source to do its job." In the case of a police press office, Überall says, this would mean calmly finding out what has actually taken place before sounding the alarm.
However, police spokesman Arends points out that he and his colleagues are often denied the chance to do this: "What has changed since the events in Cologne is the amount of pressure from the other side, from journalists. That's not meant as an admonition. But often, we are not even given sufficient time to discuss events with the investigating officers." The pressure - since Cologne's police took such flak for their perceived lack of urgency providing information after New Year's Eve - has now become immense, he says.
Arends does concede, however, that it was "a small mistake" on the police's part to portray the accounts of the affected girls as hard facts in the initial release. But he repeats, you can't call it back-pedaling.
DJV chairman Überall, who works both as a freelance journalist and a professor of journalism, can't share this perspective: "In this case, we're talking about the behavior of public authorities," he says. If you are to talk about groups of 20 to 30 people, then simple questions become the decisive hurdles to clear, for instance: "Have police investigations been launched against this group of people?"
Of course, Überall acknowledges the scope for tensions between reporters and press officers. "But here, it's up to the authorities to slow down the pace of the day's developments," he argues.
Slowing the pace? Not a police correspondent's style!
Deceleration is hardly a police reporter's favorite word. It's certainly not popular on social media, which Überall describes as "an extension to the group of regulars" reporting on such stories. So what about the fast-response news teams, usually working from their offices and relying on outside material? "What's clear, then, is that you always must have a second source, unless of course we're talking about a known and trusted source."
Such a trusted source has since confirmed the following to DW: both the men from Afghanistan have since been released from custody. Last Thursday they had resisted arrest, visibly drunk, and were taken into provisional custody and held for a night in the cells. Now, investigations are underway.
Fled in fear
Two of the young girls became so scared during the incident at Sophienhof that they fled the scene briefly, only later returning to the mall's restaurant out of concern for their friend, as deputy police director Gutt told state politicians. He was quoting from the girls' criminal complaint filed with police.