“Why not invite refugees to produce media?”

by Vesselin Dimitrov
How do German media report the events during the so called “refugee crisis”? Do they have the right tools to cover the constantly changing events, do they go deep enough to keep the balance when informing – and influencing – the general public and the decision-makers?

Dorothée Hefner Dorothée Hefner from the Department of Journalism and Communication Research in Hannover (Photo: privat)

The students at the Department of Journalism and Communication Research in Hannover (yes, the same Hannover Barack Obama visited the other day) discuss these aspects in the lecture “Flight, Media, (intercultural) Communication” (“Flucht, Medien, (interkulturelle) Kommunikation”). It kicked-off with an interesting panel discussion (Achtung! It is in German) on the topic “The refugee crisis – a journalism crisis?”.

We spoke with Dorothée Hefner from the Department of Journalism and Communication Research in Hannover on media, refugees – and how they combine in the academic research.

Mrs. Hefner, no other land in Europe has welcomed more migrants than Germany – the society is challenged, are German media challenged too?

The refugee crisis is, of course, also a big challenge for the media. Their duty is to keep the society informed and the information balanced. It is neither wise to solely emphasize the problems and thus demoralize society nor is it recommended to conceal the challenges and thus jeopardize the trust of the people. Another issue is the use of emotional information or pictures (such as the picture of the drowned Syrian boy). On the one side, emotions are important to activate people and raise attention to important problems. On the other hand, emotions might diminish the rational information processing which is important for understanding problems.

Do you feel the journalists are aware of how important their role is to inform and shape public opinion in these circumstances?

I do think so, at least the majority of journalists is. But irrespective of this awareness, it is important for journalists to understand how selection and information processing (in different situations and of different people) works in order to better evaluate and anticipate the effects of different ways of reporting. It is thus important to cultivate and promote an exchange between communication science and practitioners on the research findings.

The events in the “refugee crisis” tend to happen very quickly, even trends change fast. Are media capable of shaping these events and political actions or do they just follow the occurrences?

The mutual influence of politics and the media is a very prominent and important research subject of communication science. Today there is less discussion if media can influence political decisions or trends (yes, they can) or if politics exploit the media (yes, they do), but how and under what circumstances these processes of dependence and exploitation work. Very interesting in this context is the role of social media that empower recipients and have the potential to very quickly create trends via its viral character. Thus, the media is probably more dependent on the recipients and society’s trends than in earlier days.

What kind of changes in the media coverage of the “refugee crisis“ do you wish for as a recipient – and as a media expert?

Both as a recipient and as a media expert, I think it is important to get insights into multiple perspectives – politics, administration, citizens, volunteers and, of course, the refugees themselves. Why, for example, not invite refugees to participate in producing media? There are some very interesting projects such as this journal of the “Jugendpresse Politikorange” on the subject of flight and migration.

At the university you teach media users of a new generation. What shapes your students’ opinion on migrants more – the traditional or the social media?

Well – that’s an empirical question! In fact, it is not distinguishable as it is all intertwined. I guess (and research also shows) that social media play a big role. We know that one major motivation to get politically informed is to be able to participate in conversation about current events. And social networks of course feed this motivation by giving information on what issues are “hot”, what articles are read or videos are watched by whom. Social media thus seem to influence highly the process of selection.

Your students also research on that topic – what is the focus of the most creative thesis?

We had several theses in the last months that have been inspired by the refugee issue. For example, one student investigated the effect of a “loss frame” vs. “gain frame” in regard to the role of refugees for our society on the opinion of people. We know that framing of issues indeed influences the way people think about issues. 

New German Mediaworkers

The organisation Neue Deutsche Medienmacher (New German Mediaworkers) established a programme to tackle the issue of covering the refugee crisis. To balance views, they offer a training programme for journalists in exile in Germany which will facilitate their access to German media houses. Through this they can actively work against biased reporting and misconceptions in the reporting on refugees or migrants. Find more information on the programme here

Deadline to apply: 30.05.2016

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