Good Practice: The Courage to be self-critical

National Geographic: In 2018, National Geographic magazine commissioned an independent historian to examine their stories for any traces of racism. The results were staggering. The magazine published them under the headline "For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist. To Rise Above Our Past, We Must Acknowledge It.” National Geographic was celebrated for this courage. What German medium is prepared to engage in so much self-criticism?. 

Augsburger Allgemeine: In July 2021, the two regional newspapers publicised their new guidelines on gender-appropriate language. Using the headline “How we negotiated a way through the gender debate” the newspaper also publicly shared the internal discussion process, which was transparent, comprehensible, and self-critical.

DER SPIEGEL: For International Women's Day 2021, the magazine examined around 40,000 of their own articles to find out how often men and women appeared in them. The result: 107,000 men as compared to only 28,000 women. SPIEGEL editor-in-chief Steffen Klusmann stated: "Something has got to change"

taz: In 2016, people with disabilities were asked to compile a special edition of the taz. The deputy editor-in-chief Katrin Gottschalk took the opportunity to point out that there was a lack of journalists with disabilities in her own editorial department.

Wir verstehen es als Pflicht, uns durch eine ständige, kritische Auseinandersetzung mit Sprache, Bildauswahl, Themen und der Ablehnung von stereotypischen Darstellungen zu positionieren und unsere Reichweite dazu zu nutzen, die Welt so zu zeigen, wie sie ist – vor und hinter der Kamera. Das erfordert vor allen Dingen, sich selbst immer wieder zu hinterfragen, dazuzulernen und zu diskutieren, denn es gibt noch viel zu tun.
Alexandra Bondi de Antoni, Chefredakteurin,

Good Practice: Using new topics and perspectives to attract new target groups

Guest Contribution: More than "gender reassignment" and "gay pride parades"

Of "sex changes" and "gay parades"

by Markus Ulrich

Who is represented when, how and where - and who is not? Representation is political. Lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered (LGBT) people are hardly represented in news coverage, and when they are, the narratives are too often shaped by clichés and stereotypes. Therefore, it is not exclusively about visibility per se, but always also about the context of visibility.

1. Normal

People of LGBT identity usually only appear in articles or news reports when these are explicitly about LGBT people. Some editorial outlets have thankfully started to show same-sex couples and involve them in topics like partnership, family or sexuality. LGBT people are part of society and should appear as protagonists in all other everyday topics – such as health reports, articles on ageing, discussions about schools and education, migration, youth, life in suburbia etc.

2. Diverse

LGBT people are not a homogeneous group. However, their diversity is often missing in media coverage. For example, referring to CSD as a "gay parade” excludes lesbians, bisexuals, or non-binary people. Moreover, LGBT experiences are also shaped by skin colour, citizenship, religion, social background, age, or the presence of a disability. A journalist ought to show this diversity to avoid reproducing clichés and stereotypes that reduce LGBT people to their sexual orientation or gender identity.

3. Discriminatory

In reports about incidents of violence, there is often an implicit perpetrator-victim reversal. Violence, discrimination or hate crimes do not occur because the victim is trans* or because a same-sex couple is holding hands, but rather because the perpetrator is homophobic or transphobic. (In Germany) Reports on CSD celebrations are almost always accompanied by the adjective “shrill”. This adjective arouses negative associations and defensiveness. At best, the parade’s motto might be mentioned. The very concrete political statements that accompany every pride parade are ignored, although every CSD association sets them up.

It’s totally absurd when pictures of CSD parades are used to illustrate reports about the history of persecution of LGBT people in Germany or even their everyday lives. Pictures of anonymous men holding hands, shot from behind, are also very popular illustrations.

4. trans*sensitive

The use of wrong personal pronouns, former names and old photos of a person before they came out is a no-go in reporting about trans* people. Phrases such as "used to be a man" or "was born a girl" are also wrong, because they imply that the gender identity of trans* persons is not their "real" gender.

The term "gender reassignment" is also not quite right because it’s actually the body that gets aligned with the gender identity. In general, questions about gender reassignment procedures are invasive and voyeuristic. Or how would you feel if someone asked you about your genitals? To make it clear that transsexuality has nothing to do with sexuality I suggest avoiding the term "transsexual" altogether.

5. Responsible

Provocatively disparaging statements against LGBT people in social media or on the internet bring clicks and thus money. Media should and must reflect diversity of opinion, but they also have an ethical responsibility not to promote discrimination and resentment. The promotion of acceptance in nursery and elementary schools is often scandalized and defamed by using populist vocabulary such as the term "early sexualization, which implies teaching kids sexual practices, while it’s actually about teaching diversity and showing representation of different family forms and genders. Do the media do this (un)consciously?

Markus Ulrich is press officer with LSVD, the Lesbian and Gay Association of Germany, the largest civil rights organisation advocating for equal rights and social acceptance of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender and intersex people. He has been running the association's office in Berlin since 2014.

Disabled people are not only disabled

Media coverage of people with disabilities is ambivalent. Major events such as the Paralympics are receiving more and more coverage, but at the same time, people with disabilities still do not have a voice in the media, even when they are directly affected.

After four people with disabilities were murdered in a residential facility in Potsdam in April 2021, the facility's spokesperson, police psychologists and pastors were interviewed about the crime. The only voices missing were those of people with disabilities. But it is part of a journalist's job to talk to those directly affected.

Journalists in wheelchairs

Too often, the only thing interesting is the disability and not the person behind the diagnosis. "Life with cystic fibrosis", "My life with ALS" or "My life with chronic migraine" – these are some of the headlines of episodes of the video format TRU DOKU. Even if a video doesn’t focus only on a protagonist’s disability, the headline does.

Articles or reports in which journalists without disabilities take to wheelchairs to report on accessible cities or put on a pair of dark glasses to show blind people live are just as one-dimensional. Instead of simply talking to people with disabilities and trusting their experiences – after all, they are the ones directly affected – some reporters turn to masquerade instead of proper journalism. The results may be entertaining for some audiences, but for those affected such journalism is often demeaning.

Showing all realities of life

A programme on Deutschlandfunk Kultur avoids both: In an interview with Rabbi Julia Watts Belser, who uses a wheelchair, the focus is not on her personal diagnosis or how she navigates through the city, but on questions such as "is heaven barrier-free?" or "does God also have a disability?".

Disabled people are more than just disabled: they have interests, they are voters or consumers, just like everyone else. Their opinions and realities should therefore play a role in all issues – be it politics, the climate crisis or gender justice.

Checklist for diverse perspectives

If, as a journalist, you want to avoid one-sided reporting and you want to take into account a wide variety of positions, perspectives and topics, you can regularly ask yourself the following questions:


What is my personal opinion on the subject?

Newsrooms are not equipped with automated news machines that reliably spit out objective truths when a popular world event is fed into them. The biases and internalized prejudices of journalists affect the decisions that lead to the selection of which tiny section of reality is worth reporting. Reporting professionally therefore starts by first being aware and questioning your own interests, attitudes, experiences, and preferences. Those who don’t question their own views, taking their personal viewpoints to be the only true or universal way of looking at things are going to have a hard time becoming good journalists.


Am I presenting a variety of perspectives? 

Look at each topic from as many perspectives as possible before deciding what your report should look like. Journalists sometimes tend to turn social debates into some sort of team competitions. It’s team state neutrality vs. team headscarf. But reality offers many more facets. A discussion with experts can provide new insights and broaden one's own perspective. Perhaps there is also someone in your editorial team who could draw attention to other sides of a story. If not, you should make it a topic of discussion. 


Do people whose story is being told also have a voice in the story? 

TV shows with an all-white panel discussing racism, heterosexuals talking about homophobia or people without disabilities debating about inclusion in the education system are still aired. But now they can recon with a resentful audience. With such topics, as with all other topics, the media need to portray society in all its diversity. After all, topics such as the price of gas, the covid pandemic or national pensions affect all of us.

Incidentally, some groups are ignored because they do not have the necessary resources and cannot offer professional press work with a contact person for media questions. This may make it harder for journalists to report about them but is no excuse for excluding them. Find out how to remedy this here.


Am I taking the perpetrator's perspective?

Especially in hate crime reporting, journalists often fail to clearly distinguish between perpetrators and victims. A gay couple was not attacked "because they were kissing", a wife was not murdered "because she wanted to leave", a Jew was not spat at "because he wore a kippah", a woman was not attacked "because of a headscarf". People are victims of violence because of homophobic, misogynistic, or anti-Semitic mind-sets of the perpetrators. Headlines like "She had to die because she wore a headscarf" only take the perspective of the perpetrators. You must want to do that and not do it by mistake.


Do I question clichés? 

Journalists both chronicle and shape social discourse. Especially when reporting on socially disadvantaged minorities, they must question prevailing negative viewpoints, analyse, and classify them to avoid prejudice in their reporting.

Is the story really about "large Arab families" or is it perhaps just about three teenagers in Berlin-Neukölln? Is it true at that people with disabilities always "suffer their fate"? Are bisexual people really more promiscuous than the rest of society? And why do we so often hear about career women but never career men?

Journalists are not immune to falling for clichés. But when that happens, their work no longer has much to do with professional reporting.


Do I fall for populist arguments?

Spreading clichés and untruths is the first step in creating social moods and debates that have nothing to do with reality. Often it is just a little spin that turns an insignificant event into a media uproar: Do "the Muslims" really want to ban "our Christmas" or did the statement originally come from some guy on the internet? Did the professor for gender studies really call for a ban on certain terms or did she simply make a suggestion? Is the annoying new Kindergarten brochure really worth reporting on, or might it not be better to take it up as a topic for the next parents' evening?

It is part of the strategy of populists to deliberately provoke or to break taboos in order to spread their ideology. It is part of a journalist’s job not to fall for any of that.


Do I unnecessarily polarise?

Journalists need to make themselves understood but without oversimplifying. Topics such as flight and migration, reasons for urban crime, how to make our language gender-sensitive, or reporting on non-binary identities are complex. Monocausal explanations and reporting that classifies things in the simple categories of “good” or “bad” almost always lead astray. And this, too, is a fact that you should feel free to tell your audience or readership.


Am I normalising anti-democratic, unscientific, or misanthropic positions?

Fortunately, no editor today would think of publishing a column on the "pros and cons" of women's suffrage or would seriously demand renegotiations on the Oder-Neisse border discussion. The strength of our democracy and our respect for human values is also reflected by which debates we no longer engage in. This means the media can also stop giving certain people a platform to voice their racist, sexist, homophobic or anti-democratic positions. Because the more such positions are voiced in the media, the more normal they appear to be.

Debating questions like "Should we rescue refugees in the Mediterranean?", "Are same-sex parents a danger to their children?" or "Does Islam belong to Germany?" are deliberately aimed at further marginalising already marginalised groups and making the unspeakable appear legitimate. Diverse perspectives and open debates are important, but Basic Law lays down the limits.

Should trans* people be allowed to determine their gender? Should inter-sex people be allowed to participate in sporting competitions? It is very common for feature writers or guest authors with limited expertise to express steep opinions on such subjects. However, in-depth knowledge and sensitivity are required when it comes to subjects such as minority rights. Anti- LGBTI+ sentiments are fuelled with millions of euros. Reputable media need to expose such campaigns rather than support them.
Joane Studnik, Berliner Zeitung

Am I representing diverse opinions and people?

This is something journalists and reporters can easily accomplish. And yet some social groups hardly get represented, while other positions and groups appear to be omnipresent. In 2019, for example, more people named Peter than people with any Turkish name appeared on public TV and radio talk shows. This doesn’t reflect the reality of Germany as a country of immigration. Journalists ought to remind themselves of this when putting together their lists of protagonists, experts or studio guests. 

Tips & Tools for more diverse perspectives and a wider choice of topics

External programme and paper critiques

To identify imbalances in their own reporting, editorial departments can invite qualified feedback from outside. Our organisations, for example, offer peer reviews that focus on diversity. It can also benefit representatives of other NGOs and organisations for people with experiences of racism or discrimination to write reviews. If this is something you are interested in, please contact us.


Reporting on people with disabilities in a better way

How does one avoid stereotype when reporting on people with disabilities? How does one shift the focus from the disability to a story about the protagonists? Leidmedien offer workshops for journalists and editors. The workshops show how to be more sensitive in the choice of words and images. Interested parties can contact workshop​ wenden.


Education and training programmes for reporting in an immigration country

None of us is free of prejudice but bias-free reporting is still possible with training. In practical workshops, journalists can learn to examine their biases and be sensitised to stereotype-free reporting. They can learn to recognise pitfalls and avoid these in their professional reporting.

Such training courses should be made obligatory for trainees. The Neue deutschen Medienmacher*innen offer such trainings, in which they analyse selected programmes or articles by the commissioning media organisation and develop practical alternatives together with the trainees.


Analysing your reporting

The Neue deutschen Medienmacher*innen offer to examine journalistic contributions or article series over an agreed period of time. We check content, topics, choice of images, diversity of interview partners and perspectives. The results can be used in self- critical workshop to help improve reporting. If you are interested, please contact: expertinnen​


Online courses on how to report on migration and integration

Mediendienst Integration and the Erich Brost Institute for International Journalism are creating an e-learning platform which offers online courses on media, migration and integration. The courses will cover topics such as dealing with traumatised interview partners or reporting on Muslims in Germany. The Plattform has been online since the beginning of 2022.


More sensitivity reporting hate crimes

The project #ImGespräch by trainees of the German School of Journalism (DJS) and Mediendienst Integration impressively documents how survivors of the attacks in Hanau and Halle perceived media coverage at the time. The project also offers recommendations on how journalists can be more sensitive in their reporting of hate crimes and acts of right-wing terror.


Reporting on Migration and Refugees: Handbook for Journalism Educators

A new handbook for journalists  provides an overview of the most important definitions, concepts and theories on migration and flight from a journalistic perspective. The handbook shows ways to identify topics, discusses media impact and the ethical aspects involved. It also covers editorial marketing as well as collaborative approaches to reporting on migration.

Numerous international case studies from very diverse media systems and journalistic cultures from all over the world provide insights into how the media cover flight and migration.