Germany's Media Struggling to Report on Terror Attacks

Munich Shopping Mall Shooting

After four separate attacks in a week, normally cautious German journalists are caught up in fear, suspicion and a rush to judgment.

A week of violent attacks in Germany has left the country, and its news industry, reeling.

After four separate incidents in Southern Germany — including an ax attack on tourists in a train last week, a shooting spree in a shopping mall Friday night, an assault with a machete in a restaurant and, most recently, a suicide bombing outside a music festival Sunday night — the country's journalists, traditionally circumspect to a fault, are sounding an increasingly alarmist tone.

“There's a general sense of fear in the reporting, a sense that the world has changed, that it's become a lot more violent than before,” says Joachim Trebbe, a professor of media analysis at the Free University of Berlin. “That wasn't there three to four weeks ago.”

“It's a bit like the reaction of the U.S. media after 9/11,” says Fritz Hausjell, a professor for communications studies at the university of Vienna. “There are signs the journalists are taking sides, that they feel that they themselves are under attack.”

A clear sign of this, according to Hausjell, is the German media's identifying attackers by their ethnic or religious status, something traditionally seen as a violation of journalist standards. Germany's official press codex says that reporting the religious or ethnic identity of a criminal or suspect is only acceptable if there is a justifiable link between the identity and the crime.

“Otherwise, you get the impression that there is a link even if none exists. If the media reported the shoe size of every criminal, you'd get the impression shoe size had something to do with crime,” he notes.

But in the wake of last week's attacks, cultural or religious identity is apparently fair game. All the attackers were identified by their ethnic status, something that would previously been seen as taboo. Reports of a shooting attack this week in Berlin, in which a 72-year-old patient shot his doctor and them himself — included reference to the “German nationality” of the shooter.

Two of the four other incidents — the ax attack in the train and the suicide bombing — have tentative links to Islamic terrorism. The bomber had a video on his mobile phone in which he pledged allegiance to ISIS, and police found a hand-drawn ISIS flag at the home of the train attacker.

The machete attack was apparently a domestic dispute, and a police investigation has revealed the Munich shooter had right-wing, not religious, motivations. The 18-year-old who killed nine people at a shopping mall before shooting himself appears to have deliberately targeted foreigners — seven of the nine killed in the shooting Friday were non-Germans — and the attack took place on the five-year anniversary of the Utoya massacre in Norway, when right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 people in what he claimed was a protest against the “Islamization” of Europe.

Writing in the online edition of newsweekly Der Spiegel, Georg Diez questioned why reporters have refused to use the term “terrorist” to describe the Munich shooter but, with less evidence, have been quick to condemn the other attacks as politically motivated.

Germany's news networks, newspapers and mainstream online media outlets have been sharply criticized in the past week — both for rushing to report unconfirmed rumors as fact and for linking the attacks to the country's open immigration policy.

Virtually all mainstream outlets initially reported, falsely, that the Munich attack involved three separate shooters still at large in the city, invoking images of coordinated terror attacks akin to those seen over the past year in Paris or Brussels. In fact, the killer, an 18-year-old Iranian German, apparently acted alone, murdering nine people at a shopping mall before killing himself.

“Everyone initially reported the fairy tale that there there were three attackers, that Munich was under siege,” says Trebbe. “Official media feel they have to swim with, or compete with, postings on social media like Twitter and Facebook, which are not bound to normal standards of journalism and which tend towards more extreme, taboo-breaking positions.”

In Germany, the most explosive of these positions is the supposed link between the recent attacks and the pro-refugee policies of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Right-wing bloggers and commentators have been quick to link last week's violence to Merkel allowing more than a million refugees, many from the Middle East, into the country over the past year. This growing wrath towards the Chancellor is being expressed in the hashtag #MerkelSommer — Merkel summer — which began trending on Twitter this week. The online furor has made its way into the mainstream media and into mainstream politics. German politicians on the both the left and right have been quick to blame immigration for the recent violence, stoking fears about refugees.

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump sounded a similar tone when he said, in a recent interview on NBC News, that the attacks were Germany's “own fault” and that both France and Germany have been "totally compromised by terrorism" because they had "allowed people in.”

So far, at least, no mainstream German politician has called for a Trump-style crackdown on immigration. Instead the focus has largely been on measures increase security, such as a proposal to ban backpacks from major public events, such as the upcoming Oktoberfest in Munich.

Hausjell, for one, is hopeful that Germany's media might quickly return to normal, more factual, less sensationalist reporter, so long as there is not another attack.

“That's key, we have to have fewer attacks, which is of course something no one can predict,” he says, “but if it happens, I'm hopeful we can soon begin a real debate on what has been done right and wrong over this past week and how we can best prepare for next time.”