Giovanna Dell’Orto; Irmgard Wetzstein (Eds.): Refugee News, Refugee Politics. Journalism, Public Opinion and Policymaking in Europe. reviewed by Gabriele Hooffacker

At the start of 2015, there was no way of knowing that the issue of refugees in the media and the relationship between the European community and the refugees would continue to shape political debate to this day. By the time the events of New Year’s Eve came around, society’s view and the media resonance had changed beyond all recognition – as is shown by the term »refugee crisis« and the way refugees and migration are framed as a security problem for European countries. This makes the issue ideal for research into political events and the dynamics of media and society.

The point at which the reception changed was the events of New Year’s Eve 2015 in Cologne. They brought forth an increasingly aggressive mood, initiated by certain groups on social media platforms and eventually feeding into a discussion about the role of the media as a whole. The edited volume Refugee News, Refugee Politics examines this change, the relationship between social media and traditional media, and the role of journalism in society at a time in which it faces its own crisis of change.

Back in 2017, the editors of this publication invited colleagues to two symposia at the University of Vienna and the University of Minnesota. The findings are collected in this volume, which focuses on two key topics: »borders« and »integration« – in Greece, through which most of the refugees travelled, and in Germany and Austria, where they settled.

As well as writings by academics from politics and sociology, the volume also includes numerous contributions from representatives of journalistic practice and civil society. This linking of the different worlds – political science, civil society, and journalism – is one of the book’s main merits. Perspectives from communication and journalism studies receive only limited coverage.

In their introduction, the two editors, Giovanna Dell’Orto and Irmgard Wetzstein, state that »the ›refugee crisis‹ is reported on by a profession itself in crisis« (7). This is demonstrated particularly in the second half of the volume, Parts 3 and 4, which look at journalism. Parts 1 and 2 examine developments in politics and society.

Migration research provides the theoretical framework for the political events. »Welcoming Citizens, Divided Government, Simplifying Media«: The retired Münster historian and migration researcher Dietrich Tränhardt introduces the volume by providing a historical overview and context for the contradictory events between 2015 and 2017. His contribution is complemented by a journalistic view of the period from Peter Riesbeck of Tagesspiegel. Vicki L Birchfield and Geoffrey Harris examine the »expectations-politics-policy conundrum« in the EU between populist nationalism and support for the EU project. Sabine Lehner and Markus Rheindorf make the connection between this and the media landscape in Austria during this period, while Irmgard Wetzstein focuses her investigation on the issues of gender and security, carving out the stereotype of the young male migrant and the suppressed Muslim woman, compared to the helpless young European woman. The first section ends with a study by Andreas Panagopoulos and an essay by Costas Kantouris on the wave of migration through Greece and how it was received in the media.

The second section of the volume looks at civil society in the three countries under investigation. All the authors work actively with refugees: Sophia Ioannou and Valia Savvidou from »SolidarityNow« write about Greece; Kerstin Lueck and Leonhard Dokalik-Wetzstein about educational programs for teachers who teach refugees; Claudia Schäfer and Andreas Schadauer about the fake news and hate speech faced by refugees in Austria.

The third section is dedicated to journalism in Greece during the investigation period, and provides arguably the most new material for German-speaking readers. Ioannis Papadopoulos, Kathimeri, named his summary »Trying to find the right words.« In it, he argues that, until 2015, Greek media had largely used negative connotations when reporting on »illegal immigrants.« This did not change until the death of three-year-old Alan Kurdi.

The traumatic experiences faced by journalists in Idomeni, where many of the refugees became stranded after the closure of the Balkan route, are described by Phoebe Fronista and Sofia Papadopoulou in their paper, while Jeanne Carstensen explains the challenge of presenting the topic to an American audience.

The Afghan journalist Mustafa Mohammad Sarwar from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty writes about his reporting, which is mainly aimed at an audience of immigrants, and appeals for refugees to be not idealized, but recognized as people with weaknesses, too. Elena Becatoros and David Rising (AP) highlight the problem of getting bogged down in statistics and trying to avoid distortion in international reporting.

The fourth and final section of the volume analyzes reporting in Austria and Germany. Edith Meinhart, Martin Staudinger and Peter Unger from profil provide an analysis of the change in public opinion in the Austrian press and on television, entitled »From Empathy to Hostility in 127 days.« Jan Bieliecki from Süddeutsche Zeitung examines the watershed moment of New Year’s Eve in Cologne. Carmen Valero reports from Berlin for El Mundo and here writes about »Fake News and a Profession in Crisis«. Caterina Lobenstein calls for »Widening the Focus: Why Writing About Migration is More Than Writing about Migrants,« while Melissa Eddy from The New York Times writes about »Telling Stories of Integration in Germany«.

Still topical today, this volume shines a light on the topic from the perspectives of various actors from academia, civil society and journalism. The authors use a range of methods to do so – everything from essays to reflections on subjective experience to content analysis.

The paper by Eva Thöne (Spiegel Online), »Torn between Transparency and Stereotypes. How to Report About Refugees and Crime,« demonstrates just how topical the journalists’ reflections on this topic are. In it, she draws a direct link between increasing reporting on criminality among migrants and the loss of trust in traditional media, before appealing for more sophisticated reporting.

There is one thing this volume cannot do: highlight solutions. It does not attempt to. How can we avoid stereotypes and the framing of »criminality?« How can we escape the trap of personalization? And how can journalism, while still demonstrating empathy, locate events within both national and supranational contexts? How should we handle the loss of trust in the media? And how can journalism continue after this experience?

This is a shame – new findings and more specific conclusions for journalistic practice from journalism practitioners would undoubtedly have been useful in places. What remains is a kaleidoscope of the upsetting years of 2015 to 2017; a documentation of the challenges facing journalism and civil society. The fact that all the papers in the volumes are published in English will undoubtedly boost the reception of the topic in the international community.

This book review was first published in rezensionen:kommunikation:medien, 16th of August 2019, accessible under

About the reviewer

Gabriele Hooffacker (*1959), Dr.-phil., is a teaching Professor at the Faculty of Computer Science and Media at Leipzig University of Applied Sciences. She is co-editor of the journal Journalistik Research.

Translation: Sophie Costella

About this book

Giovanna Dell’Orto; Irmgard Wetzstein (Eds.): Refugee News, Refugee Politics. Journalism, Public Opinion and Policymaking in Europe. New York, London [Routledge] 2019, 228 pages, approx. EUR 39