Journalists from an immigrant background
A Distorted Image

Media companies and foundations offer special journalist training programs for immigrants.
Media companies and foundations offer special journalist training programs for immigrants. | Photo (detail): © Deutsche Welle

For quite some time now cultural diversity has been a feature of German society. Nevertheless most of the time there is no sign of it at all in editorial offices. Journalists from immigrant families are still an exception - it is usually only their stories that hit the headlines.

Just how many immigrants work in German editorial offices? It is in fact difficult to find any current and meaningful figures on the subject. “The latest spot tests showed that the editorial offices in the television sector have the most diverse staff, even if there is still a lot of room for improvement”,  says Ferda Ataman from Mediendienst Integration – a special journalistic service on the subject of integration. The online media also have a relatively wide range of people working for them –presumably due to the comparatively young personnel. “The print media are the ones that are lagging the farthest behind, especially the local papers”, says Ataman.

There have been a few isolated cases of certain programs and projects trying to do something about this lack of journalists from immigrant families. For example, the Heinrich Böll Foundation runs a grant scheme entitled Medienvielfalt, anders (Putting the Multi into Media), which enables “young students from an immigrant background or from a bi-national or bi-cultural family” to make a career for themselves in journalism, as it says in their program. Another program that goes by the name WDR grenzenlos (WDR No Limits) is also pursuing this aim, by offering internships at the German radio and TV station, Westdeutscher Rundfunk.

Unfortunately these programs have not been able to achieve very much when it comes to the fundamental imbalance and the dearth of people from an immigrant background working as media professionals. What is urgently required is change - and not just for reasons of equality. “We are also dealing here with the future of the media”, says Ferda Ataman. “Target groups change, and that is why the product has to change, too.” The only question now is just how this goal can be attained. Maybe with a quota system? “The media are lagging so far behind that some kind of quota system should at least be discussed”, as Ataman thinks.

“Painfully embarrassing compared to the USA”

A glance at the media landscape in the USA underpins this demand for a quota system of some kind. Anybody who has ever watched television in the USA soon realises that the cultural diversity of those people speaking on TV is much more pronounced than in Germany and it has been like that for many years. In Germany it still causes quite a stir when the news on German TV is presented by a woman from an immigrant background – as is the case with Linda Zervakis, the daughter of Greek immigrants who has been presenting the Tagesschau, Germany's oldest and most important news program. Whereas in Germany Linda Zervakis is still being reported on, in the USA it would be of no import whatsoever. 

“The comparison with the USA is painfully embarrassing”, says Ferda Ataman. Admittedly there are no officially prescribed quota systems in the USA, “but every respectable media organisation has its own guidelines on how the diversity of its editorial staff can be guaranteed.” For example, there are people who are responsible for ensuring that more interns and newcomers to the staff come from the individual ethnic communities. Whether this deliberate filling of vacancies with people from an immigrant background would go down well in Germany is however another question. News presenter, Linda Zervakis, is of a different opinion. “I would find it particularly bad, if people thought that the only reason I got the job was because the ARD (her TV station) needed a token immigrant,” she said in an interview with the German newspaper, Die Welt.

Not only for immigrants - the “Migazin”

Ekzem Senol from the online magazine, Migazin, not only thinks that there are too few journalists from an immigrant background, but also that not enough immigration topics are reported on. “As a rule the mainstream media only report on topics related to immigration and integration when they arise out of a particular development or occasion; very often the reporting is superficial, distorted and mostly in a negative context.” This is why Senol set up his own medium – the online magazine, Migazin. The reporting on the situation of immigrants for the magazine is to be done not only about, but also by, the immigrants themselves. In 2012 the format won the Grimme Online Award. According to its own figures the magazine's readership comprises 50 per cent of people from an immigrant background and 50 per cent non-immigrant. Ekzem Senol sees this as an endorsement, “Integration is no longer a niche area and concerns not only the immigrants, but also the host society.”

“Germany does not need an immigrant program”

The public broadcasting companies are now also offering several formats that deal especially with immigrant issues and have an intercultural focus. For example, at WDR (West German Television) there is the Cosmo-TV magazine and the Funkhaus Europa radio show. Although they always emphasise that it is not exclusively immigrants that are being addressed, but also Germans who would like to be won over to the lifestyles of other cultures. Nevertheless Ferda Ataman from Mediendienst Integration would prefer a different approach: “What German society needs is not a special program for immigrants, but more diversity in general programming that would then lead to a better depiction of reality.”